Dear Doc Doctor:
My documentary has three potential endings. How do I choose one?
False starts, fake endings, such are the tricks that storytelling—and life—plays on us. But it’s important to remember that endings are choices, even when documenting real events.
If your story is conflict-driven, the ending will come shortly after the resolution of the conflict. Exactly where in the plot this happens depends on the intensity of the conflict and the nature of the resolution. If your story is not conflict-driven, the challenge is that sometimes there seems to be no ending. Leaving you to create an artificial sense of completion—a much more subjective task. The best way to do this is to make sure you cover all angles of a character or topic so that your audience feels a certain level of satisfaction or saturation. Do more than that, though, and you may be accused of being self-indulgent.
The characters’ stories have to wrap up in descending order—minor characters first, main character last. If this doesn’t happen, the story will feel disjointed, as if it has multiple endings. You might say to yourself, “But it happened in that order.” Know that this is the time to make an ethical choice: Does the order in which you choose to close character’s stories jeopardize the truthfulness of the overall documentary?
Multiple endings are also symptomatic of a scattered structure or the filmmaker’s unwillingness to let go of certain scenes. If this is the case, just remember that you can put leftover materials in the DVD extras or post them as media clips on your website. Nothing is ever lost.
Epilogues and/or postscripts can also create a false ending if they are badly handled. I recommend that you use the slate credits to separate them from the main story, followed by the end roll credits. If that’s not an option, make sure a nice long fadeout— or similar device—tells the audience that the story is over and that everything that follows is bonus material. Finding an ending, settling on one among many, or simply accepting that there isn’t one can create anxiety. Paul Gardener assuaged his own distress by believing that “a painting is never finished: it just stops in interesting places.”
And he was right. After all, whenever something ends, something else begins, giving birth to a plethora of sequels, remakes, and director’s cuts. For better or worse, there are really only transitions hiding behind end credits. The idea of something ending is merely the illusory result of our linear thinking.