Elements of Act Three (part 3): Elevate Your Ending

by Alexandra Sokoloff

about the endings of films and books that stay with you.   What is that extra something they
have that makes them stand out from all the hundreds and thousands of stories
out there?  That’s your mission,
today, Jim, should you decide to accept it:  Figure it out.

a storyteller the best thing you can do for your own writing technique is to
make that list and analyze why the endings that have the greatest impact
on you have that impact.  
What is/are the storyteller/s doing to create that effect?

you start to analyze stories you love, you will find that there are very
specific techniques that filmmakers and novelists are using to create the
effect that that story is having on you.   That’s why it’s called “art”. 

you’re not going to be able to pull a meaningful ending out of a hat if the
whole rest of your story has one-dimensional characters and no thematic
relevance.  But there are concrete
ways you can broaden and deepen your own ending to have lasting impact or even
lasting relevance.   Today I’d
like to look at some endings that have made that kind of impact on me, and I
hope you’ll take the cue and analyze some of your favorite endings right back
at me.

I must say up front that this whole post is full of spoilers, so if you don’t
want to know the endings before you see or read some of these stories, you’ve
been warned. 

me I think the number one technique to create a great ending is: 


to say, you say!    Yeah,
I know.

favorite movie of this year so far, maybe of the last five years,  SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, does a beautiful
and very simple thing in the third act that makes the movie much bigger in

story has set up that the “slumdog” 
(boy from the Mumbai slums) hero, Salim, is on a quiz show that is the
most popular show in all of India: 
“Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”.   In several scenes the characters talk about the show
briefly – that it represents the dream of every Indian:  escape.   As the story moves into the third act, Salim has
advanced on the show to a half-million rupee pot – larger than anyone has ever
won on the show, and the film shows shots of crowds of people watching the show
in the streets – the whole country has become involved in Salim’s story.   More than that – Salim’s story
has become the story of every Indian – of India herself.   This is made very poignantly
clear when Salim and his handlers are fighting through the crowd to get to the
studio for the final round and an old Indian woman grabs his arm and says “Do
it for all of us.  Win it all.”

is one of those archetypal moments that has amazing impact because it is played
perfectly.   In this moment
the woman is like a fairy godmother, or a deva spirit:  in every culture elderly women and men
are magically capable of bestowing blessings (and curses!).    That’s a bit of luck that
we trust, in that moment.   The
gods are on Salim’s side.  It also
blatantly tells us that Salim is doing this for all of India, for all the
Indian people.   You know how
I keep saying that you should not be afraid to SPELL THINGS OUT?   This is a terrific example of how
spelling things out can make your theme universal.

really very simply, the author, screenwriter and director have used some crowd
shots, a few lines of dialogue about the popularity of the quiz show, and one
very very short scene in the middle of a crowd to bring enormous thematic
meaning to the third act.   It
would certainly not have the impact it does if the whole rest of the film
weren’t as stellar as it is (have you seen it yet?   Why not????) – but still, these are very calculated
manipulative moments to create an effect – that works brilliantly.

are many, many techniques at work here in that film’s ending:

your main character Everyman. 


giving your main character a blessing from the gods in the form of a fairy tale


expanding the stage of the story – those crowd shots, seeing that people are
watching the show all over the country.


spelling out the thematic point you are trying to make!   (and this usually comes from a
minor character, if you start to notice this.)

film is also a particularly good example of using stakes and suspense in the
third act.  (At this point it would
be good to reread the post on
, since
all of those techniques are doubly applicable to third acts). 

stakes have become excruciating by this point in the story – not only is Salim
in an all-or nothing situation as far as the quiz show money is concerned, but
he feels appearing on the quiz show is the only way to find his true love
again.   (But I still think
the biggest stake is the need to win this one for the Indian people).  And there’s the suspense of will he win
or will he lose, and will his love escape her Mafioso sugardaddy (sorry, I was
not a fan of this subplot).  
And the suspense of “Will she get to the phone in time…” 

movie is also a good example of bringing all the subplots to a climax at the
same time to create an explosive ending: 
the quiz show, the brother deciding to be a good guy in the end, the
escape of the lover…

ending also uses a technique to create a real high of exhilaration:  it ends with a musical number that lets
you float out of the theater in sheer joy.    I can’t exactly describe an equivalent to a
rousing musical number that you can put on the page in a novel, but the point
is, a good story will throw every trick in the book at the reader or audience
to create an EMOTIONAL effect. 


is something you must set up from the beginning, as we discussed in Elements of Act One

I will say up front – a huge character arc is NOT necessary for a great
story.   In SLUMDOG
MILLIONAIRE, Salim’s character doesn’t really change.   He is innocent, joyful, irrepressible, relentless, and
pure of heart in the beginning of the story, as a little boy, and he is
essentially the same lovely person as a man.   That’s why we love him.   He is constant and true.   

most stories show a character who is in deep emotional trouble at the beginning
of the story, and the entire story is about the hero/ine recognizing that
s/he’s in trouble and having the courage to change:  from coward to hero, from unloving to generous.

you start to watch for this, you’ll see that generally the big character change
hinges on the difference between the hero/ine’s INNER and OUTER DESIRE, as we
talked about in 

Elements of Act One

very often the hero/ine’s big character change is realizing her outer desire is
not important at all, and might even be the thing that has been holding her
back in life, and she gives that up to pursue her inner desire, or true need. 

me personally it’s a very satisfying thing to see a selfish character change
throughout the course of the story until at the climax s/he performs a heroic
and unselfish act.   The great
example of all time, of course, is CASABLANCA, in which Rick who “sticks his
neck out for no one” takes a huge risk and gives up his own true love for the
greater cause of winning the war.  
Same effect when mercenary loner Han Solo comes back to help Luke
Skywalker in the final battle of STAR WARS. 

is another classic example – the events of the story take him believably from
miser to great benefactor – who “kept Christmas in his heart every day.” 

said it before, but I also thought it was a beautiful and believable character
change when Zack Mayo in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN – gives up his chance at
being first in his class to help his classmate complete the obstacle course,
thus turning into a real officer before our eyes. 

sense of big contrast and big change makes for a dramatic and emotionally
satisfying ending.

course, you may not be writing a happy ending, and the dramatic change may be
for the worse.  That can be just as
powerful.   In the end of THE
GODFATHER  Michael Corleone ends up
powerful, but damned – he has become his father – which even his own father
didn’t want to happen.  
Michael goes from the least likely of the family to take over the
business – to the anointed heir to his father’s kingdom.   It’s a terrible tragedy from a
moral point of view – and yet there’s a sense of inevitability about all of it
that makes it perversely satisfying – because Michael is the smartest son, the
fairy tale archetype of the youngest and weakest third brother, the one whom we
identify with and want to succeed… it’s just that this particular success is

dark example:   PAN’S
LABYRINTH had one of the most powerful endings I’ve experienced in a long
time.   It is very dark – very
true to the reality of this anti-war story.   The heroine wins – she completes her tasks and saves
her baby brother with an heroic act – but she sacrifices her own life to do
it.   In the last moments we
see her in her fantasy world, being welcomed back as a princess by her dead
mother and father, as king and queen, and see the underworld kingdom restored
to glory by the spilling of her blood (rather than the spilling of her
brother’s blood).   But then
we cut back to reality – and she’s dead, killed by her evil stepfather.   The film delivers its anti-war
message effectively precisely because the girl dies, which is realistic in
context, but we also feel that the death did tip the balance of good and evil
toward the good, in that moment.  
It’s a satisfying ending in its truth and beauty – much more so than a
happy ending would be.

can be used very effectively to deepen the effect of your ending.  

I’ve said before, in great stories like THE WIZARD OF OZ, and PHILADELPHIA
STORY, every subplot character has his or her own resolution, which gives those
endings broader scope. 

of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – one of the very few thrillers out there that creates
a victim we truly care for and don’t want to die.   In a very few strokes, Harris in the book, and Demme
and Tally and actress Brooke Smith in the film, create a ballsy, feisty fighter
who is engineering her own escape even at the bottom of a killing pit.   In a two-second shot, a few
sentences on a page, Catherine’s loving relationship with her cat is set up
before she is kidnapped.  
Then on the brink of a horrible death, Catherine uses that facility with
animals to capture “Precious”, the killer’s little dog, to buy her escape (thus
driving the killer into a bigger frenzy).   It’s a breathtaking line of suspense, because we know
how unwilling Catherine is to hurt that little dog, which has become a
character in its own right.  
(Lesson – infuse EVERY character, EVERY moment, with all the life you
can cram into it).   And of
course the payoff makes Catherine’s survival even more sweet – she won’t let
anyone take the dog away from her when she is being taken to the hospital.

of course I’ve already gone into this, but the intricacy of detail about the
killer’s lair, and the fairy tale resonance of this evil troll keeping a girl
in a pit, give that third act a lot of its primal power.

know, I know, a lot of dark examples.   

Okay, here’s a lighter one, one of the happiest and
most satisfying endings in an adventure/comedy:  BACK TO THE FUTURE.   This is a great example of how careful PLANTS can pay
off big when you pay them off in the end.   In the beginning we see high school student Marty
McFly in a life that, well, sucks.  
His family lives in a run-down house, his sweet but cowering father
won’t stand up to the bully he works for, the parents’ marriage is faltering.    Marty is transported back
to the past by mistake, and is confronted with a fantastic twist on the classic
time-travel dilemma:  he is
influencing his future (present) with every move he makes in the past – and not
for the better.   In fact,
since his high-school age mother has fallen in love with him, he’s in danger of
never existing at all, and must get his mother together with his father.   Brilliant.

Marty wants to do is get his parents back together and then get back to the
future before he does too much damage.   Mission accomplished, he returns… to find that every
move he made in the past DID influence his future – and much for the
better.   The house he returns
to is huge and gorgeous, his parents are hip and happy, and the bully works for
his father.   It’s a
wonderfully exhilarating ending, surprising and delightful – and it works
because every single moment was set up in the beginning.

ending owes a lot to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and GROUNDHOG DAY  (which itself owes a lot to IAWL).   All three are terrific examples
of how you can use the external environment of the main character to illustrate
character change and make your theme resonate in the third act and for years to

give a completely different example – suppose you’re writing a farce.  I would never dare, myself, but if I
did, I would go straight to FAWLTY TOWERS to figure out how to do it (and if
you haven’t seen this brilliant TV series of John Cleese’s, I envy you the treat
you’re in for).    Every
story in this series shows the quintessentially British Basil Fawlty go from
rigid control to total breakdown of order.    It is the vast chasm between Basil’s idea of
what his life should be and the reality that he creates for himself over and
over again that will have you screaming with laughter. 

very technical lesson to take from FAWLTY TOWERS – and from any screwball
comedy – is SPEED IN CLIMAX.  
Just as in other forms of climax, the action speeds up in the end, to
create that exhilaration of being out of control – which is the sensation I
most love about a great comedy.   

The most basic and obvious technique of speeding up your third act is – make it shorter than the other acts.   Really.  Write fewer pages. It seems faster because it IS faster.  

Another technique is cross-cutting between subplots or lines of action.   We very often see the hero/ine and allies split up in the third act and approach the site of the final battle from different directions.  That creates an opportunity to cut away from one plot at a cliffhanger moment, and go to another set of characters, leaving the reader/audience paralyzed with suspense over the dilemma of the first set of characters, and then even more agonized as you cut away from the second plot and characters, and so on through all the subplots as they converge.   

TICKING CLOCK is often used to speed up the action, especially in thrillers –
in ALIEN there’s a literal countdown over the intercom as Ripley races to get
to the shuttle before the whole ship explodes.   But I’ll warn again that the ticking clock is also
dangerous to use because it has been done so badly so many times, especially in
romantic comedies where the storytellers far too often impose an artificial
clock (“I have to get to the airport before she leaves!   Oh no….TRAFFIC!   I must get out of the taxi and
unfortunately succumbed to that cliché and I swear it nearly ruined that
otherwise perfect film for me.

just like with all of these techniques I’m talking about – the first step is
just to notice when an ending of a book or film really works for you.   Enjoy it without thinking the
first time… but then go back and figure out how and why it worked.   Take things apart… and the act of
analyzing will help you build a toolbox that you’ll start to use to powerful
effect in your own writing.

examples for me today?    Or is everyone caught up in holiday
traffic?  I mean, shopping?   Remember – this year, give books!


Note:  Typepad seems to be acting up – I've had trouble both posting and commenting in the last few days, and getting weird cabbagy error messages.   So please, if you're commenting, copy your post before hitting post in case of gremlins.  I know how we all hate losing posts to the ether.


Previous articles on story

What's Your Premise?

Story Structure 101 – The Index Card Method 

Screenwriting – The Craft

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Creating Suspense

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

What Makes a Great Climax? 

Fairy Tale Structure and the List

29 thoughts on “Elements of Act Three (part 3): Elevate Your Ending

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    Great post here Alex. And I love the examples, particularly BACK TO THE FUTURE and FAWLTY TOWERS. Oh, and speaking of British TV, there’s another great series called BLACK BOOKS. Think FAWLTY x 2 set in a small book shop in London. Here’s the link if you want to check it out. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIvnz73Zsws).

    Let’s see, endings. One ending that always (and still does) get to me: Near the end of SCROOGED, Bill Murray is giving this great talk about the Christmas Spirit to a TV audience, but that’s not what hit. When he finishes, a little boy, who is the son of the secretary he fired at the beginning of the movie, comes up and says Tiny Tim’s famous line. But I think what gives it that impact is that earlier in the movie, Calvin (said little boy) has not spoken since his father was killed.

    By the way, I absolutely loved SLUMDOG. Probably one of the best films I’ve seen in a very long time.

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Great post, as always! Among my favourite movie endings are THE USUAL SUSPECTS, when the identity of Keyser Soze is revealed, bit by bit.

    And LAYER CAKE, just when you think Daniel Craig’s unnamed drug dealer is actually going to get away with it, the danger comes straight out of left field, but when you go back and look, the build up to it is entirely logical.

    And, of course, CARRIE. Still makes me jump, that one.

  3. Samantha Preston

    Wow, Alex. You really do take the time to analyze a lot of movies. Until I started reading all your writing posts, I just blissfully read or watched things. Now I start to analyze, not to death mind you, and it has given me a greater understanding of story. Thank you for that.

    One ending I really liked was the end of 13 going on 30 (Okay, I can be SUCH a girl big sometimes 🙂 ). When I really thought about it though, it was a little bit similar in plot to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and A CHRISTMAS CAROL. In the movie a 13 year old Jenna makes a wish at a birthday party that she wants to be older.

    The next morning, she wakes up and is 30. At first she seems to be living the perfect life. Throughout the movie though, she learns that she is not really that nice of a person.

    That changes when she runs into a guy who was kind of nerdy when they were kids (but of course they were friends). One of Jenna’s big regrets occurs when she asks Matty (the formerly kid) tells her why their friendship fell apart. Apparently, Jenna had been rather mean to him so she could be in the in crowd at school.

    Long story short, she gets a second chance as a kid again to be nice to Matty and the movie closes off nicely with the marriage of the grown up Jenna and Matty.

    Oh and I also want to thank you for those kind words on your other blog for my friend. It meant a lot to me.

  4. Cornelia Read

    Magnificent post, Alex, and much food for thought again on my own current third draft. I love the third acts of KING OF HEARTS and A THOUSAND CLOWNS–one protagonist taking off all his clothes so he can join the asylum inmates he’s grown to love and give up the rat race during WWI, and one protagonist giving up his iconoclastic and witty bohemian life to join the rat race so he can keep his child. Both incredibly moving.

  5. pari

    Alex,I’ve printed this out so that I can read it after this weekend. The next two weeks are a parent’s nightmare . . . well, sort of: rehearsals, drama performances, childrens’ recitals/concerts, a birthday etc etc. We need three parents to get everyone where they’re supposed to be.

    Ah, the holidays.

    I love movies where there are all of these incredible disparate parts but somehow the ending ties them up effectively. Right now, I’m thinking again about HOLES. It really does this well. You’re watching the various story lines and wondering how on earth they can come together . . . and, gratifyingly, they do.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sam, I really need to get around to 13 going on 30 – I love that kind of fantasy and I could use another film like that to build my list of examples. Thanks!

    Z, my SO loved LAYER CAKE and I know exactly where it is on the shelf! Now I’ll definitely watch it. CARRIE is one of my favorites ever. Actually might go for that one first.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sam, I really need to get around to 13 GOING ON 30 – I love that kind of fantasy and I could use another film like that to build my list of examples. Thanks!

    Z, my SO loved LAYER CAKE and I know exactly where it is on the shelf! Now I’ll definitely watch it. CARRIE is one of my favorites ever. Actually might go for that one first.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sam, I really need to get around to 13 GOING ON 30 – I love that kind of fantasy and I could use another film like that to build my list of examples. Thanks!

    Z, my SO loved LAYER CAKE and I know exactly where it is on the shelf! Now I’ll definitely watch it. CARRIE is one of my favorites ever. Actually might go for that one first.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Ah, Cornelia, KING OF HEARTS. What a fabulous film! And I remember loving THOUSAND CLOWNS but I haven’t read it for ages. Will have to revisit.

    I’m loving these examples!!

    And Pari, I will get HOLES.

    I envy you your recitals! I’m looking forward to seeing Michael’s niece’s dance recital.

  10. R.J. Mangahas

    Alex, perhaps I misspoke. I just said FAWLTY TOWERS x 2 as a VERY rough idea of BLACK BOOKS. FAWLTY still holds a very special place for me (All hail Basil Fawlty!) That and I haven’t seen all of BLACK BOOKS yet.

    Oh and just in case you haven’t seen this sketch before, I thought I’d send it along. After watching it I wonder if ALL editor/author relationships have been through something like it. ;)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zo1XFz0kac0

  11. Catherine

    Alex, off the top of my head a particular ending doesn’t jump to mind as working for me. This may in part be due to the extremely hot humid Queensland weather.Maybe after a swim my brain may spit some stellar ending out.

    I do, however, remember that the last act of that Tana French book, (I mentioned in regard to your last post) …’The Likeness’ … used the ticking clock to build tension.To me this worked so effectively that I feel it masked the almost equal lengths of each three acts. I really want to go back and really dissect that book now to see if I can find the rhythm of the reveals.Post swim perhaps.

  12. joylene

    You’re right, Alexandra. Every bad ending I can think of happened in a bad movie. Two films I enjoyed very much but felt upset by the endings (initially) were:

    WITNESS with Harrison Ford because the romantic in me wanted him to stay with Kelly McGillis’s character. In retrospect it’s clear that he couldn’t; they were from totally different cultures.

    3:10 TO YUMA’s ending was also a shocker until I realized it had to end that way. Dan Evans (Bale) wanted very much to be a hero to his boys, and the fact he’d lost his leg as a prisoner, not fighting haunted him. Dying in the end served two purposes: he was immortalized as the hero he’d always wanted to be, and Ben Wade’s (Crowe) reaction to his death honoured Evans the man and illustrated that even outlaws have honour. He kills one of his own in retaliation for killing Wade.

    I’m currently editing a ms that disturbed me because it doesn’t end traditionally. Now I’m thinking my original ending works because it’s logic and thus satisfying.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    RJ, I have seen that editor video and it’s funny, but to me that’s the screenwriter/executive relationship in Hollywood and has nothing to do with publishing. I’ve never gotten anything but smart, sensible and helpful comments from either of my editors.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    RJ, I have seen that editor video and it’s funny, but to me that’s the screenwriter/executive relationship in Hollywood and has nothing to do with publishing. I’ve never gotten anything but smart, sensible and helpful comments from either of my editors.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    RJ, I have seen that editor video and it’s funny, but to me that’s the screenwriter/executive relationship in Hollywood and has nothing to do with publishing. I’ve never gotten anything but smart, sensible and helpful comments from either of my editors.

  16. Allison Brennan

    Another great post, Alex. It’s funny you should mention the third act should be fast, shorter, etc. My editor ALWAYS tells me I need to expand my endings. Because by the time I get to the third act, I’m writing faster (literally) as I have finally figured out how everything is coming together, and my sentences are shorter, there’s less introspection, it’s mostly action . . . and my editor (who is brilliant, BTW) always tells me to draw it out, the reader has invested a lot of time to reach this point, don’t rush it. Maybe I’m rushing TOO much. Hmm.

    I think my favorite technique, and I’m sure there’s a name for it that I don’t know, is the false ending. Where you think it’s over, then a guy comes at you with an axe. 🙂 I’ve done it a couple times, but try not to do it all the time so my readers don’t know what to expect. Like killing off characters–I killed a major secondary character in THE PREY, and I had so many people write to me that they feared for Nick Thomas (a similar character in THE HUNT) and were relieved he survived.

    I hate the forced traffic thing, too. I faced that in one of my books, but instead of having my hero stuck in traffic, I moved the villain’s house further away from where the hero needed to go. 🙂

    There are two romantic comedies that I love and use as examples when I talk about applying the hero’s journey to romance: FRENCH KISS and WORKING GIRL. In FK the ending works because the build up is there in so many ways–her need for security, her “nest egg”, her longing for home, family, hearth . . . even though she’s an ex-patriot who hasn’t officially gotten her Canadian citizenship. She loses everything–her country, her identity, her money–and in the end make a sacrifice that shows how much she grew and the 180 she did. Then, in the FINAL end, she does get everything she wanted — home, family, roots. (And I love the imagery of Kevin Kline with the vine and how he nutures those roots, even though he is “rootless.”) To me, it’s the perfect romantic comedy.


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