The end of every story must show the hero saving the world. In pure action thrillers, the hero literally saves the world such as in James Bond films where James Bond defeats an evil villain intent on taking over the world. Often times, the hero doesn’t save the entire world but does save a large chunk of the world from disaster such as in “Under Siege” where the hero stops Hawaii from getting blown up by nuclear missiles or “Batman vs. Superman” where the heroes stop a monster from wrecking the city.
However in most cases, the hero doesn’t literally save the world or even a large part of it. Instead, the hero saves the tiny part of the world that the hero and others live in. In “Zootopia,” the hero saves the predators from being ostracized from society. In “Frozen,” the hero saves her sister. The most important part about saving the world isn’t literally saving the world but in saving someone the hero loves.
The ending in “Titanic” isn’t memorable because an ocean liner sank. What makes the ending memorable is that even thought the hero (Rose) loses the man she loves, she embraces his spirit by going on to live her life the way she wanted, which was what the man she loves taught her. So the hero saves the world by saving herself and embracing (and saving) her lover’s philosophy about life.
Look at the ending of every good movie and it’s rarely the actual defeat of the villain that’s important. What’s far more crucial is that the hero saves someone else. Instead of being selfish, the hero saves someone who’s in danger from the villain. Literally saving a loved one could be a life or death situation such as in “Die Hard” when the hero saves his wife from getting killed by terrorists.
However, it can also be saving someone from an irreversible fate. In “Rocky,” Rocky didn’t just stay in the ring the entire fight against Apollo Creed, but he also showed his girlfriend his spirit and helped show his trainer that his training helped him survive.
If the ending of a story only benefits the hero, the ending is often emotionally empty despite any special effects or computer-generated mayhem. When the ending of a story benefits the hero and others around him or her, then the ending will be emotionally satisfying.
The ending in “Thelma and Louise” is actually uplifting because the heroes refuse to lose the freedom they’ve gained for themselves, so their decision to drive off the cliff is far more emotionally satisfying than getting shot by the police or allowing themselves to be caught. Despite their deaths, their decision is one based on achieving and holding on to their hard-fought freedom rather than giving it up.
So to make a satisfying ending, first make sure that the hero’s actions somehow save either the world or just the small part of the world that the hero occupies. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero’s victory at the end isn’t just in competing in the beauty pageant, but in helping bring her family together.
Besides saving the world, make sure your ending saves others in some way. Even a bad movie like “The 5th Wave” gets this right by having the hero save her younger brother. Where “The 5th Wave” gets it wrong is the third criteria. Not only must the hero save the world and save a loved one, but saving the world must also stop the villain for good.
In “Star Wars,” the explosion of the Death Star means that Darth Vader can’t blow up the rebel base with Princess Leia on it. It’s a clear, definitive defeat for the villain. When you defeat the villain, you must stop the villain’s goal for good.
That’s one major fault of “The 5th Wave.” The hero saves her younger brother, but does nothing to stop the villain from achieving his goal, which is to wipe out the rest of the human race. That leaves the ending open-ended and emotionally unsatisfying.
That’s also the fault of “The Maze Runner.” At the end of “The Maze Runner,” we still have no idea what the villains wanted or how escaping from the maze defeats the villain. That makes the ending vague, abstract, and unsatisfying.
When we know the villain is defeated, we’re satisfied. When the villain is not defeated, we’re unsatisfied. The villain must be pursuing some horrible goal so we want the hero to stop the villain from achieving this horrible goal.
In “Die Hard,” the terrorists aren’t just robbing a vault for corporate bonds, but they also plan to blow up all the hostages so they can escape. Stealing corporate bonds isn’t bad enough, but killing dozens of innocent hostages for no good reason is a horrible goal. The more horrible the goal, the more satisfying the story ending will be when the hero stops the villain from achieving this horrible goal.
To make a complete, satisfying ending, make sure your story includes the following:
- Make the hero save the world even if that world is just his or her own little world
- Make the hero save a loved one
- Make the hero stop the villain from achieving a nasty goal
Great movies include all three criteria. “Ghostbusters”, the hero saves New York, saves his girlfriend who has been turned into a monster, and stops an evil creature from another dimension from taking over the world.
Great endings are about emotions so make sure your ending has plenty of emotions by saving the world, saving a hero’s loved one, and stopping the villain from achieving a horrible goal.