Last December, I watched a varied selection of films, writing down the purpose of every scene. I feel that exercise taught me more about storytelling than anything else I’ve ever done. (I’d recommend it in a heartbeat.) And it inspired a theory on a way to craft a fulfilling end for a story. Since then, I’ve been itching to share it with other writers–to sound it off them and discover if I’m on the right track, or if someone else has thought of all this already. Here goes:
There are two story structure ideas at work. The first is Daniel David Wallace’s ‘Project’. This is a goal the main character is already pursuing at the start of page one. The second is what I like to call the ‘story proper’. This is the main plot of the story which begins at the opening of the second act (at around 25% of the story).
As I watched those films, I noticed that most of them achieved their triumphant climax when their characters took the single action that solved both the ‘Project’ and the ‘story proper’ in one fell swoop.
I’ve included five example films below in drop down boxes. Hopefully, I’ve got an example for as many people as possible without forcing them to spoil a film for themselves just to understand what I’m going on about. I also hope to show that this theory of endings isn’t limited by genre.
As Paddington 2 opens, Paddington (voice of Ben Whishaw) is already in pursuit of a birthday present for his Aunt Lucy. He pursues this ‘project’ throughout the first act. At the opening of act two, the present he was saving up for–a pop-up book–is stolen, and Paddington is accused of the theft and imprisoned. The ‘story proper’ is Paddington clearing his name to get out of prison. To clear his name, of course, he must find the real thief, who has the pop-up book. Thus, the ‘project’ and ‘story proper’ are fulfilled when Paddington catches the thief.
As Argo opens, an angry mob are assailing the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran; and five Embassy staff members are frantically discussing how to keep themselves alive and safe. That is their ‘project’. At the opening of the second act, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) conceives the fake-movie plan for getting those five people home safely. The ‘story proper’ is putting that plan into action. Thus, the ‘project’ and ‘story proper’ are fulfilled when the fake-movie plan keeps the five embassy staff members alive and safe.
As Cool Runnings opens, Derice Bannock (Leon Robinson) wants to succeed at the olympics, and he’s practicing his sprinting diligently–his ‘project’. At the opening of the second act, he’s tripped during the qualifying race for the olympics, and he’s forced to turn to bobsledding as the only remaining route to the olympics–the ‘story proper’. Thus, when bobsledding brings him olympic success, the ‘project’ and ‘story proper’ are fulfilled together.
As Gladiator opens, Maximus (Russell Crowe) is preparing to fight one last battle before going home to his family. Fulfilling his duty in order to get home is his ‘project’. At the opening of the second act, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) murders Maximus’s wife and son, and he burns down Maximus’s house. Also, Maximus is enslaved as a gladiator who wants revenge–the ‘story proper’. Thus, when Maximus dies while killing Commodus he gets revenge and he gets to go home to Elysium–the ‘project’ and ‘story proper’ are fulfilled at once.
As Inception opens, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is pulling another heist–his ‘project’. His criminal record keeps him away from his children; but jobs like this keep him going as he phones home with fatherly diligence, hoping that one day, somehow, he’ll get to go home. At the opening of the second act, Dom and his team take on a reverse heist–plant an idea in someone’s mind. This is the ‘story proper’. When they succeed at the story proper, Dom’s criminal record is cleared, and he achieves his ‘project’.
That’s about it. Thanks a million for reading through this, and I’d appreciate nothing more than a comment telling me what you think–any thoughts at all would be marvellous.
I should say that I don’t think this is the only way to end a story. The uber-successful The Martian is a notable exception in my eyes: the ‘story proper’ (get off Mars) begins on page one.
Anyway, enough from me. Cheers!