How to End a Movie
Meaningful endings are a result of orchestrating a compelling argument.
There are basically four different ways you can end a movie: Happy, Sad, Bittersweet Happy, and Bittersweet Sad. Afraid that might be a little reductive? Not when you realize that there are a zillion different ways of presenting these endings.
So how do you determine exactly what ending a story might have? It's really quite simple.
To determine the type of ending you have to figure out the answer to two questions. Do the good guys win? Does the Main Character go home happy? That's it.
We'll start out with Happy Endings, which we can also call Triumphs.
These are the kinds of movies that everyone thinks most stereotypical studio executives love. While I don't have any deep scientific research to prove why, I'm pretty sure it's because Happy Ending films have the biggest box office draws. The majority of people want to see a movie with a happy ending (Personally, I prefer something a little more complex, but we'll get to that in a different post).
The good guys win and the Main Character goes home happy. Plain and simple…
We start out with the super cheesy celebration of all things male, Top Gun. What does the clip above reveal? Well, if you look closely, you'll notice that the good guys are jumping up and down while they thrust their fingers in the air, proclaiming their victory over the Evil Empire. In the following scenes, Maverick (Tom Cruise) has finally resolved his personal issues concerning Goose and living under the shadow of his father. Tossing his buddy's dog tags into the ocean, he's now "free" to kick ass on his own terms.
The good guys have won and the Main Character heads back to Miramar happy--Top Gun is the very definition of the Happy Movie.
What about something a little more sophisticated?
As wonderfully complex as Amelie is, it still ends the same way as the missiles and chicks flick. This time though, the good guys are less a force to be reckoned with than a group of people who successfully overcome their own problems with the help of the title character. Of course, even Amelie herself can't avoid a happy ending as she scooters her way through the streets of Paris, hugging her new-found love.
Personally, the reason I love this clip so much is the way in which Jean-Pierre Jeunet visually reveals this kind of ending with the kinetic camera work, i.e. using the medium to describe the emotion. Awesome.
Lastly, we have the bawdy South Park movie. Satan is sent back to Hell, thus reverting the quaint Colorado town back to its idyllic roots. Stan, the main Main Character (the film actually has several main characters]) also has resolved his personal issues with Wendy...albeit, a bit messier than she probably would have liked!
Good guys win. Main Character goes home happy.
Three completely different films. All with the same structural ending.
Three Other Endings
In forthcoming articles we'll take a look at the other ways you can end a story. Hopefully the above clips serve to show that, even with the stifling notion of only four kinds of endings, there are a zillion different ways that you can incorporate those endings into your story.