Every story begins with a promise. Something is going to happen. then at the end, that something needs to be even worse than expected by making the worse case scenario into reality.
Think of “Die Hard.” The worse case scenario is that the villain will discover the hero’s wife and threaten her, and that’s exactly what happens. In “The Penguins of Madagascar,” the worse case scenario is that the penguins will all be turned into monsters, and that’s exactly what happens. In “Snowpiercer,” the worse case scenario is that the hero’s dark secret will be revealed (that he killed and ate his best friend’s mother) and that the fate of the people in the back of the train will remain hopeless.
What makes endings interesting isn’t that they’re inevitable but how the hero overcomes the inevitable worse case scenario. We already know the villain will eventually find the rebel base in “Star Wars” and threaten to blow it up with the Death Star. What we don’t know is how will the hero overcome incredible odds and defeat the villain?
In bad movies, the ending is just the final battle between the hero and the villain such as all those bad “Die Hard” sequels. Physical action is far less exciting than emotional engagement. We expect to see a physical fight but that can’t be all we see or else the ending will feel flat. What makes the ending more exciting is that it’s the worse case scenario for the hero and now we want to see how the hero will respond.
Think of your own story. What’s the worse that could happen? How will the hero overcome that worse case scenario?
There are three ways to surprise an audience. First, have the hero almost defeated but helped by an ally in some way. When the ally helps the hero, the ally shows his or her change in himself at the same time, which makes this moment emotionally satisfying. Think of Hans Solo coming back to save Luke in “Star Wars.”
Second, have the mentor help the hero somehow. The mentor’s lesson to the hero may have been mysterious in the beginning, but now when we see the hero using the mentor’s lesson, we can see how it helps the hero overcome the villain.
Third, show the hero changing as a result of defeating the villain. In bad James Bond movies, James Bond is the same person in the beginning as he is in the end. That’s boring. In good movies, the hero changes and realizes the change. At the end of “Die Hard,” the hero has finally gotten back with his wife. At the end of “Star Wars,” Luke finally trusts himself to blow up the Death Star.
- Have an ally help the hero
- Have the mentor help the hero
- Have the hero change for the better
Those are the there ways you turn your worse case scenario in the end into a compelling ending for your screenplay.