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Great endings not that easy to come by

Michael Arndt talks about what works best at film fest forum

- Michael Arndt speaks at the Vancouver International film Festival's Film and TV Forum as part of "Film Day" on Sept. 29 at 11:15 a.m. Anyone interested in learning more can go to and register there. Tickets for his workshop are $35 and Forum passes are $325.

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What makes a great ending? Michael Arndt has a pretty good idea.

"An ending has to wrap not only the narrative logic of the story," he says, "and it also has to be emotionally fulfilling. It has to wrap up the emotional logic of the story."

Arndt would know. He's the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of the 2006 indie hit Little Miss Sunshine and he's bringing his insights on wrapping up a story to a Sept. 29 session of the Film and TV Forum, being held in conjunction with the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Dubbed "Endings: The Good, the Bad and the Insanely Great," it will articulate for aspiring screenwriters the difference between a lousy ending, a good ending and a great ending. Endings to films such as Star Wars, The Graduate and Little Miss Sunshine will help him hammer home his points.

When you're writing a story, the ending can often be the most difficult part. You set up a conflict, maybe a subplot, and you have to resolve them by the end. Any narrative elements you introduce have to fit into your conclusion.

That's enough to create a "good" ending, the kind of film you'll smile at, leave the theatre and think about no more when you go home. As Arndt tells it, a "great" ending needs a little more.

"I think that a lot of times, a movie will wrap up the narrative logic nice and cleanly, and the emotional logic nice and cleanly," he says. "But very frequently, a story's meaning is very obvious or predictable. You have good guys versus bad guys, and what you want to do is to make the story's ending meaningful but in a surprising way."

Arndt feels a good story needs three things at stake: an external set of stakes, like Rocky Balboa becoming champion of the world; an emotional set of stakes, like whether Finding Nemo's main character will ever get his son to love him again; and a philosophical set of stakes, which sees two values run headlong against each other.

"You want it to look as though the hero has been defeated in all three sets of stakes," Arndt says. "You want to see him going down in flames and there's not a positive outcome possible, and then quickly it's possible. You want to create this sort of cascading reversal in which each of the outcomes gets slipped from negative to positive."

The Graduate most certainly fits that bill. The 1967 classic told of Benjamin Braddock, a university graduate who isn't sure what he wants to do with the rest of his life. He's welcomed as a hero when he comes home to California and his parents expect great things of him. What he wants of himself is another matter entirely.

He gets into an ill-advised affair with Mrs. Robinson, his father's best friend's wife, a relationship made all the more complicated when he falls in love with her daughter Elaine.

You're not entirely sure of where the movie is going with this until the end, when Elaine is about to be married off to another man. Benjamin arrives in a huff, interrupts the wedding and sweeps Elaine off with him on a bus out of town.

They laugh together as they sit in the back seat ... and then they stop. They exchange awkward smiles and the movie ends, its denoument accompanied by Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence," the very song that plays at the film's opening when you meet a character uncertain of his future.

The ending is strange, but it works ... and for Arndt, it's one of the best ever conceived for film.

"It just always works, it never fails to work," he says. "I just can't imagine a more perfectly calibrated and executed ending than The Graduate. It's the last two minutes are just a happiness machine which sends people out smiling, and that's a very difficult thing to do."