Great Endings #10: The Ultimate Test

by Allen Palmer on January 20, 2014

in Film analysis, Screenwriting tips, Story structure

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - Chief hugs a lobotomised RP McMurphy (Jack Nicholson)

When it comes to endings, you can tick all the boxes in terms of theory but ultimately there is only one thing that matters.

Theory comes a distant second

I am not an intellectual.

I am not an academic.

And, I am not a film nerd.

I didn’t start analysing screenplays because I thought it was a fun thing to do. I did it because I wanted my screenplays to profoundly move people and I wanted to understand how the great screenwriters did that.

After looking at films and scripts – good, bad and plain ugly – for more than 25 years, I’ve picked up a few clues. There are no rules in this business but I can say that, when it comes to engaging an audience, there are some things that tend to work and some things that tend not to work, and I’ve shared some of those observations in this series on Great Endings.

But, ultimately, the theory doesn’t matter. You can do all the things that I’ve suggested here – or believe that you have – and it doesn’t matter a jot. There is only one thing that counts when we get to the end of your film or screenplay and that is this …

Does it move us?

Films are played out in the heart. Not the head

That’s what matters to me. I want to be profoundly moved. That’s how I define a Transcendent Story. Because experiencing a profoundly moving film helps me with being human. It releases me from my temporal concerns, reconnects me with what really matters, and sends me back out into the world more able to appreciate what I have – what we all have. But that experience of being profoundly moved is rare and, I fear, getting rarer.

So over these last 10 posts I’ve shared a number of things that I’ve noticed tend to be present in films that I have found profoundly moving and that tend to be missing from those that don’t. But, I don’t want you to confuse the order.

I was profoundly moved. And then I sought to discover what produced that exquisite sensation.

Emotion leading. Analysis following.

My gut knocked on the door. My mind revealed who was there.

If I am critical of a film, it’s not because it breaks any “rules”. It’s because I simply wasn’t engaged for the journey and wasn’t moved by the ending.

And I would never say I loved a film simply because it complied with a laundry list of script elements. There are a lot of pro-form studio films that go through the motions of plot resolution and/or character transformation that bore me to tears.

So don’t fall into that trap.

It’s heart first, head second — as it is for most of your audience.

And since your film is to be experienced emotionally, it needs to be written that way. There is no point trying to get all these ducks in a row if the resultant work doesn’t touch people.

So after you’ve written your screenplay – or, even better, after you’ve written your outline – don’t read it with a view to how comprehensively you’ve satisfied the theory; read it for how it makes you feel. And encourage others to whom you entrust your drafts to do the same.

Does it move you?

That’s the question I’ll ask any writer who’s given me a draft to read. If they’re lucky, they’ll say yes. If they’re even luckier, I’ll agree with them.

But, more normally, if this is an early draft and the writer is being honest, they’ll say that it doesn’t.

And the next question is “Why do you think that is?”

Then, and only then, does the theory become useful. It helps us articulate what we feel in our bones. It helps guide us toward what needs to be preserved and what needs to be excised or finessed in the next draft.

What you don’t want to do, if asked this question, is to allow your head to get in the way of your heart, and defend what you have written on the basis that it satisfies the theory— at least to your way of thinking.

There is no point doing this because that’s not how the audience is going to react. They’re not going to sit there on a Friday night, after a tough week and go, well, the hero doesn’t get what they set out to get, there’s a reasonable level of character transformation, and a semblance of sacrifice, so, yeah, two thumbs up.

No. They’re either going to be moved or not moved, and the vast majority won’t bother to understand why either way.

What did you think?
It was crap. Fancy some Mexican?

So get out of your heads, and start fine-tuning your emotional antenna.

The screenwriter’s greatest gift

I think the greatest gift a screenwriter can possess is not intelligence, the capacity to write sublime descriptive prose, or the ability to produce truly dazzling dialogue. I think it’s the ability to sense, before it’s performed or shot, let alone viewed, how a screenplay is going to work an audience’s emotions.

Screenwriting, more so than other writing I would imagine, involves a lot of experimentation. For any one scene in a film, you might try five or ten options just in terms of the basic form of the character transaction. And for any one feature-length screenplay, you will “road-test” literally thousands of combinations of characters doing this or saying that. And with each of these options, what you’re trying to do is imagine what it’s going to feel like when this is played out on screen.

Will it engage them?
Will it make them laugh?
Will it shock them?
Will it move them?

There are two mistakes you can make when it comes to the ending. To lay it on too thick – as a lot of Hollywood films tend to do. Or to undercook it – as a lot of Indie film-makers seem to do because, heaven knows, a film that actually moved the audience could terminally shatter their reputation for ironic detachment.

If you can judge that balance correctly on the page – and you can resist the efforts of emotionally tone-deaf individuals who’ll try to get you to change it – then you are well on the way to producing some sublime cinematic experiences.

When I look at a film like Lars and the Real Girl, I marvel that Nancy Oliver was able to see that her simple graveside scene between Lars and Margot, with such minimal dialogue, could produce such a profound effect.

Similarly, I admire how Diablo Cody, in her screenplay for Juno, was able to see that a mere look between Bleeker and the title character could produce a huge outpouring of emotion when they reunite after the birth of the child that is destined for adoption.

I marvel at how Robert Benton was able to take the screenplay that he wrote for Kramer vs Kramer – which originally had an overly long and largely unaffecting final speech from Meryl Streep’s character – and reshape it in the final film to produce tears for all but the emotionally disadvantaged.

And, how Tom Schulman and the director Peter Weir were able to see that the simple act of standing on that desk and uttering 4 words could deliver the truly outstanding finale of Dead Poets Society. Oh, Captain, my Captain.

Oh, my, indeed.

Is the ability to sense that innate? I think some writers are better than others at being able to feel how their work will affect their audience. But, I also think that it’s something you can work at. You can hone your instinct.

And I would encourage you to do so. Because the world doesn’t need more films that make us think. It really doesn’t. Because what do these films that are meant to make us think, typically want us to think? As far as I can make out, they generally want us to think that life is crap.

I don’t find that helpful. And I don’t think that’s true. That’s not to say that life is or can be all beer and skittles. But life is what it is. It can be, as Thomas Hobbes observed, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. OK. I get it. But help me deal with that.

What we need are more films that touch us.

What we need are more films that help us — as Joseph Campbell put it – “experience the feeling of being alive”.

What we need are more Transcendent Stories. Not to tell us that life can be fixed or perfect. But, to help us deal with the fact that it can’t be and isn’t, yet still experience the ecstasy that can be found among that all agony.

I hope this series of posts on Great Endings might have helped you on your way to write more films like this, films in the grand tradition of storytelling.

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