The Climax Must Keep Raising the Stakes

The ending of any movie must be the finale that provides a satisfying conclusion. If the movie is great but the ending is disappointing, the entire movie will be disappointing. To make an ending satisfying, you must keep raising the stakes.

Imagine watching someone walk across a tightrope that’s on the ground. If he falls, there’s no threat or danger, so there’s no sense of accomplishment when he successfully walks across the tightrope. Now raise the tightrope across the World Trade towers as in “The Walk” and suddenly the stakes are raised tremendously. If the hero fails to walk successfully across this tightrope, he’ll fall to certain death. The bigger the danger to the hero, the more compelling the ending.

What if “The Walk” showed the hero walking across a tightrope strung between two houses? Now the height is far less interesting because if he falls, he might die but he must just break a leg or arm. The threat is weaker so the emotional interest is also much weaker. To threaten the hero’s life, make the danger clear, obvious, and frightening. Walking across a tightrope is scary enough, but stretched across the World Trade towers makes that tightrope walk far more dangerous and fascinating. The greater the danger, the more satisfying the ending if the hero wins.

But just threatening the hero’s life isn’t enough. Bad action movies like “A Good Day to Die Hard” threaten the hero’s life but after watching yet another meaningless action scene, threatening the hero’s life at the end can’t just involve bigger explosions and better special effects. Besides threatening the hero’s life, your ending must also threaten someone the hero loves.

Even in the awful “A Good Day to Die Hard,” the villain threatens to kill not only the hero but the hero’s son. Now if the hero fails to win, not only will the hero risk physical or emotional death, but someone the hero loves will also risk physical or emotional death.

In romantic comedies like “Sleepless in Seattle,” the hero risks not finding true love, but if he or she fails, the happiness of another person will be lost forever as well. When more than just the hero risks death, the stakes get higher and the climax gets more interesting.

Finally, make sure if the villain wins, a horrible consequence will occur. In “Under Siege,” that horrible consequence is that Hawaii will get blown up by a nuclear missile. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” that horrible consequence is that the little girl and her family will never be happy together. To create a satisfying ending, the villain must threaten:

  • The hero
  • Someone the hero loves
  • Innocent people who¬†will suffer a horrible consequence that we (the audience) don’t want to see happen

In “Star Wars,” the climax occurs when Darth Vader threatens to kill Luke. If he succeeds, then the Death Star will not only kill Princess Leia (who Luke loves) but also wipe out the rebel base. These three threats make the climax to “Star Wars” compelling to watch.

For a bad example, watch “Hanna,” a story about a girl trained to be an assassin. In the end, the hero must face her mother (the villain). Yet if the villain wins, the hero doesn’t risk physical death (which every action film implies). Nor does anyone the hero loves risk death of any kind. Even worse, if the villain wins, no horrible consequence will occur. In “Hanna,” there’s nothing at stake if the villain wins (or loses) so the ending is a huge letdown.

So threaten your hero, threaten someone the hero loves, and threaten the general public with horrible consequences that nobody wants to see occur. When you create an ending that involves three major threats, then the hero’s victory will be far more satisfying than if there were no threats at all.

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