You’re sitting in the car, or walking in the park, or cooking dinner, when suddenly it strikes you – the idea! You race to your computer and hastily type out three or four pages of action, ideas coming to you faster than you can type. You reach the fourth or fifth page, and start to slow. That’s a great start, you think to yourself. I’ll come back to that tomorrow. Perhaps you do. You write another couple of pages. New ideas come to you, in dribs and drabs, you add them in, but they’re starting to peter out now. And now you have a problem. How do you end it? Some writers even get as far as the end of the second act or halfway through the third, only to get completely stuck or write themselves into a corner they can’t find their way out of.
Admittedly, a few writers, such as Stephen King (On Writing, 1999), do operate like this, where a simple idea and a few sentences (or as King puts it, “a bunch of characters and a situation”) grow into a full story over the writing process. A few writers. But more often or not, you’ll find yourself with a manuscript you’re unable to find an ending for, or a meandering narrative that often receives the note, “It doesn’t really go anywhere.”
‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ TS Eliot
In storytelling, the ending is the beginning. We want to follow a protagonist through a series of obstacles, triumphs and character growth, until they end up in the exact place they need to be, both physically and emotionally. The ending becomes a poignant commentary on your hero’s journey through the film. And it needs to be “surprising but inevitable” – that sense of ‘A-ha! And of course, it had to be like this.’ Not to mention the importance of paying off plot twists!
Example: Get Out (2017)
(Just so you know, the following is going to contain spoilers for the twist in Get Out.)
Jordan Peele’s Get Out follows African American protagonist Chris as he meets his Caucasian girlfriend’s family for the first time. What starts as an uncomfortable encounter escalates into something much more sinister. At the conclusion of the film’s second act, Chris discovers (here comes the twist) that the town’s white citizens have been kidnapping African Americans and selling them as surrogate bodies.
Peele clearly knew he was heading to this twist when he was writing, and because he knew where he was going, he was able to leave plenty of clues along the way. Small lines of dialogue such as “We like to keep a little piece of Grandma in the kitchen”, said as they meet the house’s maid (Grandma) in her new body. A deer killed on the road, which Chris feels a connection to, pays off in the third act when Chris uses a pair of deer antlers as a weapon in his escape.
You don’t need to know, scene for scene, beat by beat exactly where you’re going as you write your screenplay. And even if you do have a tight plan, you uncover so much in the writing process that you most likely won’t follow that outline to the letter anyway. However, having some form of outline, and knowing where you’re going to end up, will keep you on track all the way to THE END, and help you avoid having to throw in a deus ex machina to wind it up, or worse, abandon an unfinished screenplay. That said, some writers – mostly very seasoned writers, i.e. those with a firm grip on structure and a full writer’s toolkit at their disposal – are inspired by not knowing what the end is until they get there.