SPOILERS: Witness, Sideways, Speed, The Ice Storm, Die Hard, Alien, Se7en.
There are a lot of scripts out there, but then we know that. I don’t see every single script that does the rounds of course, but I do see an awful lot of them each year – and it’s always surprising how many times one script reader might mention a title of a script they liked or remember and another chimes in, “I’ve read that!” Then of course we recommend or refer clients to one another, so it’s not really surprising we often get to see the same work, albeit sometimes in different drafts.
What a non script reader might not realise is how many of those scripts have downbeat endings or are just downbeat in general. Now, I’ve nothing against the depressing and downbeat; I’ve written scripts like that myself. And sometimes the type of story you are writing lends itself to it. It’s difficult to write, say, a cautionary tale if it “all comes good in the end” for example (though as with everything, not impossible).
Yet so often a script not only could go either way, it would actually be a more satisifying end to events had the ending been positive rather than negative. I’m not saying that each script should have the kind of “happy ever after” we allot to childhood fairy tales either (though occasionally that would be nice, particularly in many of the Rom Coms I read where everyone breaks up and sometimes even dies).
What I would like to see more often is what I call “positive conflict” that leads to a “more positive” rather than “entirely negative” ending. Is conflict an entirely negative act? I don’t think so, from these varying definitions I’ve just rounded up on the ‘net:
When the desires of two or more characters are opposed to each other.
Disagreement or opposition; as of interests or ideas of characters in a play or story, when these disagreements reach their maximum tension.
The struggle within the plot between opposing forces. The protagonist engages in the conflict with the antagonist, which may take the form of a character, society, nature, or an aspect of the protagonist’s personality.
The struggle between opposing forces–eg, CHARACTERS, nations or ideas–that provides the central ACTION and interest in any literary PLOT. The struggle between the Capulet and Montague families in Romeo and Juliet is a classic example of conflict.
Of course, Romeo and Juliet may well be one of the major culprits for the downbeat ending: both teen lovers die and their families are devastated. Similarly, King Lear ends up in a similar state, losing his precious Cordelia, his kingdom and his sanity, not to mention a whole host of other protagonists in Shakespeare’s back catalogue of tragedies. But that was then; this is now. Do we actually want to watch tragedy? On the stage, maybe – and certainly at The Globe. But in film or TV? I’m unconvinced.
Just because bad things happen in film or TV does not mean your protagonist needs to be downbeat – and the ending needn’t depress us, even if there is no “way back” to where their lives once were. Characters can change because of bad experiences – and unlike real life where they would need counselling forever for many action adventures, thrillers and horrors, they can have a new appreciation for life instead, like Sandra Bullock’s character in Speed. Just because a character must go through obstacle after obstacle does not mean their spirit will be crushed.
Consider John Book in one of my favourite thrillers Witness; he’s a character and a half and some serious shit is thrown at him. His entire way of life is turned upside down, he must fight for the greater good and protect the innocent, particularly the child; he must live as a fish out of water in the Amish community, he’s betrayed by his trusted colleagues, he’s even shot by one and almost dies. Yet despite all this he keeps going – not in a passive way, not in an even “I suppose I better, I can’t let the bastards win” way, but with good humour and resolve. In short, he is a true hero I think.
Obstacles need to be “bad” because a protagonist needs to overcome them – but the reason I put “bad” in brackets is because it depends on your genre and the type of story you’re telling on how bad, “bad” gets. If it’s a Rom Com, chances are your hero isn’t going to literally die if they get jilted at the altar; for the thriller or horror characters however their fictional lives are on the line a lot of the time. However, just because life sucks or lives are at stake does not mean your character needs to be depressed about it. Sideways ends with Mile’s hope for the future with Maya, even though he managed to thoroughly alienate her with his saracasm and insecurity. Mikey might die tragically in The Ice Storm, but his death is what finally brings the feuding families together. Consider John McLane’s quips in the face of his own mortality in the Die Hard franchise. Ripley wasn’t going to die, thank you very much; she was going to figure out how to survive – and take as many as she can with her, even if that only amounts to the ship’s cat.
Positive conflict brings out an active protagonist – and their own actions bring them hope and keep the audience interested. A passive protagonist, depressed about their predicament and the plot then going on to end badly is a little like listening to the irritating friend everyone seems to have at some point: they *know* they should do something about their dead end job, life or partner, but they would just rather moan to you about it. There’s only so much you can take before you snap tell them to do something.
So next time you’re tempted by a downbeat ending, think: does your story need it? some do, but a downbeat ending *can* be indicative of a general downbeat script and/or protagonist. Is that the most dramatic thing you can do with this story? Can you increase your positive conflict? Can you present that story another way, are you just feeling downbeat and want to reflect how you’re feeling about life? I don’t think it’s any accident that downbeat endings seemed to have increased with a perception via tabloids that life is more scary or difficult now, especially when it comes to this UK credit crunch. But films and TV are about escapism as well, they’re only a representation of reality, not reality itself.
Having said all that though, sometimes a downbeat ending has a major impact and employed for that very reason as it goes against that *expected* ending – usually “good will overcome”, though not always. The killer one for me has to be Se7en: Detective David Mills discovers his dead wife’s head in the box and ruins his career and life by killing John Doe for it, just as the psycho wants. All is lost! I recall watching that as a teen and just being amazed Mills goes through with it, I was sure right until the very last second he would put the gun down and say “You’re not worth it.”
What about you?