Tom Petty was wrong: it’s the endings that are the hardest part. How often does a perfectly delightful movie lose some of its luster in its final ten minutes? How often do books peter out after a rousing start? How often are our assessments along the lines of: “I loved it, but the ending kind of sucked”?
Ending a story perfectly is damn near impossible. And the better the story, the more difficult it is to wrap up with 100% satisfaction. This is true in improv and it’s true in copywriting.
William Goldman is the guy who wrote Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. He has my favorite quotation about endings: He says that an ideal ending of a movie is both “surprising and inevitable.”
Surprising and inevitable.
Sounds great, right?
Well, it’s really, really difficult to do.
Unless you’re one of the 0.000001% of humans with a preternatural talent for perfect endings — people like Aesop and Thurber and O. Henry — then you have to either (a) work hard to find the perfect ending, or (b) tack on a sloppy, unoriginal ending.
There are two concerns when it comes to endings — whether an improv scene, a movie, a chunk of copy, a research report, etc.: when and how.
When to End
Obviously, there’s no single answer here. Still, whatever you’re doing, make it shorter.
WHATEVER YOU’RE DOING, MAKE IT SHORTER.
Shorter is king. Less is more. Smother your darlings.
In college, my writing mentor, Dr. John Trimble, told us that after writing our first draft we should aim to remove 66% of the words from every sentence (know that we’d average closer to 50%, which he was perfectly happy with).
Same goes for nearly every piece of art or communication that we craft: it can probably stand to be shorter. There are a few reasons why you should err on the side of shorter:
1. Less content means less opportunity to lose or annoy your audience. We clearly live in a more bite-sized world, where interactions and content are expected to be efficient and well organized. To ramble is to lose engagement, and to lose engagement is to become irrelevant. Whether you’re performing an improv show or writing copy for a radio advertisement, shorter and sweeter reduces your risk of losing touch with your audience.
2. Forcing yourself to be shorter means forcing yourself to think harder, which usually leads to sharper results.
Because make no mistake, smothering your darlings requires discipline and experience. From within the creation of a piece of art — whether a short story, improv scene, painting, etc. — it’s impossible to know exactly how it’s going. (At least the writer and painter have the benefit of private editing and revisions; the improvisers make their mistakes as part of the artwork.)
The concrete version of this advice is this:
- If you’re writing a report, story, novel, anything — your final draft should be at a maximum 2/3 the length of the first drafts.
- If you’re delivering a presentation in your office, it shouldn’t last longer than 20-30 minutes — no matter the topic.
- If you’re editing a feature film, 120 minutes is your limit. If a story needs longer to be told, congrats, you got yourself a franchise: make a sequel.
- If you’re doing an improv show, it shouldn’t last longer than an hour — ever. Ever ever ever. If it must last longer, consider strongly including an intermission. It’s asking a lot of any audience of any show to remain rapt and attentive for longer than 60 minutes — especially in those cramped improv seats.
How to End
This one’s trickier to answer, because each medium has its own unique considerations. Movies end differently than improv scenes, which end differently than stories, which end differently than music videos, which end differently than blog posts. Et cetera.
But there’s a good guiding principle we could adopt: Don’t break your own rules.
How many improv scenes, which, having gone on a minute or two longer than needed, decide to end on a joke or gag that undercuts the previous scene?
Or how many movies are ruined by endings that employ deus ex machina?
Or how many authors reveal themselves, in those finals pages and chapters, to be a bit unsure where they’re going, until things kind of just stutter to a stop?
Simply adhering to the rules established by your story — rules like: how characters think and feel, how characters react to each other, how the universe operates, how expectations have been built over the course of the work — simply adhering to these rules doesn’t guarantee a satisfying ending.
But breaking your rules is a surefire way to not only ruin your story — but to alienate the audience so completely they grow to distrust you. Think M. Night Shyamalan.
If you’re performing in front of people, your ending must especially be on point, because it’s the very last thing the audience sees — and thus, it’s the thing they remember most vividly. A poor ending may taint an otherwise magnificent book, but the ending typically won’t ruin the book’s overall effect.
If I can’t figure out the ending — if I just couldn’t crack the code to crafting a perfectly “surprisingly inevitable” ending — and thus have to choose between a clichéd ending and an ambiguous ending, I’m going with the clichéd ending every time. Why? Because clichés work better. If the worst thing that can be said about an ending is that it’s a bit unoriginal, you’re doing OK.
The improv implications of this are:
1. Make sure the person controlling the stage lights knows that YOU will be calling your own show. Unless you inherently trust the judgment of the tech booth person, call your own show. Tell the booth to put their hand on the light switch and just watch intently for your cue — usually a simple hand swipe — to blackout.
2. If you have a 25-minute slot, try forcing yourself to end it at 22 minutes (for example). If you force yourself to end a few minutes earlier than normal, you’ll find yourself unwilling to indulge scenes that’ve lasted too long.
3. If nothing happens in a scene — that is, no words and no discernible movement or space work — go ahead and end the scene. If you develop an instinct for ending a scene/show a beat before it becomes tedious to the audience, you’ll vastly improve the overall effect of your improv. It’ll seem sharper than ever.
And if all else fails, and you can’t quite end things as tidily as you’d like, go with the old stand-by: