Writing Tip: The Power of the Last Word

by Ann Marie Williams © 2020

Today’s writing tip is something we probably all (subconsciously) understand.  But as the writer, being consciously aware of it can enhance the impact and clarity of the story you’re crafting, help tighten your story’s pacing, and provide a new tool to direct your audience’s understanding of the plot. 

I’m talking about: The Last Word.

Or, more accurately: The Last Point.

The point on which you end a moment is incredibly powerful — whether that moment is a scene in a movie, the end of a chapter, or simply the end of one discussion before switching to a new topic — because the point a moment ends on will (in general) be the point the audience accepts as true.

The point a moment ends on will likely be the point the audience accepts as true

For example, let’s say your protagonist (Maria) is presented with two theories: whether the earth is round or flat. Whichever theory is presented last in the scene will, most likely, be the one the audience assumes Maria accepts as true:

Maria looks between the two theorists, internalizing their arguments.

The first theorist shakes his head vehemently, “No, no, no! My colleague is woefully mistaken! We have traveled the earth and we know that it is flat! Were it round, and we traveled too far to the south, we’d fall off!”

Maria can’t deny this, but the second theorist meets her gaze intently.

“Do not listen to that antiquated way of thinking. Look at the horizon. You know the truth. The earth is clearly round.”

END OF SCENE

While Maria might still move forward assuming the earth is flat, the way the scene ends suggests the story is going to progress under the assumption that Maria accepts the second theorist’s argument.

Why is this so important?

For starters, it’s important to understand how you’re audience is going to interpret what you say in a story, but also what you don’t say.

We don’t really need to hear Maria accept the second theorist’s argument. By ending the scene without Maria denying the second theorist, we can assume she’s accepted that last theory presented to her.

Jumping off from this point, we can now tighten up our story. We don’t need to have a scene dedicated to Maria explaining that she’s accepted the earth is round. We can simply skip to the next scene (Maria making map in the shape of a globe).

Third, we can use these audience assumptions to shake things up.

If the audience assumes Maria accepts the earth is round, and the next thing we see is her telling people the earth is flat, then that’s going to throw the audience for a loop. It’s going to feel off. Maybe that’s what we want. Or maybe not. But whichever it is, we need to make sure we’re using audience assumptions to our story’s advantage (check out the examples in this post for more).

And finally, we can use these assumptions to misdirect our audience without lying to our audience.

This is tricky, delicate, and must be done carefully so as not to upset the audience.  We must be honest.  Misleading and misinformation are different.  (This topic really warrants a post of it’s own, but I’ll try to weave it into the example below).

How a scene ends can change the direction and interpretation of the story

Let’s say we’ve got a story in which a necklace goes missing.

Now, unless we’re delving into fantasy or sci-fi, there are pretty much two possibilities here:

  1. The necklace was misplaced.
  2. The necklace was stolen.

We’re going to say that the necklace was misplaced. However, for the majority of the tale, we want the audience to assume that the necklace was stolen.

Given this, we will add a scene in which the characters discuss that the necklace is missing and that they think it was stolen.

And here’s where we can start to use some misdirection.

Because, here’s the thing: as soon as the necklace goes missing, the audience will start to internally question what happened to it. And, odds are, they will come up with those two possibilities (stolen or misplaced). Which means, even though we don’t want the audience to think the necklace was misplaced, the story will nevertheless have to address the possibility.

Because if we don’t, the audience will spend the whole story thinking, “Well, obviously the necklace was misplaced! Why hasn’t anyone thought of that yet!?”

So, to pacify the audience, we have to address both possibilities.

And how can we do that without giving away what really happened?

One way is by how we structure our scene.

Let’s say we’re at the end of the scene in which the characters have just discovered that the necklace is missing and they are trying to figure out what could have happened.

One option is to end the scene this way:

Doug scratches his beard and sits. “We must consider the possibility that the necklace was stolen.”

Mary’s eyes widen. “Stolen?!  I suppose it’s possible.  But, in looking at all the evidence, I think we need to accept that the necklace was simply… misplaced.”

END OF SCENE.

Now the audience will probably assume the necklace was misplaced (especially if Mary is a character with credibility). And, while this is the truth, it’s not what we want the audience to assume at this point.

However, if we reverse the way the scene ends, we’re much closer to achieving our goals:

Doug scratches his beard and sits. “We must consider the possibility that the necklace was simply misplaced.”

Mary’s eyes widen. “Misplaced?!  I suppose it’s possible.  But, in looking at all the evidence, I think we need to accept that the necklace was… stolen.”

END OF SCENE.

Ah. That’s better, right?

We’ve addressed the possibility of the necklace having been misplaced, but the characters have dismissed it. So, the audience can dismiss it. We haven’t lied. We’ve misdirected.

Of course, this is very simplistic. For this to work, character credibility comes into play… we’ll need a valid reason why the characters dismiss the “misplaced” possibility… etc., etc., etc. But, how we structured the scene definitely helps lead the audience in the direction we want.

A few other things to consider:

First: the last “point” you make in a scene doesn’t have to be the last “word.” It can be the last thought (if you’re writing a novel).  Or, it could be the last look.  For example:

Doug scratches his beard and sits. “We must consider the possibility that the necklace was stolen.”

Mary’s eyes widen. “Stolen?!  I suppose it’s possible.  But, in looking at all the evidence, I think we need to accept that the necklace was simply… misplaced.”

The detective in the room looks sidelong at Mary, brow arched ever so slightly in disbelief.

END OF SCENE.

Now the audience thinks the necklace was stolen.

Second: How you end a scene will not only affect what your audience assumes, it will affect what your next scene should be.

If you end your scene with the detective’s disbelieving brow, then it would feel perfectly natural for the next scene to start with the detective interrogating the other characters.

But, if the scene ended with Mary suggesting the necklace was misplaced, and the next scene shows the interrogations, then that’s going to feel strange. If you want that confusion, great! If not, reconsider how your scenes flow into each other.

Bottom line: how a scene ends will affect how the story should proceed, as well as affect what the audience assumes.

So, when crafting a scene, ask yourself, “What is the point I want my audience to walk away with at the end of this moment?  And what do I want my audience to start the next scene believing?”


Screenplay Competitions book front cover

Screenplay Competitions has received endorsements from Dave Trottier (author, The Screenwriter’s Bible, www.keepwriting.com), Professor Richard Walter (former Screenwriting Area Head, Associate and Interim Dean UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television), Matt Dy (former Director of Script Competitions at Austin Film Festival), Professor Harry M. Cheney (Chapman University Dodge College of Film and Media Arts), script editor Lucy V. Hay (www.bang2write.com), and Emmy-wining writer Ken Levine (Hollywood and Levine).

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