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Holy Joe Estherez.
We’re here! Can you believe it?
The final 10-15 pages of our screenplay! By this time next Thursday, we will have an official COMPLETED FIRST DRAFT!
But we’re not there yet. We have to complete the last section, a section we shall refer to as… THE CLIMAX.
The climax is your hero’s final confrontation. Whatever they’ve been chasing, they’re finally confronting it. It’s John McClane staring down Hans Gruber in Die Hard. It’s Mark Watney trying to rendezvous with his crew’s ship in The Martian. It’s Michelle in Cloverfield Lane finally escaping the house and having to get past the aliens. It’s Jay trying to lure the spirit into the local pool to kill it in It Follows.
Now, here’s the thing. It’s called a climax for a reason. You literally want the audience to climax. Well, maybe not literally. But you want them to have this feeling inside of them that’s euphoric, that they will never forget. And the reason most endings are bad is because writers forget that.
In fact, I’ve found that there are three types of endings.
The Everything and the Kitchen Sink Ending – The EATKSE seems like you’re doing the right thing. EATSKE writers tend to adopt the philosophy “more is more.” You see these most often in comic book movies, Transformers movies, or any huge action-driven franchise. The writers come up with some gargantuan set-piece, and we watch it play out. Unfortunately, we feel NOTHING after these sequences because they were driven purely by visuals. The epitome of this is the island-lifting climax in Avengers 2.
The Give’em What They Want Ending – The “Give’em What They Want” ending is a step up from the EATKSE. The writers know that pure action isn’t enough to satisfy the audience, and work hard to come up with an ending that’s thoughtful, creative, and well-executed. You don’t necessarily orgasm after a “Give’em What They Want” ending, but you feel satisfied. The Martian is a good example of a “Give’em What They Want” ending. We couldn’t have asked for a more exciting and creative finish to that story, and we felt good afterwards.
The Character-Driven Ending – The Character-Driven Ending approaches the ending from inside the character as opposed to outside. What have they been struggling with this entire story? What have they been struggling with their entire lives? Good writers build their endings around THAT. Because the only way to give the audience that climax is to touch them from the inside. Look at The Martian’s inspiration, Cast Away. The climax for Cast Away had Tom Hanks escaping the island just like Mark Watney escaped the planet. But which escape moved us? Cast Away’s. Because Tom Hanks lost his best friend, the only thing that kept him company during this ordeal, Wilson.
Needless to say, the Character-Driven Ending is the climax I want you to use. Look at your characters, figure out what’s going on inside of them, and build the climax around that. This is why Star Wars is the biggest movie ever despite being a franchise film. Its climax is about Luke overcoming his flaw (he finally believes in himself) and Han overcoming his flaw (he finally becomes selfless). The actual destroying of the Death Star is the least impactful moment in that trio of events. It’s the characters CHANGING that moves us.
But it doesn’t just have to be about overcoming flaws. As long as you build the climax around something character-related, you’ll have a better chance of creating a great ending than if you go surface level.
Take my most recent fascination, Zootopia. I’ll tell you exactly how a bad screenwriter (or even an average one) would’ve handled that ending. They would’ve thought, “It’s Zootopia. There are tons of animals everywhere. Our hero will recruit all the animals and they’ll attack the corrupt mayor in a giant stampede set piece!” Would it have been visually impressive? Sure. Would it have moved us? No.
Instead, the climax takes place in a closed-down museum with our corrupt mayor throwing our hero bunny, Officer Hopps, into a pit with her fox partner, Nick, who’s just been shot with the predator virus, making him “wild” again. The whole movie has been about Officer Hopps trying to trust Nick, a natural predator who’s a threat to bunnies. Just when they’ve finally become friends, they’re put to the ultimate test. Will Nick be able to put his friendship above his primal instincts and not eat Hopps?
It’s all about the characters, baby.
The last thing I want you to remember about the ending is that THIS IS THE MOMENT WHERE YOU UNLOAD YOUR BIGGEST PAYOFFS. Screenwriting is about setting up and paying off, setting up and paying off. But your climax is reserved for your biggest payoffs of all.
There’s a magic that happens when you bring something back that the audience has forgotten about. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why it works every time. But it does. And when you combine that with a character-driven finale, it’s the recipe that results in that perfect unforgettable climax.
I mean one of the reasons The Shawshank Redemption stays with us 17 years later is because of the way it uses payoffs in its climax. The rock-hammer, the Raquel Welch poster, the “hidden within” bible moment. That’s the power of setups and payoffs in film. But this means, of course, you will have had to set all that stuff up in the first place. You can’t just decide to add a payoff at the last second. Or if you do, you need to go back and meticulously weave in a series of setups so the payoff works.
After your hero’s won the final battle, you have a choice. End it immediately (a la Rocky), or give us a post-script. The trend these days is to add a post-script and I have no issues with that. Just keep it short. We see Mark Watney teaching now that he’s back from Mars. But then we’re done. One of the biggest mistakes beginner screenwriters make is sticking around long after the climax. Once the air is out of the balloon, the audience doesn’t want to stay at the party. And the longer they’re forced to stay, the more bored they get. So show us a post-script scene (two TOPS!) to let us know they’re doing okay, then it’s time for credits.
Congratulations guys! It was fun going on this journey with you. Breaking the script down this way helped me see things more clearly as well.
But now the real hard work begins – rewriting. I’ll see you next week for when that madness starts. :)
Pages to write this week: 10-15
Page number to hit on a 110 page screenplay: 110 (THE END!)