Is any aspect of a film or TV screenplay ever as widely contested, scrutinized, or criticized as the ending? It only takes one look at a series such as Dexter to see how 8 seasons and nearly 100 episodes of fantastic, top-quality scriptwriting can be almost completely undone by an underwhelming or dishonest conclusion that doesn’t satisfy audiences.
So, what does make a good ending? If it were an easy recipe to read and emulate, every screenwriter in the world would use that cheat code! That said, even if there is no narrative fairy dust to sprinkle on your script to instantly create the perfect ending, there is a fairly long list of dos and don’ts, styles, and mechanics all worth considering in the context of your own script.
Assume, for example, that your audience will expect the unexpected and force yourself to devise an ending outside of a linear narrative. If you’re writing an episodic script or a film as part of a franchise, make sure to never construct a “cliffhanger” ending at the expense of your story, character, or themes. On a more granular level, don’t use dialogue as an outlet for exposition or over-explanation.
The beauty of storytelling, however, is that no matter the genre or medium, nearly all of these principles apply to your screenplay; whether you’re writing a comedy, drama, web series, TV pilot, feature film, short film, or anything in between, your conclusion is arguably your biggest narrative pillar, and the rules for how to create an effective version are completely agnostic.
Trying to thoughtfully conclude your story is a huge, multi-prong effort, but we’re going to break down the mechanics of a successful conclusion into two major focuses: Mechanics and Types.
Ready to learn more? Let’s break down the pillars of a strong conclusion below.
Mechanics of a Good Script Ending
“The End” is a good place to start. No, seriously! That may seem like a laughably obvious point, but you’d be surprised how many first-time screenwriters don’t realize that that phrase, or phrases with a similar utility, need to literally mark the end of your script.
This can be written as a “Scene Transition” that’s formatted to the right margin of your screenplay, or as a separate “Action Description” that’s aligned in the middle of your script. There are other ways to use your “Screen Transition” to mark the end of your script as well, including:
- “Fade Out”
- “Fade to Black/White”
- “Dissolve to Black/White”
A common mistake screenwriters make is sprinkling these phrases throughout their script as editorial or directorial notes. In short: don’t! Not only does this take up precious real estate within your page count, but it’s also considered an overstep of the writer’s job, which is to create a narrative template for other creative leaders, namely the director, to bring in their own styles and interpretations.
It’s also important not to use dialogue as a storytelling crutch, especially in the conclusion. People often use conversations as expository dumping grounds, at the expense of character authenticity or other narrative elements. Remember to show rather than tell.
Lastly, remember that less is more when it comes to action descriptions. You’re not writing a book here, so there’s no need for flowery language either. Keep it simple!
3 Types of Effective Script Endings
Each script is its own beast, and there’s no perfect template for conclusions that you can copy-paste. There are, however, a few basic types of conclusions that tend to provide the most satisfying responses, depending on the context.
First and most obvious: the surprise ending. Audiences or readers will be anticipating the end of your script as soon as it has started, and many of them will pride themselves in figuring it out along the way. Never underestimate your audience. They are far more astute than writers often give them credit for, and providing a sincerely surprising ending takes deep thought and narrative strategy to actually catch them off-guard.
Another popular style, especially in the franchise/universe era, is the cliffhanger ending. In TV, this is an excellent way to keep your audience invested and keen to dive right into the next episode. Similarly in films, it’s an effective way to hook viewers and convince them to invest in the next entry. Either way, make sure your suspenseful ending still provides some sort of narrative or thematic closure. Without some form of closure, your audiences will feel cheated.
Emotional or Moral Ending
This brings us to arguably the most effective and important ending of all: the emotional or moral ending. Character and story are the wind in a screenwriter’s sails, and if you’re not paying service to them, your attempt at a surprise or cliffhanger ending could very well be in vain.
Make sure your protagonists have real agency and are empowered to make their own decisions. Give context to their actions; an understandable motivation that makes what they do believable. At the same time, ensure what they do is in line with the overall themes and message of your movie. If those elements are not aligned, you risk alienating or losing your audience.
Ending Your Screenplay
Crafting the perfect ending to your screenplay is a daunting, challenging, and extremely surgical process that requires careful thought and consideration. One last word to the wise? Decide on your ending before you ever write a single word. Don’t dive straight in and hope to find it along the way; that’s how finales like Dexter are born.
Make sure you’re not cutting your script short for the sake of a cliffhanger or betraying a character or theme for the sake of a shocking surprise; these are the fastest ways to lose your audience.
Like all things script-related, stay true to your central message, honor your characters, and make sure to tie up some (if not all) loose ends. Along the way, assume your audience can see the writing on the wall and think harder about how to both surprise and satisfy them.
Oh, and don’t forget to write “The End!”
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