A theory of endings

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.

Paddington 2

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.

Argo

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.

Cool Runnings

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.

Gladiator

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.

Inception

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!

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A fantastic exploration of Daniel’s Project and Story Proper. Great examples, too. Thanks for sharing your insights, @MWwrites :slight_smile:

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Thank you, Lita :grin:

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A very helpful theory. Thank you for sharing!

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I think you make a good point in this. It’s an interesting way to view a story and I’ll probably be doing the very same thing with my movie watchlist now. :smile_cat:

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Thanks for letting me know. And I hope you enjoy going through your movie watchlist as much as I did.

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Hi MW,

Did you not think the ending in The Martian (in fact the entire film) worked because it was Matt Damon more than anything else? —And I’m a Matt Damon fan. But the quiet scene in the park was so reminiscent as well of Good Will Hunting.

And do you write scripts / screenplays, too? The exercise you mentioned to study the purpose of each scene in movies is where scriptwriting courses venture. I tried a few months ago to write up a novel premise and a screenplay for it at the same time. Both failed dismally!

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Hi Farriz,

I think you might be right about Matt Damon—I’m a fan too! I enjoyed the ending in the film even more than the one in the book, even though I enjoyed most of the book enormously. I haven’t actually seen Good Will Hunting. Maybe that needs to join my watch list.
I’ve never written a screenplay. I think I just gravitated towards films for my study because I could watch more films quicker than I could read novels.
I wish you far more success with your next screenplay! Are you going to tackle the same premise again? Or go for something new?

Dear MW,
After watching Good Will Hunting in the cinema for the first time, I bought another ticket and went back in to watch it again. It really is that good (in my book, at least). Luckily, there’s Netflix and other less obsessive ways to study a great movie these days. And the first, especially, of the Jason Bourne trilogy - Bourne Identity is another classic for me. (I wish I could say that I’ve read the books.)
The script isn’t scrapped entirely, still remains a work in progress. But the novel has had to be completely rethought. And I make sure now to not work on the projects in tandem.
Happy writing!
Farriz

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