Screenwriter Michael Arndt On How to Write Insanely Great Endings


This post is by Jason Hellerman from No Film School

When people ask me who I want to model my screenwriting career after, I usually come up with Michael Arndt on the spot. He’s the Academy Award-winning screenwriter behind films like Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3.

Many people also know him from his incredibly popular screenwriting videos, which I go back to over and over during my process. One of my favorites is his dissection of movie endings, where he uncovers what makes a great ending so elusive, and how can we craft endings that resonate with audiences.

Today, I want to use Arndt’s video to delve into his philosophy on endings and learn how to write our own memorable conclusions for our specs.

Let’s dive in.


Michael Arndt on Endings 

Endings are often illusive for writers, even the pros. I refuse to start writing any idea if I don’t have at least a grip on where it should end. And i do a detailed outline to make sure I have sculpted an ending I’m proud of before I ever open my screenwriting software.

Arndt classifies endings into three categories:

  • Bad Endings: Predictable and fail to surprise or leave a lasting impression.
  • Good Endings: Surprising while still making sense within the story’s logic.
  • Insanely Great Endings: Surprising, logical, and emotionally resonant, providing insights into the human condition and how we should live.
I think it’s pretty easy to think of examples for each movie. You know when an ending moves you and when one just falls flat.

But when it comes to executing it yourself, things get a little more complicated.

How to Write Insanely Great Endings

How to Write Insanely Great Endings

To get to an insanely great ending, Michael Arndt argues that a story should have three sets of stakes: external, internal, and philosophical.

External stakes are about what can be gained or lost in the outside world, internal stakes are about the emotional stakes of the story, and philosophical stakes are about what will be gained or lost philosophically.

This combination provides a fertile ground for the writing. And for endings.

To begin, you need to have a clear vision for your ending before you even start writing. This ending helps guide your entire story. In his experience, Pixar has a saying: “The last thing we end up doing is the First Act” and that has echoed through Arndt’s work.

You also want to set up the “Emotional Promise.” The beginning of the screenplay should establish an emotional promise to the audience about what kind of payoff they can expect.

Then, you want to focus on the climax.

The final few minutes are the heart of the ending. They should provide visceral emotions and reveal the ultimate meaning of your story, as seen through the internal and external stakes.

Now, this doesn’t mean you have to have a happy or a sad ending, it just means you have to land it emotionally as well as thematically.

Michael Arndt’s framework for constructing great endings isn’t just about wrapping up a neat story. It’s about giving your audience something meaningful to hold onto, an emotional lesson to carry forward.

Whether you’re writing a short story, a novel, a screenplay, or even just working on an important presentation, consider his approach.

Let me know what you think in the comments.