Saturday, July 11, 2009

Know Your Ending



What do we mean exactly by 'know your ending'? Is it just 'James Bond foils Goldinger's plan and kills him'? Or do you need to know more? And how does knowing the ending help you construct your screenplay? Doesn't that take all the fun out of it?

Let's tackle this last question first. There are some writers out there, who do not outline in any way, and who do not want to know where they're going when they start out on the journey. And a very small number of them actually succeed in finishing their scripts and getting them filmed. They are either natural storytellers who just know how to tell good stories well, or they are idiosyncratic writers who have established close partnerships with directors and/or producers who share their same aesthetic - and in many cases they are actually writer-directors.

For the huge majority of writers though, knowing where you're going to is actuallu a prerequisite for finishing the script. It focuses the mind, helps you invent characters, incidents, thematic images etc. and it allows you to build a story with definite forward movement because you know where you're going.

And as for the fun being taken out of it if you know your destination - well, don't forget that during the writing process, you can change your mind whenever you want about what the ending should be. In fact, in many cases it will! And the journey to the ending will definitely add so many details, so much knowledge and so many opportunities to your story, that it will evolve naturally into something different than what you first imagined it would be.

Now, on to the meat of the question - when do you know your ending?

First, when we talk about the ending, in this case we mean the climax, i.e. the moment at which the dramatic question which powers the script is answered. To take Star Wars as an example, the dramatic question there is: will Luke Skywalker succeed in defeating the Empire? The answer to that question is: yes. That's a no-brainer.

Casablanca has a trickier dramatic question to answer: will Rick get Ilsa back? Here you have more options as a writer. Yes, she goes back to her true love, no, she stays with her husband, no, he dies, no, she dies, no, her husband dies and she becomes a nun out of guilt, yes, but Victor comes along for the ride and they go through life as a happy threesome... So answering your dramatic question in this case is quintessential to being able to write a compelling script.

So depending on the story you're telling, this basic answer can be quite hard to determine. And determine it you must, to know how you're going to build up to that answer.

Secondly, once you have your central answer to the dramatic question, you need to know some details about your climax. Not just the 'what', but also the 'how'.

To take the Star Wars example again: Luke will defeat the evil plans of the Empire, but the modalities of this event could have been totally different. There could have been an infiltration of the Death Star, or a strike on the governmental buildings on Coruscant, Grand Moff Tarkin could have been assassinated which might have thrown the entire military operation in disarray, Luke could have faced off against Vader face-to-face... Instead, Lucas chose to build the climax around a bombing run, and made Luke's choosing the Force over technology the crucial moment which cemented his internal transformation.

But as I mentioned earlier, it's perfectly natural for the 'how' (and occassionally the 'what' as well) to change during the writing process. In the case of Star Wars, George Lucas had developed several completely different drafts over the years before settling on the story he finally shot. (Many elements of the earlier incarnations of the story -unfortunately- showed up in the Prequel trilogy.)

Looking at Casablanca's climax, the importance of knowing your theme becomes especially clear. If, say, Rick had sold Victor out to the Nazis and remained in Casablanca together with Ilsa, the theme of the film would have been that true love is more important than moral integrity, or the end justifies the means. If Rick helped Victor escape but then told him that Ilsa was staying with him, that would be another theme altogether. The actual ending cements the theme that altruism (in this case also linked strongly to patriotism) is the highest ideal. A different climax means your story has a different underlying message.

So, knowing your ending means knowing how you are answering the central dramatic question, and how your protagonist and antagonist are going to interact during the climax of the story. And ideally it also means knowing the theme your story expresses, and expressing it through the details of the climax - though in quite a few cases, you will only discover your real theme in the course of the writing process.

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