Killer endings (and how you can craft them)

Here we are at crafting killer endings.

The final step.

killer endings
Photo by Ana Arantes on

Act 5 can be deceptively simple. First, you’re summing up the story for your audience, and then you’re getting the heck out of there.

Act 5 is the punchline. You gotta keep it short and snappy. A few can have long Act 5s, but when we talk about it, we’ll see they’re master storytellers. They honed their craft before taking a chance.

Long Act 5s are the exception that proves the rule.

In your act 5, you have to show the aftermath of the hero’s ultimate choice. Is it happy or sad? Act 5 is more about imparting a feeling than laying out a practical guide of how they will go on or rebuild.

Things are either going to be OK, or they’re not.

Give your audience a hint at what your new world will be like, then get out.

When it comes to your aftermath section, you’re showing the fallout. This applies to the hero but just as much to the world around them.

What will the new world look like? But, again, you don’t have to spend too long on this section.

Let’s talk about super-efficient endings.

Of course, you guessed it, we’re going to talk about Ghostbusters at the end. After the big explosion, the Ghostbusters have survived. There is a moment when they think they’ve lost Dana. She’s fine. Then, they come downstairs to the cheers of the crowd and ride off into the sunset. (On a side note, it’s only when you look at the ending you get an idea of the Western influence on Ghostbusters, but that’s a topic for another day).

Even though it’s super short, the ending still covers the “perfect structure” we talked about weeks ago.

1-Setup: Aftermath of explosion

2-Things go well: All the Guys survived

3-Realisation: Dana might have been killed

4-Choice: Not give up on her. Break her out of the statue

5-Aftermath: “I love this town!”

There does not need to be earth-shattering shifts in the heroes world for it to be a killer endings

Look at Dredd from 2012. It is efficient storytelling at its most lean. However, if you look at it, it’s Act 5 reveals something more profound. Act 5 is almost like a punchline to the joke. In Dredd, the eponymous hero has fought his way through hundreds of floors of bad guys. Almost dying several times in the process. When his boss asks him what happened, he responds, “Drug bust”. You get the idea that this is just another day at the office. Again the story obeys the perfect structure.

1-Setup: The building unseals itself.

2-Things go well: Dredd and Anderson walkout

3-Realisation: “She’s a pass” Dredd gives Anderson a pass (In this case, the audience realises)

4-Choice: Dredd gets back to work.

5-Aftermath: Concluding voice over, is that Anderson on the bike at the end?

Keeping your ends short is advisable when first working on your writing/storytelling. But as we’ll see, it is possible to do more extended endings.

“Start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, stop.”

What are the components of an ending?

They should be surprising yet inevitable. In Act 5, you sum up what you want you to want the audience to take away. You see an overt version of it in South Park with the “I’ve learned something today…” speeches.

This is what you’re doing with your ending.

In real life, when in the company, there are stories that I like to tell. Stories like the following. When a group of us were asked, “Are you going to the Seaview Hotel”. Or that time, I refused to play party games and made someone cry. They’re fun to tell, shaggy dog stories. But here’s the thing they have no end, they kind of trail off. When that happens, people are seeking a definitive ending. So here’s a big clue, if you finish telling a story and the other person responds with, “And then what happened?” That is their subtle way of telling you the ending is not satisfying.

How do you get around this?

A potential cheat code

I discovered a cheat code. Want to know what it is? Of course, you’re not going to like it…

Slap a moral onto your story. I know it feels reductive but believes me, it works.

For example, in the above story about getting asked was going to Seaview Hotel, the ending became, “So, if you get asked are you going to the Seaview, you say: YES!”

It’s not brilliant by any stretch, but it says to people, “This is the end of the tale”.

The same thing applies to the stories you tell. It’s funny because when I was young when I was even more foolish than I am today. I was obsessed with “THEMES”. Now that I am a lot older, they’re not a concern. Themes will present themselves subconsciously. Themes are like cats. They’ll do things of their own accord. So you have to let them.

Focus on the moral question you want your audience to ask themselves, and Act 5 is where you drive it home.

In short, if you’re in doubt about your ending, then don’t be afraid to reiterate your moral question.

Then stop.

Killer endings take their time

In Act 5, your plot has been resolved, but your story still needs to be tied up.

I’ve said it’s best to keep this section short, but today we’ll talk about stories that take the time to resolve their story.

You probably have already guessed what they are already:

1-Return of the King (obvs)

2-Gone Girl

3-No Country for Old men

4-LaLa Land

Four are great examples of stories that got abuse for dragging out their endings (ahem Return of the King).

Here’s the thing though, these four ended their plots, but there’s still a story to resolve.

You need to end the story

When I talk about plot and story, here’s the difference-plot in the events that happen. The story is what happens to the characters. Does that make sense?

Return of the King needed to have that longer ending because some overlook the fact Frodo failed. The ring was destroyed but by accident. There’s almost a purgatorial aspect to the final section of Frodo’s quest. In the book, it’s more pronounced with the Scourging of the Shire. While in the film, he feels cut off from his fellow hobbits.

In Gone Girl, yes, Amy has returned, but Nick discovered that she staged the whole thing. The Amy who returns is not the same Amy who left(I mean, technically she is, but Nick’s and our perspective have changed). The woman is a psycho, and we need to get a sense of how Nick will adapt to this.

In No Country, Tommy Lee Jones’s sheriff reels from the evil he has witnessed. He talks to others about his experiences trying to make sense of it all. Again it follows the five-point structure: the 1-Making sense of things. 2-The world is going to hell 3-Realises it’s always been violent 4-Make his peace with it 5-Dreams of his father.

In La La Land it’s Act 5 jumps five years ahead. Did those two ever get back together? Turns out no. Did they make the right choice? In La La Land’s Act 5, we explore the road untravelled. While the two still love each other, they made the right choice by doing their own thing. Seb would not have opened his jazz bar and would not be fulfilling his true potential if he stayed with her.

Sometimes your plot may end, but you still have a story to resolve. How long will it take for you to resolve it?

Let’s wrap things up.

First, a little psychology.

In Pre-Suasion by psychologist Robert Cialdini, he cites a study relating to memory. In the study, participants were both shown an advert. However, group A was shown the whole advert whereas Group B was shown the same advert with the last 10 seconds cut.

Wanna know the funny thing it found?

Group B had been able to retain more detail about the advert than Group A.

You’re probably wondering, what’s this got to do with endings?

Remember the ending of Inception?

Of course, you do, the spinning top, is it going to fall?

You’ll never know.

It is because you don’t know why the ending sticks with you. So you have to figure it out for yourself.

What about the ending to The Sopranos? There are still people who debate the meaning. I think it’s obvious. However, I’m making my way through the series for the first time, so will my opinion change when I get there? I’m interested in finding out.

I discovered the secret of a decent final shot by accident. When I made my first feature-length film, Deadville.

Deadville is about a guy who travels through desolate Northern Ireland. He wants to find a cure for the zombie virus to save the woman he loves. He finds out that there is no cure. (this is the actual realisation point. I only discovered this years after the blasted thing was made, oh well) He returns home empty-handed.

The original ending had him killing her, burying her and walking off into the sunset. There was only one problem, though. The burying and walking off scene looked rubbish. So as the writer and director, I made an executive decision to cut it. Now there was no footage of the shooting that was beyond our budget. We toyed around with having a gunshot over the credits, but then we thought, let’s leave it open.

When we had our premier for Deadville, people asked me, “So…did he shoot her?”. I felt like the answer was obvious, but I liked how people were intrigued.

You, as the creator/author/writer, must know how it ends. However, you’re under no obligation to tell anyone what that ending is because if you do, you’ll


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