Intro & disclaimer

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Nothing can be said nowadays which has not already been said. -- TERENCE "Eunuchs" There is no new thing under the sun. -- ECCLESIASTES 1:9

In Hollywood, it's pretty much agreed that there are no new stories, only new treatments, new ways to execute the old stories. And then you do the sequel, of course. That's all well and good -- but what are the old stories, anyway? In 1868, Georges Polti, after an extensive survey of literature, declared that there were no more than 36 dramatic situations. Here, he said, was the stuff of human drama. No matter the tale, for it to be dramatic, it would invariably involve one of these 36 situations.

This column is devoted to Polti's work. Provided is an abbreviation of his book, "The Thirty-six Dramatic Situations", which is highly recommended, if hard to find. The full manuscript lists various works representative of each situation, along with his insightful comments on each.

Here's a sample. You might want to keep RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in mind as you read this, Polti's entry on the Twelfth Situation, Obtaining:

Diplomacy and eloquence here come into play. An end is to be attained, an object to be gained. What interests may not be put at stake, what weighty arguments or influences removed, what intermediaries or disguises may be used to transform anger into benevolence, rancor into renouncement; to put the Despoiler in the place of the Despoiled? What mines may be sprung, what counter-mines discovered! What unexpected revolts of submissive instruments! This dialectic contest which arises between reason and passion, sometimes subtle and persuasive, sometimes forceful and violent, provides a fine situation, as natural as it is original.

There's only enough room here to list an outline of the work -- the chapter headings, basically, without the detailed explorations. But the outline is intriguing, and is provided as a source of inspiration, a tool to spark the imagination. (Where do writers get their ideas? Why, 19th century surveys of literature, of course!)

It can also be useful in clarifying your present work. The plot of one of our projects, SANDMAN, was taking shape slowly -- and the presentation was just days away. It was enormously helpful for us to consult this list and recognize we were doing #6B1, A Monarch Overthrown, combined with #23, Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones. It helped crystallize our thinking, and led to the plot we are now writing.

Polti's work also can be advantageous in story meetings. It's nice to have a structural precedent other than Joseph Campbell's well-known work. Executives are so focused these days on Campbell's "Hero's Journey" structure, they tend to impose it where it perhaps does not belong. There are more stories to tell than just the "Hero's Journey". Thirty-six of them, in fact. They're difficult to layout in this format, but here they are, in [the site's] Archives. Check them out!


Here's my iron-clad rule for how a movie should end. (How's that for taking a stance?) A good ending must be decisive, set-up, and inevitable -- but nonetheless unexpected.

This is, of course, not easy to do. Some writers feel that a good, strong opening, the hook, is the toughest thing to come up with. I disagree. A great opening is perhaps the most important section of the screenplay -- it's the part that's actually going to get read! But it's not the hardest. My writing partner, Ted Elliott, can come up with a great set-up in seconds -- but give him a month or so before asking him what comes next!

Act II is a renowned quagmire of story problems. You could argue that it's the toughest Act to plot. But the subject matter itself at least provides material to shape, and gives some direction how to proceed. Act II problems are more often organization problems, not blank-page problems, and they'll ultimately succumb to proper execution of craft.

No, for myself, Act III -- and coming up with that great ending -- is definitely the toughest plotting on a script. It's an Act where you can't get by on just craftsmanship, you really do need to have something that's inspired. It's the payoff Act.

So let's go back to the rule: 'Decisive, set-up, and inevitable -- but nonetheless unexpected.'

Decisive. The most satisfying endings resolve the issues at hand clearly and decisively, one way or the other. Effective endings that are ambiguous are rare -- and a bit of a contradiction in terms.

Set-up. The ending can't come completely out of left-field. It should be one of several known possibilities, or referenced as a possible solution sometime earlier in the film. The ending must appear to evolve naturally out of the elements that are known. You don't want to change the rules at the end of the game -- that's not fair.

Inevitable. Another word for this might be 'appropriate.' You want an ending that is so 'right,' it seems as if it could have turned out no other way -- but only after it's happened! Because it's also got to be --

Unexpected. This is the real trick. The unexpectedness of the ending is the true payoff, the reward for watching the film. It's the element the audience will weigh most heavily when judging the outcome of the story -- whether or not it was 'worth waiting for.'

Let's look at the most famous, and perhaps the most effective, ending in film history -- the ending of CASABLANCA. It was certainly decisive: Rick and Ilsa do not end up together -- she leaves on the plane with Victor Lazlo. It was certainly set up: Rick helping the young man win at roulette was just one scene that showed Rick's idealism. And the ending could be said to be inevitable. As the story of the filming goes, several endings to the film were considered -- but when the first one was shot, they knew they had it, and that the story could not end any other way. And finally, the ending was, indeed, unexpected -- a quality that evolved out of its genre and structure. A romance where the hero doesn't get the girl? And it turns out to be the most romantic movie of all time!

I think of endings as the fulfillment of the promise, the covenant the storyteller makes with the audience. Violate that covenant at your peril. Two quick examples of how not to do it: the endings of YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES and WITCHES OF EASTWICK. The problem with both of these endings is they do not fulfil the promise made to the audience in the set-up.

Sherlock Holmes, and the Jack Nicholson character in EASTWICK, were each set up as thoughtful, analytical, smart characters. They used reason and spoke eloquently and insightfully. Those were the qualities, then, you expected to come into play in the payoff act. Instead, we were given a lot of fighting (in the case of YOUNG SHERLOCK) and a plethora of expensive special effects (in EASTWICK). Neither ending was promised, so neither ending was desired or appreciated.

Put simply, if it's an action picture, you've set up the expectation of an action finish. A courtroom scene probably won't do. Now it's true that often when you enter Act III, it does work to shake the picture up by changing the essential nature of the story (the hunter becomes the hunted; the murderer is brought to trial, etc.). This is good drama. Still, though, the story must be brought back around to an arena that is appropriate for the characters. Too often the characters get thrown aside, in that search for the big finish. But note that 'spectacle' is not one of the requirements for an ending. You don't necessarily need a big finish -- what you need is a satisfying conclusion to the situation.

A film that shows this beautifully is MOONSTRUCK. Who would have thought that you could have a brilliant ending to a movie take place with a bunch of people talking at a family breakfast table? It's unique, it's unexpected, and it's completely satisfying. A few other examples of how it was done right: ROBOCOP: The key here is that they didn't settle for making the people dumb to create the ending -- instead, they made everybody smart (including the villains) and played out their various strategies. This made for a very satisfying final scene.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST: There's a death, a recovery, a life-saved, and a marriage, all shown visually in the last seven seconds. Yes, good visuals are key to a good ending!

ALADDIN: Ted and I are proud of the demise-ending we came up with for our villain. When we joined the project, the story ended with Jafar plummeting to his death, frantically rubbing the wrong lamp after a series of subterfuges. But Ted kept seeing the image of Jafar getting sucked into the very lamp that he'd spent the whole movie pursuing. It was a cool image, an absolutely appropriate comeuppance. Having Aladdin trick Jafar into wishing to become a genie evolved out of that image. Even the storyline of the Genie wanting to be free of the lamp helped set up that ending -- it established the lamp as a sort of prison. Most people who see the movie aren't expecting Jafar to end up trapped in the lamp -- but when it happens, it seems right, like it couldn't happen any other way.

DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE: This is one of my favorite endings ever -- and one of my favorite films ever. (Yes, that is Sean Connery, and he's singing! The movie's a real treat, and you may want to skip this part if you haven't seen it. I am, after all, going to give away the end.) Early in the film King Brian sets things up when he says: "Three wishes I will grant you, great wishes and small, but if you wish for a fourth, you'll lose them all!"

The film then builds to an untenable situation: the girl will die unless Darby wishes to take her place. He does so, and the Death Coach arrives to take him away while the girl recovers. Then King Brian shows up, tricks Darby into wishing for a fourth wish. This effectively undoes his third wish ("wish for a fourth and you lose them all!") so Darby gets kicked out of the Coach and survives. The way the character relationships dovetail with the various plot threads at the end of DARBY O'GILL is just brilliant. And the unexpectedness of the solution makes this one of the best endings, I think, ever filmed.

Unexpectedness is one of the hardest elements to design into an ending. I find it useful to consider which type of question or questions is truly unknown to the audience. In a whodunit, the element that is not known is, well, WHO, and quite often the motive, or WHY. In an action film, you pretty much know WHAT is going to happen -- the hero is going to win -- but you don't know HOW. The HOW, then, is where you get your surprise. Occasionally, answering the WHERE questions can be a surprise -- remember where Hannibal Lector ended up in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS? WHEN questions are tough for endings, as they usually must be set up making the audience superior, which destroys the surprise.

So if you know which answer you're holding back -- the WHO, WHY, WHAT, HOW, or WHERE -- it can be easier to create that all-important unexpected ending. The best to go for is the WHAT question -- as in, truly not knowing 'what will happen' until it happens.

Let's look at the ending of one more film, the masterfully crafted BODY HEAT. When Ned Racine checks the yearbook in his jail cell and sees the reversed names of Mary Ann Simpson and Matty Walker, we learn exactly WHO landed him in jail, and Matty's true identity. We also learn WHAT happened, and HOW: the woman we know as Matty Walker long ago switched names, and eventually killed the woman, leaving her body to be found in the boathouse. The caption beneath the photo, 'To be rich and live in an exotic land' even tells us the WHY -- and then the final shot reveals WHERE Matty ended up: the beach of an exotic land. What a great ending! Ideally, the ending of a film is what the whole film has built to, in some fashion or other, all the way from page one. Ted and I still laugh at a screenplay that was submitted to us, where the writer included 'optional up ending' and 'optional down ending.' If the writer wasn't writing to one or the other of those endings throughout the screenplay, how effective could either of those endings be?

And a final note, on those 'down' endings. Writers just starting out often succumb to the temptation of choosing a tragic ending. After all, tragic endings are rare in films, and therefore unexpected. And unexpected is good, right? Problem is, tragic endings really not all that rare -- there are lots of unproduced spec scripts around with typical bad-script unhappy endings. The result is, usually, an unhappy ending for the writer.

So there you go. Keep working until your ending contains all four of the crucial elements: decisive, set-up, inevitable, and unexpected. Come up with a great ending for your script, and perhaps the script itself will have a great ending. It will be decisive, of course: it will sell.

That'll definitely have to be set up through a lot of hard work. And we'd all like to think it's inevitable -- But yet, until it actually happens, it's still, somehow, unexpected!

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