by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Stories are usually built around two journeys. There’s an external journey that encompasses the plot points of the story. In this journey, the protagonist has a clear photographable goal. They are searching for someone, some place, or some thing. When they achieve the goal, the audience has no doubt that the story is complete.
There is also an internal journey. In this journey, the protagonist is growing and developing. It’s in this journey that we see the character arc. The character learns or comes to realize something. They overcome something within themselves. They often face their fears or rid themselves of the crutch that’s been helping them get by. Internally, a protagonist has a dramatic desire or “want” that they’re keenly aware of and in pursuit of. They also have a dramatic “need” that they’re unaware of. The relationship between these internal processes builds to give us the emotional ending of the story. Here are four endings to consider for your protagonist.
1. POSITIVE ENDING:
THE PROTAGONIST GETS WHAT THEY WANT AND WHAT THEY NEED
This ending is the ultimate “happily ever after.” The protagonist finds the treasure and gets the love of the girl. This is usually the sort of ending we see in Disney films and most children’s movies. However, this ending can also be found in almost every other genre. In Argo, Ben Affleck’s character gets the hostages safely out of Iran and is able to re-connect with his family. Dwayne Johnson’s character has a similar arc in San Andreas. In Pretty Woman, Richard Gere’s character gets the girl and saves an old man’s company, proving he’s changed both internally and externally. In Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly is able to reconstruct the family he needs and get back home.
2. NEGATIVE IRONY ENDING:
THE PROTAGONIST GETS WHAT THEY WANT BUT NOT WHAT THEY NEED
The ironic part of a negative irony ending is that the protagonist gets one thing but not the other. In The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg creates the ultimate social network, but ironically loses all his friends in the process. Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler saves thousands of Jews from death in Schindler’s List but ironically implodes in the film’s conclusion over his own perceived selfishness. Sean Penn’s character gets revenge for his daughter’s murder in Mystic River but ironically is left more disturbed. In Presumed Innocent, Harrison Ford’s character is found innocent of the murder he is accused of but is ironically left to serve out a different sort of life sentence when he discovers his wife is actually the murderer. Richard Gere’s character has a similar arc in Primal Fear. Kevin Spacey gains the freedom he longs for in American Beauty but loses the family (and life) he’s taken for granted in the process. Tom Hanks has a similar experience in Castaway.
3. POSITIVE IRONY ENDING:
THE PROTAGONIST GETS WHAT THEY NEED BUT NOT WHAT THEY WANT
Though the protagonist doesn’t get what they want with these types of endings, they still leave the audience happy and fulfilled. They reinforce the lesson that what we need is often more significant than what we want. Sylvester Stallone loses the match in Rocky, but gets the love he needs and proves to himself he can go the distance. Joy doesn’t get to control everything in Inside Out, but discovers that a healthy person needs all their emotions to achieve happiness. Elliot doesn’t get to keep his new father figure in E.T., but in helping him return home, his family has somehow been put back together. In Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks loses the person he pursues the entire film, Jenny, but gains the love and family he needs through their son. Even Indiana Jones gives up the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in order to have the approval of his father – the thing he actually needs most.
4. NEGATIVE ENDING:
THE PROTAGONIST GETS NEITHER WHAT THEY WANT NOR WHAT THEY NEED
These endings are the most difficult to pull off. American audiences don’t often respond to stories where characters get neither what they want nor what they need. Endings of this sort are usually reserved for R-rated dramas. However, from time to time, we do see this ending masterfully executed, usually by a master storyteller. In Up in the Air, George Clooney gets neither what he wants nor what he needs. Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy gains neither his freedom nor understanding of who he is in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Johnny Depp experiences a similar arc in Blow. Leonardo DiCaprio loses everything he gains including the respect and love of his family in The Wolf of Wall Street. And while technically the first part in a longer story, as a standalone film, Ana Steele gets neither what she wants nor what she needs in Fifty Shades of Grey.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.