A satisfying ending is natural and inevitable. It should be synergistic with the theme and the main character’s development. It should never feel forced.
3 Types of Endings to Consider
1. The Ambiguous or Unresolved Ending
The Ambiguous or Unresolved Ending leaves the conclusion of the story open to the viewer’s or reader’s interpretation. We may have a pretty good idea how the story ends based on the set-up, but we’re not absolutely sure what will happen. This type of ending is rarely used by screenwriters - it can be tricky to string an audience along for two hours and then fail to provide an ending - however there are films that successfully master this technique and still satisfy viewers. Unfaithful, No Country for Old Men, Blade Runner and almost any film by David Lynch are examples of the Ambiguous or Unresolved Ending.
2. The Hopeless Ending
Some writers refer to the Hopeless Ending as the “downer ending” or “negative ending.” But audiences don’t necessarily leave a theatre feeling “down” or “negative” after experiencing a Hopeless Ending. Hopeless Endings can be powerful, moving and insightful. Think about the films Chinatown, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, Planet of the Apes, The Wrestler, Leaving Las Vegas – each a story with a Hopeless Ending.
3. The Hopeful Ending
Hopeful Endings are not necessarily “happy” endings. The final result may be sad, bittersweet, tragic, or ironic. The hero or heroine may lose the fight, the love interest, or even his life, but ultimately these stories convey a sense of hope; that the journey was worthwhile and noble, regardless of the outcome. Things don’t turn out so good for William Wallace at the end of the film Braveheart, yet the ending gives a sense of hope that the protagonist made a difference, that he lived his life on his terms, and that his cause will go on and triumph. Other films (especially rom-coms and comedies) are the upbeat, happily-ever-after, “feel-good” variety in which the heroes emerge from their conflicts and ordeals battered but stronger. Hopeful Endings are the most popular.
Examples of Sad-But-Hopeful Endings include: Witness, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, American Beauty, The Perfect Storm, The Sixth Sense, Thelma & Louise, and L.A. Confidential.
Examples of Happily-Ever-After Endings include: Working Girl, When Harry Met Sally, Sideways, Juno.
3 Tips to Ensure You Craft a Satisfying Ending for Your Story
- Determine what inevitable path the protagonist is on. Ben Sanderson’s self-loathing and downward spiral into alcohol in Leaving Las Vegas leads to his inevitable demise.
- Be aware of the tone, style, and genre of your script. If you’re writing a breezy, fun rom-com your ending probably won’t include death, destruction, and hopelessness.
- Pay off the theme. The Shawshank Redemption deftly interweaves the theme of “hope” throughout the film’s scenes of violence and loss – the inevitable and satisfying ending is one of hope. The theme of Chinatown is “the powerful always win” – the inevitable and satisfying ending pays off this theme.
What type of ending are you using for your story? Why is it the most satisfactory ending for your screenplay?