Have you hacked your way through the beginning and middle of your book or screenplay and are now staring at the dreaded end? The scenes where everything has to be paid off, and you have to leave your reader stunned/moved/sobbing/laughing/inspired/moved/transformed?
Lotta pressure here. Trust me, I’ve been there.
This past weekend I watched the film FOXCATCHER. The characters were great, the story well built, and then suddenly, splat. I felt totally let down by the ending. It’s a weird, creepy, riveting movie based on a true story about wrestling. It’s about much more than that– relationships between brothers, between fathers and sons, repressed sexuality, the price of excellence in sports– and is terrific in so many ways. But in my opinion, the ending failed.
Let’s pull apart the story (it’s structured as a Hero’s Journey) and analyze why. Hopefully, this will give you insight into how to make your endings work.
ORDINARY WORLD—It’s 1987 and we learn that Mark Shultz won an Olympic gold medal in wrestling three years ago. He’s lived much of his life in his older brother Dave’s shadow (he is also an Olympic wrestler) and is now reduced to doing low paying speaking engagements at elementary schools.
CALL TO ADVENTURE—Mark gets a call from John DuPont, one of the richest guys in the United States. He wants to start an Olympic training facility on his estate to restore USA wrestling to greatness. Does Mark want to come and train? Mark’s goal is to get to the Seoul Olympics. He has no other prospects and says yes. DuPont also wants Dave to come, but Dave says no.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD—Mark arrives at Foxcatcher, DuPont’s fabulous estate. He moves into an amazing guesthouse.
TESTS ALLIES AND ENEMIES—Mark watches videos of the DuPont family, learns how they earned their wealth. DuPont bonds with Mark. Mark trains with other Olympic caliber wrestlers.
DuPont pulls Mark into his weird world, letting him watch as he buys huge military tanks, giving him a book he wrote about birds, and making him the leader of the wrestling program. He writes a check to Mark for $10,000 for doing such a great job coaching the team. Mark, finally out from under Dave’s shadow, feels like a hero.
APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE—As they are heading to a fancy speaking engagement in Washington DC, DuPont offers Mark cocaine. Mark, who has never done drugs before, snorts it, and in his introduction of DuPont at the event, calls him his “father.”
Weeks pass and Mark gets totally messed up on drugs. Dave calls Mark, worried, but Mark won’t talk to him. DuPont tells Mark he is his only friend. Mark says DuPont is his only friend.
ORDEAL—Because of the drugs, Mark slacks off on his training of the wrestlers. DuPont, worried about the team, calls Dave for help. Dave arrives to save the day. Mark is angry that he’s being usurped as coach. Dave asks Mark what’s going on. Mark doesn’t want his help.
At the Olympic Trials, Mark loses in the first round. In his hotel room he breaks down, starts sobbing, and punches himself in the face. He eats a bunch of food and passes out. Dave breaks into his room, finds him and says, “You’re not alone. I’m your brother and I love you.” DuPont tries to step into the situation, but Dave pushes him away.
SEIZING THE SWORD—Mark allows Dave to help him. Dave gets him back into fighting shape for his next match. He wins.
THE ROAD BACK— Dave is back at Foxcatcher, training the guys, including Mark, for Seoul. DuPont says he wants to win a gold medal and we see that he’s delusional and actually believes he’s the coach of the team.
Mark tells Dave he wants to leave Foxcatcher and that BYU will take them both. But Dave can’t leave now, he has to support his family. Maybe after Seoul?
DuPont insists that he be in Mark’s corner during the Olympic match. Dave tells DuPont that after the Olympics, Mark is leaving.
RESURRECTION (Climax)– Seoul- the Olympic Games. Mark doesn’t do well. They arrive back at Foxcatcher. Mark moves his stuff out, doesn’t say anything. DuPont watches him go.
Dave continues to train the wrestlers at Foxcatcher. DuPont goes progressively crazy, believes that Dave has a “problem” with him. DuPont shoots and kills Dave. He’s arrested.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR— We see a scene, years later, where Mark is doing mixed martial arts. The crowd shouts, “USA! USA!”
Here’s the thing. I really liked this movie. But Mark, the main character, disappears for the climax. There are definitely stories that switch main characters in the middle (CHRONICLE is one of my favorites,) but in FOXCATCHER it happens so late in the story that I was left adrift. I was waiting for the moment where the hero faces the bad guy, and either wins or loses. In a normally structured Hero’s Journey, this moment would be Mark facing DuPont, and confronting him about why he’s leaving. In the film, the confrontation is given to Dave, and Mark’s leaving is downplayed.
Instead, the climax plays between DuPont and Dave, Mark’s two “fathers.” Because we’ve suddenly lost our protagonist, and have a new one we haven’t had time to bond with (although casting Mark Ruffalo helped) we are left out in the cold.
Even if you are writing a true story and have to deal with “facts,” how can you arrange them so that the reader/audience achieves satisfaction? This is key, especially for non fiction film and memoir writers.
Take action! In your climax, do you have a moment where the hero faces the bad guy (or his/her fear) and transforms? If not, how can you create a moment like this? If your character doesn’t change, why? Could this lack of transformation be linked to your theme? If you switch main characters, do you give the reader/viewer enough time to get grounded in the new protagonist’s journey and stakes?
Endings are the the most powerful part of your story.
Make sure yours is as impactful as possible!
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