Write a Loss Inside the Win

Let’s talk about “up” endings. When I’m ghostwriting a book, the ending sometimes turns into a sticking point because clients often don’t understand how endings work. It helps if you read a lot, or even watch a lot of movies, because endings that touch your heart really stick with you, and then you can analyze them and see what makes them work.

Ghostwriting clients often don’t see what’s really going on in an ending. Usually, looking at endings they like, people see the victory. A character struggles against impossible odds and then supercedes them. It feels wonderful, and ghostwriting clients want that up, wonderful ending. (Of course there are plenty of great endings that are heavy on the bittersweet or downright sad, but I’ll talk about those another day.)

Often, though, people just aren’t looking closely enough. The reason those up endings are so emotionally stirring is because, when you break them down a little more, you can see that they are actually bittersweet. There’s always some loss with the gain, even if the loss is just the thought of potential failure on the horizon, and it’s that little loss that makes the up ending work.

Let’s look at some classic movie endings. Harold and Maude–Maude dies, for cripe’s sakes. Harold walks away with no car, no home, and presumably no money–nothing but his freedom. The ending touches your heart deeply because Harold has discovered what he really needs to be happy. It’s “up,” but it’s only a positive ending because of all he has lost to get there.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s–Holly Golightly gets a chance to pursue the life of superficial riches and dilletantism she has always dreamed of, but then, after a weird philosophical scene involving a cat, which I never could really make heads or tails of, she discovers she and her neighbor are in love, and love doesn’t look like what she thought it would. She gives up the fancy life she dreamed of when she realizes what she really needs is the same kind of honest, dependable love her first husband gave her. Finally, she is happy. The ending is “up,” but there is loss.

Lastly, and I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but why not: Back to the Future. Marty McFly travels to the past and causes problems between his parents, but manages to fix them. Then, he wakes up into a future that’s far better than it used to be before his adventure, including a reunion with Jennifer. Total victory! Then Doc shows up in the Delorean and entices Marty and Jennifer to take another time travel trip.

This is, obviously, the lead-in to a sequel, but it also represents a loss. After all, Marty now has a perfect life, but he’s leaving it because he has realized what he really wants in life is danger and adventure, not safety and perfection. It feels “up” because, as in all the examples above, we’re glad all the characters are happy in the end. However, Marty has become dissatisfied with perfection. Now, he is changed, and he needs the excitement that only time travel can provide.

McFly is happy, but he has lost the simplicity of his former self. So, when you’re writing an “up” ending, really look at it and make sure you’ve got a loss woven into it. If you’re having trouble finding it, watch almost any well-regarded movie and find the loss inside the gain.

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