Monthly Archives: August 2011

When you say, ‘Damn I wish I would have written that’


While preparing to take my morning walk before I hit the computer, I switched on TV and “Michael Clayton” was playing.

As a writer I always proclaim, “Damn, I wish I would have written that.”

Beautifully penned by Tony Gilroy, the film is one of my favorites and in my collection.

As I walked, I thought about what made it so fantastic. The characters are complex. The title character is lost in his own world of compromise and he so wants to be redeemed. Attorney Karen Crowder played by Tilda Swinton, who won an Oscar, feels the pain of doing evil when she gives orders to have a man killed.

The dialogue is great.  Arthur’s insane ramblings smack of truth. Michael’s final confrontation with Karen is confession and retribution.

What Gilroy also mastered was keeping up the tension throughout the film. From the first scene right to the end, the tension is like a tightening string.

Michael tells a man who has hit a runner with a car that he can do nothing for him.

Michael admires horses in a pasture, but we just know something will happen. Boom. His car explodes.

The tension is not only in the actions, but the emotions of the people. The exchange between Michael and Arthur in the alley is desperate, heartfelt and priceless.

Every scene makes you wonder, ‘What will happen next?’

So what does this have to do with me, you might ask. The beautiful writing of “Michael Clayton” is something to which we can strive for.

Analyze what makes this so good and try to make sure you have the same elements in your writing. That is good dialogue, great characters and tension.

I do wish I could have written “Michael Clayton,” like just I wish I had written “Catch-22,” “Jane Eyre,” and “Fargo,” among others.  But I am so thankful that Tony Gilroy, Joseph Heller, Charlotte Bronte and the Coen Brothers wrote them, so that I can enjoy and learn from them.


Bad endings wipe out a good story everytime


You’ve probably heard this before as writers, but it is so true–namely, a bad ending can ruin what you created. Bad endings can trash what came before.

Here’s an example.

I recently watched a film called “Skyline.” Another one of those bad aliens come to conquer earth type of stories.

The premise was good, that is the impact of  alien attacks on LA and a small group of twenty-somethings trapped in an apartment. They were not soldiers or resistance fighters, just people trying to deal with space ships blowing the heck out of stuff and killing anything that moved.

The action was not bad, and they actually sounded like young people who were terrified.

And here comes the spoiler alert, spoiler alert!

After a lot of carnage, the remaining young couple-the girl is pregnant get taken up to the alien ship where they will surely have their brains sucked out as the aliens are doing with the human population. The people lose the battle.  The man gets turned into an alien and protects his human girlfriend. The end. Over the credits, there are silly images of the man-turned-alien carrying her away.

No dramatic changes. No damn sense. This bad ending made me mad I had invested time watching the movie.

Here are better endings. They couples’s characters have changed. They kissed and got killed by the aliens. Or they could have escaped and been the last couple left to repopulate the planet.

We don’t want bad endings to happen to our stories. How do we prevent it?

Make sure the ending follows the rules of drama. In other words, make sure our characters change, for the better or for the worst.  That way, we reward our audience or readers for their time.

End with a punch instead of a whimper. It can be a physical or emotional punch or  with a twist (M. Night Shyamalan is famous for these.)

Give your work to readers to see if the ending satisfies them. If not, ask what did I do wrong.

Don’t end with anything that conflicts with your characters.

An example is the book, “Hannibal.” FBI agent Clarice Starlings runs off with cannibal Lecter. The problem was that Thomas Harris did such a magnificent job with Starling’s character in “Silence of the Lambs,” we just can’t buy that ending.

Then there are endings where you remark, Where the heck did that come from? Or exclaim, That makes no sense.

Examples. After Jodie Foster’s return from talking with aliens in “Contact,” she is crucified before a government committee, while two other government types see evidence she has contacted aliens. In the end, Foster’s character smiles happily as she resumes her job seeking aliens. Huh?

In “A.I,” David the boy robot simply goes to bed with his dead human mother brought by aliens. Huh?

When I leave a movie with a great ending, I feel uplifted and complete.  For example, the last installment of “Harry Potter.” Humphrey Bogart and Claude Reins walking off into the fog together in “Casablanca.” In “Fargo,” Marge and her husband showing they’ve kept their humanity after all the murder and mayhem.

So, make sure your ending sends the audience home with a smile or tear, and not cursing that they spent $8 on a movie ticket. And for superior alien-invades-movie, skip “Skyline” and watch “War of the Worlds” (either the George Pal or  Spielberg versions).

Not surprising, you can find lists of movies with bad endings. Here are a few:

If you have any more examples of bad endings, please email them to me.