How To Know When You’ve Got the Right Ending for Your Script

Endings are hard.

I’ve been working on a long overdue new sketch for the website. When I read what I’ve written so far, I’m really happy with it until I get to the end. It just sort of stops. Something about the ending doesn’t work for me. I know that it’s not ready. It doesn’t tell the audience that the story is done. It’s made me think about how important the right ending is to a story. And – spoiler warning – I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite endings.

If you’re a writer, you know what I mean. The most challenging parts in writing are figuring out where to start and where to end. If you nail these two, everything else in between can just flow together. It’s easier to map out the journey when you know where Point A and Point B are.

I love the ending of “Death of a Salesman” when Willy Loman’s widow tells her deceased husband that they’re finally free and clear. She’s made the last house payment. Of course, Willy isn’t around anymore to enjoy their financial freedom. It’s such a poignant and ironic ending. It works perfectly. (Please don’t complain that I spoiled this one for you. Arthur Miller put the spoiler right in the title of the play.)

My favorite ending to a TV series is “Newhart.” After running an inn in Vermont for seven or eight seasons, Bob Newhart’s character gets knocked out by a golf ball at the end of the last episode. When he comes to, he’s in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from his previous sitcom, “The Bob Newhart Show.” “Newhart” turned out to be a bad dream that his character from “The Bob Newhart Show” was having. Hysterical and perfect.

So how do you know when your sketch is over?

For me, there are several ways. With a comedy, the end could be the culmination of a running joke. In “Is This Seat Taken?” the character of Ashley, a seemingly clueless young wife, arrives at her first church service with a large purse filled with goodies. She thinks of church like a movie theater so she’s carrying around concessions that she offers throughout the sketch. Junior Mints, popcorn, Twizzlers. For the end, she offers the obnoxious church couple, Barry and Wanda Barker, a concession that ironically describes them – Goobers.

For comedies, reaching this point where you turn the tables on the antagonists – like Ashley referring to the Barkers as Goobers – is often a good point to wrap up the sketch. In another comedy, “Not Like That Pharisee,” Tyler, a church visitor, is tormented by Mr. Wright, a really odd Sunday school teacher. Tyler’s the only student in this class since the regular church members know to keep away from Mr. Wright’s class. At the end, after Mr. Wright provides his unique interpretation of the parable of the Pharisee and the “lowly, pathetic” tax collector, Tyler tells Mr. Wright that he works for the IRS – as a “lowly, pathetic” auditor.

So where do you conclude a drama since they don’t lend themselves to punchline endings? One concept that works for me is to end the drama when one character reaches a moment of revelation. That’s what happens in “Beneath the Smiles” when Edgar, an older deacon, realizes that a younger deacon, Jared, is racist. The script begins with the two men joking around with each other but shifts when Jared lets it slip that he was uncomfortable about a black family visiting the church. Jared eventually leaves after he learns that Edgar invited the husband of that family over for the men’s night out at Edgar’s place. Edgar sits down as Jared goes, realizing that his friendship with Jared has changed forever because the young man won’t come to terms with his racism.

I used a similar technique in “The One That Got Away,” a comedy/drama about two college students, Bob and Kyle, who are complaining about what their dads have been trying to do to bond with their growing sons. The two young men are in the Brew-Haha, a combination coffeeshop by day, comedy nightclub by night. After the men leave, the smart-aleck waiter who’s been eavesdropping on their conversation pulls out his cell phone to call his dad. In this case, the supporting character comes to the revelation rather than the two main characters.

Maybe you have some techniques that work for you. I’d love to hear about them. Right now, I need to get back to that script and figure out the perfect ending.