If there is one note on a finished script that I fear more than any other, it’s this: “the ending is unearned.”
This was the note I got on my first spec feature, and it was a sin I managed to commit again with my second spec feature.
So, of late, I’ve been thinking a lot about earned vs. unearned endings and how to make an ending feel earned, so that I don’t make this mistake again. I have a couple of theories about what doesn’t work and what does.
But, first —
What is an unearned ending?
When a screenplay reader says the ending is unearned, they typically mean one of two related things:
- Either the victory the character achieved at the end was too easy, or
- The character changed or arced at the end of the story, but the reader didn’t buy it; that is, the reader didn’t see what would have led the character to change. The writer simply wrote the character as behaving differently at the end.
What this post is about is number two–the unearned character arc.
For example, with an unearned arc, if you have a character who is self-involved at the start of your story but then selfless at the end, the reader doesn’t really see what led to the change. They see that the writer has made the character selfless by the story’s end, but the reader doesn’t buy it.
Here is what I think doesn’t work when trying to credibly arc a character–and what my first two scripts involved: A mentor character points out the error in the protagonist’s ways, and the protagonist in the next scene begins acting differently.
In other words, the protagonist hears the wise advice, thinks to himself or herself, “Yeah, you’re right,” and then immediately starts living differently.
Now this could work in real life. A person could read a self-help book or get advice from a friend or therapist, recognize the error in their ways, and then start acting differently.
But the reason it doesn’t work in a movie is that it’s not dramatic. It’s too easy.
Imagine, for example, that It’s A Wonderful Life followed this undramatic pattern. Imagine that instead of George facing arrest and financial ruin and then experiencing the world without him, he instead in the second act finds himself complaining to Clarence the Angel that his life sucks.
George says, “I never got to travel. I never got to build anything, and now I’m stuck with four kids and a drafty old house.”
Clarence responds, “You know, George, you married the prettiest girl in town, your kids are adorable, and the life you’re living now is so much better than what you dreamed of as a kid.”
George then slaps Clarence’s knee and says, “You know, you’re right, Clarence. Thanks for pointing this out. I had forgotten how lucky I am.”
In the next scene, George goes home, expresses his gratitude to his wife and kids, declares he has a wonderful life, and then we roll the credits.
That’s how you ruin one of the most beloved movies of all time and give it an unearned ending.
Now, it’s true, of course, that in the actual movie, Clarence does tell George that he really had a wonderful life. But that is not the primary thing that changes George. The primary thing that changes George is . . .
The Gut Punch
One way to credibly change your character is to give him or her a gut punch or, as in the case of It’s A Wonderful Life, a series of gut punches.
Once George is not born, he experiences a series of escalating gut punches (that is, each worse than the last): 1. his hometown has been transformed into a seedy place, 2. his friends Bert and Ernie don’t know him, 3. his mom doesn’t know him, 4. his brother is dead, and, 5. worst of all, the woman who loves him, his wife, shrieks in terror when he tries to talk to her.
I may be leaving out one or two of the gut punches or have the order slightly wrong, but I’m certain the worst hit–his wife not knowing him–comes last.
It’s these visceral moments–more so than anything Clarence says–that lead George, when his old life is restored, to run through Bedford Falls with joy and return home to face jail, happy that he has his brother, kids, and wife.
These gut punches work because the audience experiences them emotionally right along with George. When Mary shrinks from his touch, we’re right there with George, feeling the shock, horror, and loss of that moment.
A friendly conversation with a wise mentor, on the other hand, is something both the character and audience experience intellectually. It engages the thinking brain. But going for the head, rather than the heart, makes for a movie that fails to move us.
What Successful Movies Reveal About Earned Character Arcs
To better understand the elements of an earned character arc, I looked at other movies with earned arcs and considered what made the arc feel earned.
Here’s the overall pattern I observed for most movies: the character suffers emotionally in some way, and that opens them up to seeing the truth.
This pattern jibes with real life. That is, it’s when we fail or suffer emotionally in some way that we often begin to question our ideas.
In the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, Mark Manson expresses this same idea: “In some cases experiencing emotional or psychological pain can be healthy or necessary. Just like stubbing our toe teaches us to walk into fewer tables, the emotional pain of rejection or failure teaches us how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.”
In movies, though, it’s not always failure that leads to sadness. Sometimes it’s victory that leaves the protagonist feeling defeated. That is, the character achieves their second-act goal, but the win leaves them feeling empty. They come to realize that the thing they wanted was completely wrong for them.
Of course, there are also movies in which it’s the failure to achieve the movie-level goal that leads to the emotional pain.
All of this reminds me of this great Oscar Wilde quote:
“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
Below I discuss both scenarios–characters who don’t get what they want and those that do–as well as a few other categories.
For each movie, I look at how the writers earn the protagonist’s arc, examining the transformative event that changes the character and why the arc feels earned.
I also break down the movies in general, identifying the most critical narrative events and the central dramatic argument.
The central dramatic argument or theme, as Brian McDonald observes, is meant to provide survival information about life–that is, to tell other humans how to live effectively. As you’ll see, all of the central dramatic arguments in the below examples do just that.
Movies in which the Protagonist Achieves His or Her Second-Act Goal
The protagonist’s arc: Carl Fredricksen goes from a widow who is fixated on the past and his lost wife to a man who is ready to move on with a new adventure.
The protagonist’s starting equilibrium: Carl is making the best of living in his house without his wife.
The event that pushes the protagonist out of equilibrium: A court-ordered move to a nursing home (which is not too different than Good Will Hunting, discussed later).
The second-act extraordinary journey in response to the destabilizing event: Carl and the accidental stowaway Russell fly in his house to Paradise Falls.
The protagonist’s second-act goal: Fly the house to Paradise Falls to honor his wife.
The transformative event: Despite finally making it to Paradise Falls, thereby achieving his movie-level goal, Carl is not happy. He’s just fought with Russell and shooed away the dog Dug. So, he goes inside the house and comes across his old photo album, in which he discovers new pages he’s never seen before, showing his life together with Ellie and her message at the end: “Thanks for the adventure — now go have a new one!”
Why the arc feels earned: We see that Carl is sad despite achieving his goal. He is, thus, open to change and guidance. And who is better to provide that guidance than his revered wife? We buy the change because we know Carl will listen to his wife under these circumstances.
The central dramatic argument: No matter what happens, you should keep seeking life’s next adventure.
The third-act test or choice in which the protagonist shows he has learned the theme/central dramatic argument: Carl immediately pursues the new adventure of rescuing Russell, Dug, and Kevin.
The protagonist’s arc: Tim goes from being an only child who doesn’t want a baby brother stealing his parents’ attention and affection to an older brother who can’t live without his baby brother.
The protagonist’s starting equilibrium: Tim loves his only-child relationship with his parents.
The event that pushes the protagonist out of equilibrium: The arrival of his baby brother.
The ironic second act (how the second act is both the worst thing that could happen to the protagonist as well as perfectly designed to change him): The second act is the worst thing that could happen to Tim because the boss baby steals his parents’ time and affection. But the second act is also perfectly designed to change Tim in that it provides Tim with a new relationship that he eventually comes to cherish.
The protagonist’s second act goal: Get rid of the boss baby and return to the way things were.
The transformative event: Tim achieves his goal: the boss baby goes back to corporate headquarters, and the baby corporation erases the memory of the baby from Tim’s parents’ minds. But we see a sequence of Tim being sad because his baby brother is now gone. And so he sends a memo to his brother, saying that he can have all of his parents’ love if he will just come back. (The scene also involves a great visual call-back to an early moment in the movie in which the boss baby compares the parents’ love to the little beads on the baby’s abacus.) You can see the sequence below:
Why the arc feels earned: Once again, we see sadness causing a protagonist to re-examine what he thought was best for him. Plus, we’ve observed Tim and the boss baby’s evolving relationship–from enemies to allies–over the course of the second act, so we believe that Tim would miss the baby.
The central dramatic argument: Having a sibling is worth it even if it means sharing your parents’ love with him or her.
The third-act test or choice in which the protagonist shows he has learned the theme/central dramatic argument: Tim demonstrates that he’s learned the theme by sending the memo and abacus beads to the boss baby. Unlike the climactic battle in Up, this is more a choice than a test because the climax has already come and gone in the movie, but the moment still works well.
A Movie in which the Protagonists Fail to Achieve Their Second-Act Goal
The protagonists’ arc: Molly and Amy are co-protagonists, although an argument could be made that Molly is the protagonist. Molly goes from being an overachiever who looks down on her peers to a more open, non-judgmental person. Amy goes from a somewhat meek person to a more confident individual.
The protagonists’ starting equilibrium: Molly is content in her superiority over her peers. Amy is content in her meekness.
The event that pushes the protagonists out of equilibrium: Molly’s discovery that the sexually active peers she dismisses as partiers are actually going to Ivy League schools just like she is. This event destabilizes her neat worldview that she has been rewarded for her hard work, while the partiers will struggle for the rest of their lives.
The second-act extraordinary and ironic journey in response to the destabilizing event: Two booksmart nerds seek out their first high school party.
The protagonists’ second-act goals: Molly and Amy’s goal is to get to Nick’s party on the night before they graduate from high school. But they each have individual goals related to that goal: Molly wants to hook up with Nick, and Amy wants to hook up with the girl Ryan.
The transformative event: Although Amy and Molly make it to Nick’s party, both characters fail to achieve their goal when their would-be conquests, Nick and Ryan, hook up with one another. Amy and Molly then get in a fight, which leads them to go their separate ways. While separated and upset, each of them has experiences that help them see things differently. Molly gets a ride from “Triple-A,” a girl she previously looked down upon, and the two bond. Meanwhile, Amy fools around with a girl.
Why the arc feels earned: We see directly how Molly’s conversation with “Triple-A” reshapes her thinking, and we buy that Molly is open to new ideas because we’ve just witnessed her suffering emotionally. As for Amy, we see her suffer emotionally and then, in that lost state, she tries something new by making a move on a girl. In both instances, the emotional suffering makes us buy that these characters are open to new ideas and actions.
The central dramatic argument: (I’ll admit the argument is not super clear to me, but the following seems reasonable.) Just because you’re booksmart doesn’t mean you should make negative assumptions about your peers.
The third-act test or choice in which the protagonist shows she has learned the theme/central dramatic argument: Molly delivers her valedictorian speech in which she is nice to the other graduates instead of acting superior.
Movies In Which the Protagonist Rejects, Prior to the Climax, What They Wanted from the Start
The protagonist’s arc: Grug goes from a character who only wants one thing for his family–a new cave to keep them safe–to a character who refuses to be afraid and live in a cave.
The protagonist’s starting equilibrium: Grug keeps his family safe with his rule of “never not be afraid” and living in a cave.
The event that pushes the protagonist out of equilibrium: Tectonic convulsions destroy the Croods’ cave and keep pushing them forward.
The ironic second act (how the second act is both the worst thing that could happen to the protagonist and perfectly designed to change him): What’s the worst thing that can happen to a man who wants to live in a cave and is afraid of new things? To lose the cave and continually have to encounter new things. How is this also perfectly designed to change him? Grug must be exposed to new things and new ideas to realize the limits of his starting belief.
The protagonist’s second act goal: To find a new cave and return to the way things were.
The transformative event: When Grug gets stuck in tar with Guy, the two have their first amicable conversation while contemplating their impending death. The tar pit is something that Grug can’t escape from through brute strength. Only an idea can save them. So, the tar pit forces Grug to accept that ideas are a good way to keep people safe. Shortly after this scene, the family finds a cave to hide in, but Grug refuses to hide in there; he rejects the very thing he’s been seeking the entire movie.
Why the arc feels earned: This is another case of a character being brought low–he’s stuck in tar and may die–and then accepting that a new approach is needed. The heart-to-heart between Grug and Guy about keeping families safe also makes us believe that Grug has changed. Plus, the second act is a continual attack on Grug’s ideas, which makes us buy that he would eventually change his thinking.
The central dramatic argument: Don’t let fear rule your every decision.
The third-act test or choice in which the protagonist shows he has learned the theme/central dramatic argument: Grug shows that he’s no longer afraid of ideas or strange creatures by both having an idea and enlisting the very creature he formerly feared, the tiger, to cross the chasm.
The protagonist’s arc: Joy goes from believing that Sadness has no value to realizing that Sadness plays an important, helpful role in Riley’s life.
The protagonist’s starting equilibrium: Joy is top dog in headquarters, leading the other emotions in keeping Riley happy and minimizing the influence of Sadness.
The event that pushes the protagonist out of equilibrium: Joy and Sadness are accidentally swept up the memory chute and find themselves stuck in long-term memory.
The ironic second act (how the second act is both the worst thing that could happen to the protagonist and perfectly designed to change her): What could be worse for Joy than to be stuck with Sadness, whom she finds annoying and problematic, as Riley’s personality and mood begin to fall apart? This pairing, though, will change Joy by forcing Joy to reconsider Sadness and Riley.
The protagonist’s second-act goal: Joy’s goal is to return to headquarters with the core memories and to stabilize Riley before her personality and mood further deteriorate.
The transformative event: While caught in the memory dump and facing death through being forgotten, Joy takes a closer look at a memory. Joy discovers that Sadness was the reason that Riley’s parents and her friends consoled her. As a result, Joy comes to realize the value of Sadness. This is an epiphany-type transformative event.
Why the arc feels earned: We experience with Joy the revelation of Sadness having value. We see directly how Sadness contributes to Riley’s life in a beneficial way.
The central dramatic argument: Sadness plays a valuable role in our lives.
The third-act test or choice in which the protagonist shows she has learned the theme/central dramatic argument: Joy is tested mightily in getting Sadness back to headquarters; Joy’s efforts show her new commitment to Sadness. Once there, Joy lets Sadness “drive” Riley to prevent Riley from running away. This choice too shows that Joy has embraced the theme.
(By the way, if you’re wondering why so many of my examples are animated features, that is because they are typically the gold standard of cinematic storytelling and story design. My recollection is that the hosts of Scriptnotes have made this very same observation, although I can’t remember in what episode they said this.)
But Can A Conversation Alone Ever Transform a Protagonist?
My earlier thesis was that a friendly conversation between two characters is not enough to credibly transform a character. And while I still think that is true, there are definitely movies in which a conversation does transform a character. The difference is that the conversation is emotional, such as the conversation between Grug and Guy in The Croods.
I can think of at least two other movies in which an emotional conversation transforms a protagonist:
Movies in which an Emotional Conversation Transforms the Protagonist
The protagonist’s arc: P.L. Travers goes from a woman who can’t let go of her beloved Mary Poppins or childhood trauma to a woman who is moving forward with a healthier relationship to the past.
The protagonist’s starting equilibrium: Travers is writing in her apartment and remembering her childhood as she writes.
The event that pushes the protagonist out of equilibrium: Travers’s manager arrives and convinces her to fly to Los Angeles and consider giving Disney the rights to Mary Poppins, arguing that Travers needs the money.
The ironic second act (how the second act is both the worst thing that could happen to the protagonist and perfectly designed to change/heal her): Travers hates Los Angeles and hates Disney’s sunny personality and openness. She resents the Disney spin on her beloved story and character. But this experience is also perfectly designed to heal Travers because Disney, despite his sunny personality, is in many ways just like Travers. Both have turned to art to deal with their childhood traumas.
The protagonist’s second-act goal: Walt Disney has the active goal here of getting Travers to sign the rights away to Mary Poppins. But Travers is the protagonist, and her goal is for things to simply stay the same and to retain the rights to Mary Poppins. Like Will in Good Will Hunting, Travers is not actively pursuing some external thing; instead, she is actively resisting change and growth.
The transformative event: After Travers flees Los Angeles, refusing to sign away Mary Poppins, Disney follows her on the next flight to London, where he has a conversation with Travers over tea. The conversation is a very emotional one, though, in which he shares some of his own painful childhood experiences and correctly guesses why Travers can’t let go of Mary Poppins. Her reluctance, Disney guesses, is connected to her childhood trauma. The conversation causes Travers to become emotional. Later, after he leaves, Travers signs the rights document.
Why the arc feels earned: Much like Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, Disney plays the role of therapist to Travers and heals her through an emotional conversation. We buy it because we hear Disney’s persuasive emotional argument, and we see how it affects Travers. We also buy it because the whole movie has been building to it, with Travers reliving her childhood through flashbacks and trying to process it.
The central dramatic argument: Use your imagination and art to help you process and move on from trauma.
The third-act test or choice in which the protagonist shows she has learned the theme/central dramatic argument: This movie may or may not involve such a test or choice. Travers, though, does attend the premiere, and this implies that she’s no longer stuck in her life.
(If you want to read more about my take on this movie, check out 5 Story Design Lessons in Saving Mr. Banks.)
The protagonist’s arc: Will goes from a man who wants to do demolition work and hang out with his friends for the rest of his life to a man who is ready to live his life to its fullest potential.
The protagonist’s starting equilibrium: Will spends his time working in demolition, carousing with his buddies, and proving challenging math theorems on Harvard blackboards at night.
The event that pushes the protagonist out of equilibrium: Acting out on his childhood trauma, Will severely beats a former bully and gets arrested. Despite Will’s creative legal arguments, the judge orders Will to do both therapy and complex math with a Harvard professor.
The ironic second act (how the second act is both the worst thing that could happen to the protagonist and perfectly designed to change/heal him): Will doesn’t want to change, and the second act involves various people pushing into his personal no-fly zones, challenging his ideas about work, love, and life. This is both the worst thing that could happen to someone with an avoidant attachment disorder and the only thing that will heal him.
The protagonist’s second-act goal: Like Travers, Will doesn’t have a goal other than for things to stay the same. He is active in his resistance to change. In these types of stories, the character is forced into circumstances in which other characters are acting upon the protagonist. Skylar is trying to love him, Sean (Robin Williams) is trying to heal him, and the math professor is trying to help Will use his gifts. All three characters are trying things that are against Will’s goal of everything staying the same. And Will is resisting all of them.
The transformative event: The transformative event is the climatic, emotional conversation between Sean and Will, in which Sean tells him that getting beaten by his father wasn’t his fault. You can see the scene below:
Why the arc feels earned: This is the first time we see Will crack in this way, so it’s believable that he’s now different.
The central dramatic argument: Don’t let childhood trauma prevent you from living your life to its fullest potential.
The third-act test or choice in which the protagonist shows he has learned the theme/central dramatic argument: Will chooses not to be home when Ben Affleck knocks (just as his friend had wanted), he tells Sean he’s going to see about a girl, and he drives off to California to be with Skylar, thereby showing he’s ready to live his life to his fullest potential.
A Movie That Follows Another Pattern
There’s one other movie worth discussing that doesn’t fit neatly into any of the previous categories because it involves an initial failure, a conversation with a mentor, and then victory.
The protagonist’s arc: Bruce Wayne goes from a man who has stopped living to someone who is out in the world and living a full life again.
The protagonist’s starting equilibrium: Having achieved peace in Gotham and reduced crime at the cost of the truth and a serious injury, Bruce Wayne spends his days as a recluse in his mansion, unable to move on from the death of Rachel.
The event that pushes the protagonist out of equilibrium: Both Selena Kyle’s theft of the pearls and the arrival of Bane in Gotham.
The ironic second act (how the second act is both the worst thing that could happen to the protagonist and perfectly designed to change/heal him): What’s the worst thing that can happen to Bruce? How about getting his back broken by Bane and then having to watch from a prison pit as Gotham falls? How is this also the very thing that will heal Bruce? He must suffer this defeat to learn from a prisoner that his problem isn’t that he is fearless. His problem is that he has lost the fear of death and the desire to live. Once he finds that again, he will be able to escape the prison and fight harder.
The protagonist’s second-act goal: Defeat Bane and save Gotham.
The transformative event: Bruce learns from a prisoner that the only former prisoner to escape was one who used the fear of death (and the desire to live) to help her make an impossible leap.
Why the arc feels earned: In some ways, this transformation is simply a mentor pointing out what the protagonist should do. But the conversation comes after a lot of suffering and failed climb attempts, so we buy that Bruce would be open to a new way of being.
The central dramatic argument: You need the fear of death to help you fully live life.
The third-act test or choice in which the protagonist shows he has learned the theme/central dramatic argument: Bruce faces several tests–including making the leap and defeating Bane–that demonstrate he now has regained his fear of death and the corresponding will to live. His final choices of bequeathing Batman to Robin and of traveling to Italy with Selena Kyle show that he is now fully back in the world and living again.
(If you want to read about how The Dark Knight Rises employs the question tool for plot, check out this post: How to Set Up and Pay Off a Mystery Subplot for Maximum Emotional Impact.)
The biggest principle we can infer from all of these movies is this: most characters become open to new ideas when they are experiencing emotional pain of some kind.
That emotional pain can come from defeat (Booksmart, The Dark Knight Rises), a victory that proves hollow (The Boss Baby and Up), escalating gut punches (It’s A Wonderful Life), facing death (Inside Out and The Croods), or from an emotional conversation in which one character confronts another about their pain (Saving Mr. Banks and Good Will Hunting).
Of course, each of these approaches can be combined. The Croods, for example, involves both facing death and an emotional conversation.
In short, if you want to credibly transform your character, you have to make them suffer.
Another principle we might infer from these examples is that, while the transformative event may be the exact moment a character changes, often everything in the movie has been chosen by the writer to set up and build toward that moment. So, the transformative event alone may not be enough to earn your ending, if the rest of the movie hasn’t set up and built toward that transformation.
The narrative elements I use to describe each movie are also good things to focus on and figure out before you write a script or novel. If you can determine those elements, you’ll have markers to aim toward in each section.
Those elements again are the following:
- The protagonist’s arc
- The protagonist’s starting equilibrium
- The event that pushes the protagonist out of equilibrium
- The ironic second act (how the second act is both the worst thing that could happen to the protagonist and perfectly designed to change/heal him or her)
- The protagonist’s second-act goal
- The transformative event
- The central dramatic argument
- The third-act test or choice in which the protagonist shows he or she has learned the theme/central dramatic argument
I’ll be adding to this list in future blog posts as I try to build a complete step-by-step process for quickly breaking/outlining a story and then coming up with a scene outline.
Of all the above elements, I recommend starting with the central dramatic argument because that one dictates all the other elements.
It’s also worth noting that all of the above movie examples involve protagonists who, at the start of the story, just want to be left alone and continue to live the way they’re living. A story event destabilizes their normal, and they then have to react, which leads to their second-act goal.
Establishing the normal routine for your character in an entertaining way is critical, which is why . . .
. . . my next post will look at the endangered, shrinking first act and why I believe the game of winning over the reader is often won or lost with your first act.
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One more point is worth noting: not all of the second acts in the above examples were the worst thing that could happen to the character. Neither Up nor Booksmart involved second acts that that were the worst thing that could happen to the character. But all second acts typically involve an extraordinary journey of some kind, whether that journey is the worst thing that could happen to the character or not.
I hope you liked this long post and found it helpful. Feel free to comment below, and if you enjoyed the post, please subscribe below or share the post.