Spoiler Warning: The NeverEnding Story (1984), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season 3), Idiocracy, The Fifth Element, Stardust (2007)
In The NeverEnding Story, Atreyu goes on a quest to save the magical land of Fantasia. He fails, and Fantasia is reduced to a single grain of sand. But just then, Bastian, a real world boy reading Atreyu’s story, finally admits that it’s more than just a book. By actively participating in the story, he gains the power to recreate Fantasia.
A dramatic reversal transforms the hero’s plight during the finale. If the story ends happily, it’s preceded by a moment when failure feels inevitable. If the story ends tragically, it’s ushered in by happiness and celebration. Doing this increases the intensity of the ending.
That’s because it creates a larger mountain for heroes to climb or a higher cliff for tragic heroes to fall from. But be careful – if you want your ending to matter, your protagonist should struggle to get their happily ever after. Movies like The NeverEnding Story change the outcome in a flash because they don’t have much time. Only careful foreshadowing separates these endings from a deus ex machina. And even when they’re done correctly, the climax can feel cheap.
Aim higher for your story. Let the mortally wounded character die. Let your heroes genuinely fail their quest. Then, once the consequences of those failures come to bear, they should use their integrity, skill, and ingenuity to turn it around. Even though they’ve lost the battle, they can still win the war – without resorting to a hand wave.
In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Homecoming, Buffy and Cordelia engage in a bitter competition over the Homecoming Queen title. Their friends trick them into riding to the dance together, and they end up fighting for their lives side by side. Dirty and torn, they make it to the dance just in time to hear the winner announced. Lo and behold, there’s a tie! But it’s not between Buffy and Cordelia; it’s between two other girls that were dismissed in the beginning.
This episode’s focus on Buffy and Cordelia makes viewers expect that one of them will be the winner. After the audience hears there’s a tie, they assume that both the protagonists will win in reward for surviving their ordeal and reconciling with each other. That ending would have been sappy and contrived. Their loss works for the story better, because it emphasizes the pointlessness of their friendship-straining rivalry, and it creates a delightful surprise for the audience.
This kind of bait-and-switch works especially well for playful stories. Find a popular trope that fits your story, make it look like your story will use this trope, then do something else when your audience least expects it. If your story isn’t playful, skip the bait and just steer clear of predictable plotlines. What if the old mentor lived, and the student died instead? It will feel more genuine if it doesn’t end like other stories.
Just don’t stretch it so far that your new ending doesn’t fit the rest of your work. A twist for a twist’s sake isn’t an improvement.
In Idiocracy, Joe hibernates for hundreds of years, until he ends up in a dystopian future where everyone is incredibly stupid. They live off the crumbling technology created by previous generations and can’t adapt to the challenges of their time. Joe isn’t concerned with this; he just wants to find the time machine and go back to where he came from. However, the people he’s met ask him to stay; they need his help. Finally, Joe decides to give up his old, comfortable life so he can make a difference. Then viewers find out the “Time Masheen” is just an amusement park ride and couldn’t have brought him back in time anyway.
Joe’s choice didn’t change the main plot, so why include it? Because his choice to sacrifice his own comfort proves that he has grown as a person. Anyone can say they’re committed to heroism, but unless it costs them something, those are just empty words. Joe thought helping everyone would come at a high price, and he chose to do it anyway.
The sacrifice your hero makes can be as overt as giving up their life or as subtle as letting go of an outdated idea. Characters can also make a sacrifice by putting themselves at risk. If they walk into the enemy camp unarmed, it’s because they’ve decided the chance of death is worth what they could gain.
Sacrifices make your resolution feel more genuine; it will show your audience that winning isn’t easy. Just make sure the costs of the sacrifice are significant. They should matter to your hero.
In The Fifth Element, Earth is about to be destroyed by a descending ball of evil. The only hope of averting catastrophe is to gather sacred stones representing the four elements and join them with the fifth element, Leeloo. She is the embodiment of Love, but after witnessing the violence of Earth’s civilization, she doesn’t have the will to defeat evil. To save the world, the hero must tell Leeloo he loves her.
Open dialogue creates a great emotional peak for interpersonal drama that crops up during a story. Once the characters are honest about their thoughts and feelings, they can’t continue interacting in the same way. That will, in turn, help them along their character arc.
To be effective as a climax, your heart to heart will need the right buildup. There has to be some underlying tension between your characters. Previous scenes should show them in conflict with one another. Perhaps every time they meet, they fight over something trivial. Maybe one is avoiding the other altogether. Provide hints about their trouble, but don’t bring it into the open too soon. If they talk about their feelings every episode, their conversation at the end won’t mean anything.
In Stardust, Tristan is eager to win the heart of Victoria, the most beautiful girl in town. But when he tries to woo her, he is humiliated by a competing suitor named Humphrey. Finally, Victoria agrees to marry Tristan if he’ll fetch a shooting star from the Faerie realm. Tristan succeeds, but in doing so, realizes he doesn’t love her after all. However, he still goes home to meet Victoria as he promised. While she scorned him before, now she throws herself at him. Humphrey shows up to challenge Tristan as he did in the beginning, but this time he is intimidated and backs down. Tristan sees how shallow and self-centered Victoria is, and he turns her away.
Echoing the beginning provides two strong advantages. First, it ties everything together. Once they notice your echo, your audience will feel the story has come full circle. Second, by matching the beginning and end, you will call attention to everything that is different. These changes will make your conclusion feel satisfying.
Stardust provides an elaborate example of an echo by using a mythic framework. Simpler ways to do this include repeating lines of important dialogue or creating similar dilemmas to those in the beginning. Even small echoes can impress your audience.
That’s because the best endings look backward, not forward. Don’t try to cover new ground with your ending. Instead, you should fully explore and resolve everything that has come before it. If you can’t find your perfect ending, look over your beginning and middle. The answer lies there.
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