We asked award-winning playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb for his tips on endings. Take it away, Peter!
I am the type of writer who usually begins a play not being exactly sure of the ending. That's part of the excitement for me of building a story: figuring out as I go along where the play needs to go. The discovery often has full structural ramifications, and I go backwards and forwards to further shape the play and its push towards the ending (which may or may not be conclusive. Let's just call it "the moment the audience is supposed to clap."). As an avid fan of the rewriting process, this "organic free love" ending-finding is a process that works well for me. Sometimes.
The particular moment when I've had the revelation of where my play may be ending has varied from project to project. It usually emerges somewhere around 1/2 to 2/3 of the way through. I have enough material on paper to detect some momentum and direction (such as "oh man, I think only one of these people can be alive at the end!"). There are other times when ending-finding been less easy for me. Sometimes I think I've written to what I think is the right end, only to discover that it isn't. Or, even worse, I find myself hovering around page 75 for several weeks which then summons a moment in my writing process I like to call "Holy !@** Mother&@## Where the ??!@ is this ??!@ing play going *@#$ ()%% !@#$."
You fine folks do not have several weeks to hover. So do not lose hope! There is a beautiful, wonderful, perfect ending lurking within your piece, waiting for you to find and write. Here are a few thoughts to help you as you seek your end. (I should mention that I am a playwright, thus the handy Syd Field rules do not necessarily apply to my craft. I hope I am crafting tips that embrace stories both conventional and non.)
1) Helpful hints to your ending are all around you in your work. Go back and see what you've done. What clues have you left for yourself? Start by looking at your characters. What are they pushing towards? What are they clamoring for? What do they need to do before we're done with watching them and they're done existing? Do they need to find Love? Die? Kill? Eat? Mate? Is their quest a success or a failure?
2) What questions is your play raising? These could be questions of story (What does Bernard keep in that sack?) or theme (Are we all destined to be sad?). Perhaps the ending somehow involves addressing, maybe even resolving, some of your questions and/or mysteries you have raised. BUT, don't feel like you have to resolve everything! Your ending doesn't have to be tidy. It's okay to leave your audience with some unanswered questions. But you also do not want them to be completely confused. Have some things come to a head.
3) Considering your ending should also include (maybe) thinking about how you want to leave your audience after they have experienced your whole piece. What do you want to leave your audience feeling? Hopeful? In Awe? Angry? Dejected? Humbled? Horny? How are you pushing your play towards that final feeling?
4) It's okay if the first ending you write sucks. Maybe you know the last image of the play but you're struggling how to get there from 10 minutes before. Get the clunky parts down. Let the thing be a piece of smoldering turd on your screen. It's much better than a page of nothingness. Throw a crappy ending up there and see what sticks. Maybe there's something in there that seems right amidst the muck. Keep the nugget and try again. Rewriting, cutting, adding, and shaping is a fabulous and crucial part to the crafting of any piece.
5) A major revelation about the ending of your play may occur to you around three or four in the morning. Have a notepad handy by the bed.
6) Avoid the last line being "and it was all a dream."
7) The farther along you are in the story of a piece, the less satisfying it is to have external events influence the outcome. As we get more invested in characters, we want to see the ending affected by them, not by a sudden random god-like event.
8) Simplicity is always a good option.
9) Conversely, do not be afraid of making big and bold choices. You can always work on them more if they feel really nutty.
10) It's possible that your ending actually happened about 10 to 20 pages before your current ending. Since there's a page requirement for Script Frenzy, you may have to add filler in the middle of the play if you need to cut ten pages at the end. I'm kidding.
11) Many audiences will tend to repulsed by explicit morals or lessons at the end of your piece. Just sayin.
12) Remember Monty Python was brilliant and they couldn't end sh*t. So don't feel bad if yours is bad. (But you may want to keep working on it after the month is done.)
Good luck and don't lose hope! There is awesomeness within you!
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is a San Francisco-based playwright whose works include Boom, Hunter Gatherers, Colorado, Meaningless, and The Amorphous Blob. Hunter Gatherers received the 2007 American Theatre Critics Association/Steinberg New Play Award for best new play to premiere outside of New York, and the 2007 Will Glickman Prize for best new play in the Bay Area. His work has been seen at Ars Nova and SPF in New York, the Bailiwick in Chicago, W.H.A.T. in New England, Dad’s Garage in Atlanta and the Magic Theatre, Killing My Lobster, and Impact Theatre in the Bay Area. He is currently under commission from Encore Theatre Company (SF) and South Coast Rep and is a 2008 Resident Playwright at the Playwrights Foundation, San Francisco. He likes to promote himself online at www.peternachtrieb.com