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Arcs and Endings (3)

In a Q&A for Creative Screenwriting Magazine, Michael Arndt made the point that “happy endings are really underrated”. It got me thinking.

What’s wrong with a Hollywood ending?

If you have a truly well-written story, why would a happy ending diminish its value? Why is it that writers believe happy endings are a cheap Hollywood device? The majority of cinema goers prefer a happy ending. Why don’t we want to give it to them?

It may have to do with the confusion between our taste and our trade.

Film professionals tend to see more movies than the average punter. Because of our inherent interest in the how to of film, on occasion we will be focusing on other aspects than the story and we are enthralled by the cinematography, sound design, music, philosophical statement of etc.

Because we see so many movies, we like diversity in the offering. We want to be challenged. We are expecting the happy ending, but instead prefer to be surprised.

This, however, doesn’t apply for those who only see one or two movies a year; those we are actually making these movies for. Hence the difference in taste between many filmmakers and the majority of filmgoers.

There may be an other powerful force at play. Peer pressure.

Educated cinema goers like to be intellectually challenged. Perhaps some filmmakers don’t want to appear uneducated. Perhaps they don’t want to lower themselves (in their own perception and that of their peers) by making movies for the masses.

When your taste monopolises your trade, you are gambling your career.

Chris Morrissey brings Aristotle into exactly the same discussion when he says:

“The problem still remains why Aristotle in Poetics 14 would rank later, allegedly formulaic developments in plot composition higher than the earlier, high culture “unhappy ending” type of tragedy. Surely an appeal to chance or formula would define not the superiority, but rather the inferiority, of “happy ending” tragedies, just as people imply today when they sneer at the haphazard and formulaic composition of Hollywood endings.”

Can you see how the author is perverting his own logic by allowing for his taste to interfere? He goes by the assumption that formula is de facto inferior.

This is exactly where in my view filmmakers stray. We are losing the context of the audience for which the art is created in the first place.

If the author had asked WHY happy endings are being ranked more highly, the answer would have been right there, with the audience.

Speaking of audience’s responses, a recent survey commissioned by the Australian Federal Government concluded:

1. Moviegoers do not lump all Australian movies into one genre
2. Australian films do not suffer from a handicap
3. Broader Australian population prefer mainstream Australian movies to art house
4. There is a clear positioning opportunity for Australian movies

I have an inkling that you won’t go too far wrong by replacing the word ‘Australian’ with any other nationality.

About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

Comments 1

  1. Certainly, ‘unhappy’ endings are inherently problematic. But I’m not sure that a ‘non-happy’ ending implies an ‘unhappy’ one.

    What does get my goat of course is the ‘necessarily enormous, YAYYYYY! the plan worked (finally), Earth wus saved (say, by Keanu Reeves.. sorry, K.R.), the bad guys have been unceremoniously dispatched, along with any sacrificial lambs, whilst those in hospital are ‘sitting upright’.. and there’s even a hint of mat-ri-mon-y in the air’ ..type endings.
    OK, I’m exaggerating. Or am I? At any rate a satisfying conclusion doesn’t have to be overly emphatic.

    It’s axiomatic of story structure tension that it SEEKS to be resolved, and there must BE an ending. But surely that primarily means ‘for the viewer’, not necessarily for the events and characters, and not en masse.
    Perhaps, it’s ‘questions’ that need to be resolved, over ‘outcomes’ per se.

    Wow. It’s easy to crap on, hey! But a softly softly approach, maybe with fewer ‘truck collisions’, might work too.. : >

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