Finding the perfect ending is difficult, even for professional writers and big-budget films. The resolution after the climax provides closure for the audience and characters. Sometimes termed the “denouement,” this scene is just as important as the climax itself.
It’s the part of the story that resolves any remaining subplots. The script shows how the characters’ lives have changed. The audience have a moment to breathe after the heightened climax and before the credits roll.
There are many great films that reshot their endings to vary the amount of closure:
- MEN IN BLACK: originally, Agent J talked to the bug alien rather than fighting it. Other endings were considered, including one in which coroner Laurel’s memory is wiped instead of her becoming an agent.
- SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE: Shakespeare and Viola’s parting scene was reshot so it takes place in private.
- 28 DAYS LATER: originally, Jim died of a gunshot wound, but a test screening audience thought this was too bleak, implying the other characters would soon die too.
It’s understandable that producers and studios would be willing to pay more to get the closure perfect. The ending, specifically the denouement, determines the feeling the audience leave a film with and its word of mouth.
Full Circle from the First Act
The key to perfect closure is often in looking back to the first act. If the protagonist has been introduced properly, with goals and flaws, along with a plot that has enough momentum and material for a full story, an ending should suggest itself.
After taking the protagonist through the plot and their arc, to their logical climax, what kind of life awaits them?
Ideally, a climax will unite and resolve the internal conflict (the main character overcoming their flaw, their arc) with the external conflict (the action of the plot). Both need closure.
It’s common for writers to visualise the closure in their story before they start writing, before they even have a clear conception of how to get there.
For example, JK Rowling had an image for the ending of HARRY POTTER in mind, of Hagrid carrying Harry out of the forest. She also wrote the epilogue in advance, even though she wasn’t entirely sure which characters would die or survive.
Happy and Unhappy Closure
In its simplest terms, closure can be happy or unhappy.
Did the character achieve their ultimate goal? Of course, their goal may have shifted over the course of the story. Alternatively, their original goal might be rendered irrelevant because of a character flaw that’s now been resolved. In this case, do they fulfil their need?
Take, for example, the familiar, cliché conflict of work versus family life (as seen in HOOK, CLICK, and LIAR LIAR). The main character’s goal might have been to secure an important promotion or to land a big client. Their need, on the other hand, is to spend more time with their family.
Their closure is the realisation of this need. It’s happy even if they haven’t met their goal. Generally, if the character hasn’t achieved their goal and hasn’t resolved their flaw, the result is unhappy closure. It can make the difference between comedy and tragedy.
There’s an impression that unhappy or downbeat closure is more realistic or serious somehow. This is not necessarily the case. GOD’S OWN COUNTRY, for example, refreshingly proved that stories about gay characters don’t have to end tragically.
The contrary assumption is that mass audiences don’t want an unhappy ending in any circumstances. Crucially, it depends on the genre and the audience.
There are plenty of ways to moderate technically unhappy closure into something that’s more “feel good,” or vice versa.
One classic example is THELMA & LOUISE. The script, by Callie Khouri, ends with the title characters, pursued by police, driving over a cliff.
Khouri originally intended to direct the script herself, on a low budget. When the script picked up heat, attracting stars and a big director, there were questions over the closure.
One suggestion by director Ridley Scott was that Louise could push Thelma out of the car, saving her life. However, it was important for Khouri that the film retained her original ending.
Scott filmed another ending, which showed the car falling, and then Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) running up to the edge. He finds a Polaroid of the two characters from the beginning of the film.
The finished film instead ends with the famous freeze frame of their car still in the air. Having one survive and the other die, or seeing the car fall or the detective react, would have made it too real and too downbeat.
Instead, the freeze frame evokes BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID which ends mid-shoot out where the characters likely die.
Instead of seeing them die, they get to live on forever. The characters win their hard-earned escape.
I guess I’ll see you in the movies.
More recently, in LA LA LAND, the main couple Sebastian and Mia don’t end up together. An extended musical set-piece shows what their lives might have been like had they stayed together.
However, this takes place in a heightened, shared imagination. In real life, both characters appear to be better off for having parted company. Both know any future they may have had together is no longer possible.
THELMA & LOUISE and LA LAND may have their origins in independent film sensibilities, but both crossed over into mass popularity. A big part of that is that they both find satisfying endings. Not only do both offer closure, but they strike a perfectly bittersweet tone.
Lack of Closure
Audiences are aware of the conventions of genre. A writer who wants to surprise their audience might turn to genre revisionism, genre hybrids, or genre deconstructions. This grants some amount of leeway in terms of closure.
For example, in CHINATOWN the detective Jake Gittes does uncover an underlying conspiracy. However, its perpetrator escapes and there’s nothing the he can do about it.
The script, by Robert Towne, cynically up-ends the expectations of a film noir detective story. Normally in this genre, an audience expects justice to be served and criminals to always be punished. Here there’s a lack of closure.
Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.
The reward of an ambiguous or open ending is that they can be thought-provoking and engaging. Audiences have to ask themselves and each other what it means and what they think happens next. They provide their own closure.
The downside is that inevitably some will see the same ending as a cop-out, taking the audience out of believing the characters and the world. It can be a way for the writer to avoid taking a side or making a clear statement on the themes and topics they’ve introduced.
There is also a difference between ambiguity and confusion. The latter results when the goalposts for success and failure, happiness and unhappiness, or the rules for the world have been moved too far.
Some examples of successful ambiguous or open endings:
- In THE LOBSTER, written by Efthimis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos, does David go through with blinding himself with a steak knife? If he doesn’t, does it disprove his claim to be capable of real love?
- Does Sean Baker’s THE FLORIDA PROJECT end in Moonee’s imagination, or is her escape to Disneyland real?
- What happens to Riggan at the end of BIRDMAN?
- Are the results of the chest X-ray in the Coen bros’ A SERIOUS MAN positive or negative? What happens to Danny at the end?
However, some viewers have indeed criticised these endings for their lack of closure.
Independent Versus Blockbuster
The common thread across these examples of ambiguous and open endings is that they’re at the independent end of the budget scale. Storytelling expectations are different.
While blockbusters frequently use credits scenes to tease sequels, for the most part these aren’t truly open endings. The story contained in the film offers closure; these teasers advertise future instalments. (In some cases, they are even produced independently of the film itself.)
In fact, when these sequel teases and hints of interconnected universes become too obvious, and interfere too much with one franchise entry’s closure, it turns audiences off.
It was partly a disagreement over the closure in Alex Garland’s ANNIHILATION that led the studio Paramount to sell it off to Netflix internationally, rather than mount a more expensive wide theatrical release as it did in the US.
Was this an independent film about self-destruction, about what it means to be alive? Or was it a medium-budget monster movie with those philosophical concepts at the margins?
A similar problem befell THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT, which has no less than four different alternative endings.
As a thought-provoking sci-fi drama about the consequences of abuse, the most shocking and downbeat ending makes sense. In a star vehicle for Ashton Kutcher, however, the audience want closure for his relationship, to see him happy and victorious.
While the climax may be the most fun part of the third act to write and to watch, don’t overlook the closure that must follow. Striking the right balance between an open and closed denouement is crucial, as is finding the right tone. Both will be influenced by – and in turn influence – the genre and audience for the film.
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