An emotionally powerful ending depends on 2 key moments before the climax itself. And neither of them is the Inciting Incident or a Turning Point.
Emotional power comes from character not plot
When I look at most screenwriting texts I see a preoccupation with plot. They’ll talk about the importance of character and how you need a character arc but then most will talk about structure independently of character. Structure is not about plot. It’s about using plot to drive the transformation of the character.
So, while Inciting Incidents and Turning Points are important, they tend to be plot- rather than character-focused and they are not the key moments in determining the emotional power of your climax.
What are the two moments you need to get right if you want to set up a profoundly moving climax?
The first is the unglamorous and generally overlooked first 5-10 pages of the script: the Ordinary World.
Why first 5-10 pages is critical for character arc
In my earlier posts on Great Endings, I have pointed out that the really powerful endings depend on character transformation. It’s not so much about what your hero/protagonist does at the climax of your third act, but how that relates to what they were like in Act 1. What was their ground zero?
I’m going to refer again to Dead Poets Society not only because I think it has one of the most powerful endings in cinema based on the reactions I get in class, but because of its simplicity. A student stands on his desk and says, “Oh, Captain, my Captain”. How can that possibly move us in the way that it does? Because, for this character, that represents a monumental transformation. Where was that transformation set up? In the first 10 pages of the script.
In Cracking Story: The Heart of Screenwriting, I play the opening of Dead Poets Society, and ask who is hero of the film?
Some will say that it’s the Robin Williams character, Mr Keating. No, he is the mentor.
Many will say that it’s the Robert Sean Leonard, Neil. I can understand this point of view but he is not the hero by my definition. I say that there are two ways to identify your hero: the character who is most changed by the story and the character who takes the decisive action to resolve the conflict. And, in neither case, is that Neil. He is just what I call the Protagonist – the character who drives the action. So who is the hero? It’s Todd (Ethan Hawke).
Todd is the character who is most changed. And he’s the character who takes the decisive action at the climax.
Having identified that Todd is the hero, I point out how the writer sets up his character in these opening pages. Apart from his generally timid demeanour, we hear him described as “a stiff” by the gormless red-headed Cameron, and three times we hear a reference to his over-achieving brother. Todd is a guy of whom nothing is expected. And he does everything he can to retain that identity because that is a safe place to be. If nothing is expected of you then how can you ever disappoint?
Which brings me to the second key moment that sets up the climax.
Midpoint is not about stakes – it’s about character confrontation
I have written previously about the importance of the midpoint but I will summarise again here.
If you read Syd Field on the midpoint, he will say that it’s about raising the stakes or about burning a bridge that makes this a point of no return. I won’t say that the midpoint can’t be about those things. What I would say is that if that is all your midpoint is about then good luck achieving a profoundly moving climax.
The midpoint, for me, is the second key moment in the character arc. And what needs to happen here?
Your hero needs to be confronted with their flaw. Someone needs to hold up a mirror to them and say, here, look at yourself, this is what is wrong with you.
And that’s what happens in Dead Poets Society. Mr Keating (Robin Williams) forces Todd, very much against his will, to conceive a poem in front of the class and Todd resists and resists and resists, before finally his “woe-is-me” Identity cracks open and he gushes forth with his “Sweaty Tooth Mad Man” revelation. The room is stunned into silence. Finally, Todd has unveiled what really lives inside that diffident exterior.
“Don’t you forget this”, says Keating.
This moment is critical to your story. You need to confront the character, make them aware of what ails them, and then given them the opportunity at the climax to prove that they have learned the lesson.
Please read my earlier post on what should happen at the midpoint because if you can wrap your head around this moment you will fundamentally alter your understanding of story.
Your ending is only as good as the preceding 100 pages
I have heard stories of producers saying to writers, “We love the first two acts, we just want you to fix the ending”.
Not a chance.
If the ending is not working, it is highly unlikely there is anything you can change in the last 10-15 pages that is going to lift it. The ending can only build on what precedes it.
And, while every single scene of every single page is important, the two key moments that I would look to address would be these two:
1. Ordinary World: Is the character’s flaw set up BEFORE the inciting incident?
2. Midpoint: Is the character confronted with their flaw in Act 2?
Get those right, and you have some chance of achieving a profoundly moving climax.
But, there a few more things that the great films do with their endings, and I’ll explore another of those in my next post …
Great Endings #7: Want a massive high? First, you’ll need a huge low.
Catch the entire Great Endings series of posts here