During the course of trying to beef up a screenplay, I went looking for information on structure; specifically, what goes into a good beginning and ending.
My search led me to this video in which Michael Arndt discusses the process of crafting the beginning of Toy Story 3. For those of you who don’t know Michael Arndt is a heavyweight. He won an Academy Award for his first produced screenplay, Little Miss Sunshine, and followed it up with Toy Story 3 (numerous award nominations for best adapted screenplay or similar including an Academy Award). He also has a writing credit on a small indie film titled Star Wars: The Force Awakens. One way he reached such heights is by studying other films, uncovering what structural elements make them work or not work.
So I was covered for beginnings, but comprehensive notes of Arndt’s famed lecture: Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great, could not be found by Google the great and powerful. Slug the Lines and J Almon Polk have done us scribblers a great service by distilling the information presented by Arndt. I encourage you to read both posts.
To sum up, an insanely great ending (i.e., one that is positive, surprising, and elicits an emotional response) is predicated on a decisive act that occurs just as the hero’s cause seems hopeless and his/her internal, external, and philosophical stakes have all failed. The outcome of the decisive act resolves all of the hero’s stakes nearly simultaneously and should resonate with the viewer.
But for me to be able to apply this knowledge to my own work, I felt I needed to do my own analysis of movies that elicited a visceral reaction. I wanted to take movies that, even on my 37th viewing, give me the warm fuzzies. It will shock no one who knows me, that the first movie I chose to analyze is A New Hope.
Just before the decisive act, the Empire is about to destroy the Rebellion using the Death Star. The rebellion’s only hope is Luke Skywalker (Red 5) in his X-Wing star fighter who must make an incredibly difficult shot while being pursued by TIE fighters. As he begins to use his targeting computer, he hears the ethereal voice of his recently killed mystic mentor telling him to embrace the Force and forego the targeting computer.
Just so we’re all on the same page, external stakes are the protagonist’s main problem and generally drive the movie forward. Depending on the genre, this is quite often a matter of life and death (e.g. any action movie, ever made). It should be something achievable and someone or something over which you don’t have direct control. This is the logline stakes “A [defining trait of hero] must [verb describing hero’s quest] in order to [stakes]”.
In A New Hope, Luke’s external stakes are to stop the Empire from Destroying the Rebellion.
The protagonist’s internal struggle, usually related to the one glaring character flaw the hero will have to overcome in order to deal with the external stakes. Often this is resolved through the character’s emotional growth, subtextual embracement of a belief (e.g., Neo casting aside his self-doubt and believing that he is the Chosen One1), or the realization of an apparent truth (e.g., Joy realizing that Riley needs sadness to be a complete person in Inside Out).
Luke’s internal struggle involves learning to embrace the Force so that he can achieve greatness.
Typically, these are the conflicting values held by the protagonist and antagonist. I never thought I would have use for my business ethics course, until I started trying to identify these values. Philosophy Basics has a great summary of ethics that identifies these values, but they can easily be replaced by simpler versions like David vs. Goliath or good vs. evil. In the action/adventure genre this is usually more of a black and white debate between good and evil (e.g., the Nazis vs. a good ole’, democratic, God-fearing, swashbuckling archaeologist in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark). For rom-coms it is about opening yourself up or following your heart versus not taking risks or conforming to rules.
A New Hope is about good vs. evil. Luke aligns himself with the altruistic Rebellion, hoping to bring a better life to everyone in the galaxy no matter the personal cost. His enemy, Darth Vader, aligns with the personal egoist (i.e., greedy) Empire, caring more about preserving it’s autocratic might than it does about literally a whole world of folks2. At the center of this argument is everybody’s favourite smuggler, Han Solo, who chooses to take his reward and skedaddle to a planet less likely to be exploded when he knows he is needed in this fight, even if it isn’t his3.
There is also a David vs. Goliath angle given the destructive capability and sheer size of the Death Star and the two squadrons of star fighters the Rebels had to defend itself4.
The Death Star is in firing range, Luke’s mentor has been murdered by the same man who murdered his Luke’s father5, and evil is going to win out. That is when Luke chooses to turn off the targeting computer and put his trust in the Force and himself.
He is about to be blown away by Darth Vader when in comes Han6, whooping it up in the Millenium Falcon, joining the cause and clearing the way for Luke. In one fell swoop all of the stakes are reversed, and in less than 90 seconds.
C’mon, do you even have to ask? There’s a reason this movie features so prominently in Arndt’s endings lecture and why it never fails to give me the warm fuzzies. The ending of A New Hope causes a visceral reaction and stands up to the scrutiny of this movie nerd.
Verdict: Insanely Great
Next up: Unbreakable
- Ok, this wasn’t subtext, Morpheus actually said it ↩
- Single tear for the poor, departed Alderaanians. ↩
- Backstory for Han, in the old cannon anyway, he was formerly an Imperial officer who was drummed out for stopping a superior from whipping Chewie, who as a wookie was part of the Empire’s slave labour force. So he wasn’t neutral in this, he hated the Empire. ↩
- Strap in. This is going to be a long one: did the Empire not have any military strategists? They couldn’t have brought a few Star Destroyers with them or sent out a swarm of Tie Fighters instead of a dozen? I don’t even know if the rebels had the capability to evacuate like they did on Hoth so why were they in such a hurry? Maybe they were trying to save on gas, moving something with the equivalent mass of a small moon would cost you at the pump. And such overkill. This was a small base built inside of ruins with the only visible ground defense being a guy standing inside a non-shielded crow’s nest. I know they were trying to send a message to the galaxy, but they’d already done so with Alderaan. Send in a Star Destroyer to pound them from orbit and then a legion of Stormtroopers to mop up. Also, if Leia knew their escape was too easy why the hell didn’t she get Han to stop the Falcon and scan for tracking devices. ↩
- From a certain point of view. ↩
- Goddamned Han Solo, circling back for a friend. This may not have worked out so well for him in his old age, but on this day he became a legend. ↩