Winning by Losing

Endings are the last thing an audience remembers about your movie, so it’s important to craft a memorable ending. Here are two ways to create an ending that can make your screenplay stand out.

In a story, nothing should ever come easy for the hero. Even something as simple as checking into a hotel or ordering a meal in a restaurant should cause problems for the hero. The more conflict, the tougher the hero’s struggles and the more the hero’s ultimate victory will seem worthwhile.

If the goal of the hero is to reach the top of a mountain to witness a UFO landing (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), the final victory could be the same, but imagine how dull the story would be if the hero wanted to see the UFO and somebody drove by, picked him up, and dropped him off on the mountain. The end could be the same but the path to that end is completely boring. Simply put, you need conflict to make your story interesting. The more pain you put your hero through, the more interesting the story, just as long as the conflict is directly related to the goal itself.

The climax of any story needs to show whether the hero wins or loses. The simplest way to show this is to show the hero winning or losing. In “The Shawshank Redemption,” the hero finally breaks out of prison and escapes. That’s a clear cut ending.

In comparison, a second way to end a story is to show the hero apparently losing, but actually winning by achieving the real goal that he wanted after all. In “Rocky,” Rocky actually loses the fight, but he wins by simply surviving 15 rounds and proving to himself and the world that he really is a champion at heart.

It’s this second type of ending, where the hero seemingly loses, that can provide the most interesting twist. In “The Sting,” Robert Redford and Paul Newman play a pair of con men trying to fleece a mob boss. Just as they appear to succeed, the FBI breaks in, shuts down their operation, and winds up killing both men.

After the mob boss gets hustled out of the room, the movie reveals that the FBI raid was in itself a con and the two men actually succeeded after all.

Action and thriller movies often tend towards the first type of clear cut ending where the hero either wins or loses, typically by killing the villain. Comedies and dramas are more likely to use the “win by losing” ending to create a more interesting finale.

In “Tootsie,” Dustin Hoffman rips off his disguise on live TV and throws away his career on the soap opera. While this seems like a loss, he actually wins by revealing himself and learning how to become a better man by acting like a woman.

In “Ratatouie,” the rat seems to lose at the end when the restaurant critic silently watches the rat cook a meal and the restaurant gets shut down for health code violations. Yet the rat actually wins by proving to the restaurant critic that anyone really can cook and that the rat had actually been the genius behind the cooking all this time. Remy the rat ultimately wins by letting his true talents shine forth and getting another restaurant all his own.

When thinking of your ending, consider making it appear that your hero loses but actually wins. It can keep your story from being too predictable and give audiences a reason to remember your screenplay.

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