While your audience will generally want your hero to gain something, for a truly great ending you’ll also have to make sure your protagonist loses something very dear.
A happy ending is not a great ending
In my post on Ecstatic Agony, I talked about how efforts to deliver a “happy ending” are often misplaced. Yes, your audience wants to leave emotionally satisfied but that doesn’t mean they will love you for making life all rosy for your hero.
The best endings tend to temper joy with some dimension of grief and that generally means the hero must surrender something. But what?
What to sacrifice? Look to character
I have said it before and I will say it again. Story is not primarily about the plot. Not if you want to genuinely affect your audience. The plot is just there to drive the character transformation that delivers the profoundly moving ending that elevates the Transcendent Story above one that is merely Cathartic.
So don’t make the mistake of thinking about this sacrifice as a plot contrivance. Make it organically and intrinsically linked to the growth of your hero. Use it to show how they have transformed from the flawed character we met at the start.
Giving up the Want
At the start of The Apartment, Baxter (Jack Lemmon) wants to advance his career – and who cares if it means a little moral ambiguity. But the story forces him to choose: the girl, Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), or the career? He gives up what he originally wanted.
Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) in Tootsie is very similar. He, even more than C.C. Baxter, is desperate for career success – and he gets it. A role in a national US daytime drama. Of course, it does mean dressing up as a woman. But, still, it beats playing a tomato and he desperately wants to be an actor. However the story sadistically gives him Julie (Jessica Lange) as a co-star. Do you want to act? Or do you want to love? He’s forced to give up what he previously valued above life itself.
In Kramer vs Kramer, Ted (Dustin Hoffman again) twice has to give up a Want. Initially, he is career-focussed and a very poor, unengaged father. That is his flaw. He’s selfish and lacks compassion. So the story gives him his worst nightmare – sole custody of his six-year-old son, Billy.
At first, he attempts to live life as before but Billy will have none of it, acts out in the famous ice-cream scene, and confronts Ted with his flaw. After these uncomfortable home truths are aired, Ted comes to value Billy above all else. However the story does what good stories do and it now tries to take away what he originally didn’t want but now considers most precious. His ex, Joanna, is back and she wants the kid.
Now, Ted’s Want is to hold onto Billy no matter what. And, through what follows, he proves that he is at least as worthy and capable as the child’s mother of filling the role of parent. He even demonstrates, by taking a lower paid job, that he is fundamentally altered from Ted Mk 1. But the story still won’t let up.
It then delivers a verdict on the custody battle that is entirely credible (and part of the writer/director’s point in making the film). The court (society) decides that the mother is better equipped than the father. Agony.
Will he continue to fight for that Want? Every fibre in his body wants to. Until his lawyer tells him that, in the appeal, he will have to put Billy on the stand.
“No, I won’t do that.”
So, Ted, whose original flaw was that he was selfish, proves with this action, that he has transformed. He puts the child’s interest ahead of his own. He gives up his Want and the sacrifice is profoundly affecting (not to mention sublimely realised on screen).
And, of course, in Gran Torino, Walt (Clint Eastwood) makes the ultimate sacrifice in defending those whom he had previously reviled.
But, it doesn’t have to be the Want that is sacrificed.
How Juno’s sacrifice is not giving up the Want
In Juno, her Want at the end of Act 1 is to adopt her unborn child out to Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner). This is not a particularly active Want (which means that she doesn’t have to do very much to make it happen) but that is what she desperately desires and it provides the overarching throughline for the story.
Is this Want of giving up the child a sign of her flaw? Not in my opinion. Her flaw is actually her inability to admit her vulnerability and discuss the pregnancy with the love of her life, Bleeker. She embarks on this course partly as a way of avoiding these feelings.
How does the plot confront the character? Juno encourages Bleeker to take Katrina to the prom – to mask her real feelings – then takes offence when he does exactly that. The mild-mannered Bleeker arcs up and tells her that he would never have considered marrying her because “she’d be the meanest wife ever”. Take that.
There are more ordeals for Juno (and a delightful exchange with her father) before she’s finally able to tell Bleeker that she loves him – something of which she would have been incapable in Act 1.
The character is transformed. Great. But what about that original Want?
Juno is still pregnant, she’s still 16 years old, and Vanessa Loring is still expecting to take custody of the child (despite Mark flaking on her). But, now Juno is back with the father of the child, will she still give it up?
In this case, not giving up the original Want, and surrendering the child to Vanessa actually produces the more affecting ending. The sacrifice is not the Want in this case. But the child itself. And there’s no question it’s a grievous loss (though more so in the script than the film).
Sometimes the sacrifice is not of the hero’s choosing
In all of the examples I’ve noted to this point, the hero has made a conscious choice to surrender something of value – Baxter in the Apartment, Michael in Tootsie, Ted in Kramer vs Kramer and Juno as well.
But, that’s not always the case.
What you are looking for is this very significant downbeat that can counterpoint the Ecstasy of the climax, and that might come from actions outside of the hero’s control.
Again, however, I’d suggest that these moments should make some point about character, or be in some way related to the film’s premise (the point it’s making about the human condition, not the concept).
In Star Wars, the sacrifice is Obi Wan Kenobe. How is this related to character?
Most stories are about a movement from a child-like state of selfishness to an adult sense of selfless responsibility – even when the hero is not a child – and, part of becoming an adult is a separation from the parents. Since Obi Wan is Luke’s de facto father, his death – at the hand of Luke’s real father as it happens – has resonances for all of us. Without the support of a mother or father, Luke must stand on his own two feet.
In The Lives of Others, the sacrifice is the life of the actress girlfriend and in Brokeback Mountain it’s the life of Ennis’s lover, Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal). In neither case did the hero make this sacrifice willing but they are credible plot developments that derive at least in part from the actions of the hero and they enable the writer to say something about the human condition.
In The Lives of Others, I would say that the premise is, “Blind faith in ideology results in the death of humanity”.
In Brokeback Mountain, I’d say the premise is “Take love when it presents itself, no matter what form it takes, or risk missing your one opportunity for happiness”.
Less successful forms of sacrifice
It’s clear some writers are aware of the need for a significant downbeat before the climax and they have a Sacrifice of sorts but it won’t always deliver the emotional impact you’re looking for.
Having your hero give up their Want is not really going to affect us emotionally if we don’t feel they have a desperate attachment to it. I would say this is what slightly undercuts the ending of a film like Midnight Run – where Jack (Robert De Niro) gives up the money he was going to use to open a coffee shop in order to free the Duke (Charles Grodin). Does he really have his heart set on running a cafe? No. Money, generally, isn’t an ideal sacrifice because giving it up doesn’t generate much in the way of a visceral response.
Schindler’s List is interesting. You could read the sacrifice as the money he’s given up in order to save his workers, but I don’t think any of us shed a tear over Oskar not getting to leave with suitcases full of money. The Agony is the loss of those he didn’t save but could have but for his profligate lifestyle – a tragedy dramatised in the scene where his workers present him with the ring (a scene that produces one of the most emotional responses in class).
I am also not a big fan of deaths at the end of the Act 2 that don’t seem organic to the story. Neil’s death in Dead Poet’s is entirely credible – as are the fates of Worley in An Officer and a Gentleman, and R. P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. However, the death of Gareth (Simon Callow) in Four Weddings and a Funeral is not organic to the story.
More howls of protest.
I love Four Weddings, marvel at the talent of Richard Curtis, and shed a tear when we get to hear that great W. H. Auden poem at the funeral. However, in terms of wanting to guide you towards good storytelling practice I would warn you against having characters keel over and die just because you want to produce a low moment. It’s known as deus ex machina and it’s just not as effective as something that comes incontrovertibly out of the story.
That is the tricky bit in all of this. It’s one thing to know what will move the audience. It’s quite another to produce a story that is able to do all of this in an entirely organic way that moves us. Endings take place not in the head but the heart and my next post will focus on a key element of this …
Catch the entire Great Endings series of posts here
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