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How to end a screenplay?

By BBC Maestro

Film and TV
Last updated: 22 May 2023

You’ve got a fantastic idea for a film or TV show. You’ve written a full script that you think will go down well. But there’s one problem – how do you finish it? 

Here’s everything you need to know about how to end a screenplay; from understanding what makes a good final scene, to using the correct screenplay format.

Ways to end your screenplay

Whether you’re writing for film or TV, your ending is as important as your opening scene. Your opening scene is designed to draw your reader in – and your ending should leave your viewer wanting more and anticipating the next episode or series (if it’s a TV show) or thinking about the film long after it’s finished. 

Some common ways to end a film or screenplay include:

  • A flashback, often to the first scene of the film or show
  • A montage to show what’s happened to the main characters
  • An epilogue (this is particularly common for documentaries and films based on real-life events to show what happened)
  • A cliffhanger ending
  • Characters going on a new adventure, often to set up for a sequel
  • A surprise twist ending
  • A resolution to the main action
  • Characters going their separate ways – or alternatively, having an emotional reunion
  • Moral or philosophical musings

The opportunities are endless – but whatever you choose, it must be the right fit for the story you’re trying to tell.

Cinema seats

What makes a good ending?

As Jed Mercurio explains, in his BBC Maestro course, Writing Drama For Television, how you approach the ending will depend on what kind of screenplay you’re writing. He says:

“If it is an episodic series it will need a closed ending – the crime is solved, the culprit unmasked – but it should be so riveting that the audience wants more of the same. Or maybe there’s a small element of serial that goes forward and creates a cliff-hanger or hook. If you enjoyed it, you are enticed to come back and watch another episode.”

He goes on to explain:

“In commercial television, where there are defined act breaks, you could end an act with a discovery, a cliff-hanger, a person in jeopardy with no way out. All these tell the audience that the story is changing direction, and that there will be higher stakes, more complications, without revealing what the next step is going to be before the break. In episodic story-of-the-week television, the mission is often completed, the criminal caught, the patient cured, the matter resolved. Always be aware of what kind of show you are writing, and end it in the most appropriate way.”

When it comes to films, it’s slightly different. Do you want to leave the ending open to allow the possibility for a sequel? Or is it one and done, and you want to leave viewers with a final scene that will stay in their minds forever?

Think of the final scene of Baby Driver, where Debora is waiting for Baby in a vintage car, with a rainbow in the distance. Or the ending of Thelma and Louise, which shows the pair’s Thunderbird mid-air after they drive it off a cliff, before the screen blends into bright white.

Both have something in common: they make the viewer think. Whether they’re satisfying endings or not is up for debate, but they’re certainly memorable.

Know your ending before you start

Whether you’re writing for TV or film, it’s vital that you know where your script is going. Try to wing it as you go along, and you’re unlikely to end up with a polished, satisfying piece of film or television.

This is something writer Alan Moore has come to learn during his experience of writing a five-season television series. He says, in his BBC Maestro course, Storytelling:

“It gave me some idea how you should lay these things out. Foremost was that I knew the ending before I started - what the last shot in the last episode of the last season was going to be. I cannot underline how important this is. I have given up on box sets where it becomes apparent that the writers are making it up as they go along. The shapeless narrative drift is a terrible experience for both the writer and for the viewer, having invested hours watching to discover that there wasn’t any meaningful ending. It is important in any medium to know your ending first, but in something as long form as television it is vital.”

How to plan your ending

You might have a great idea to end your screenplay – but it’ll only be effective if it works with the rest of your film. And, as Alan Moore pointed out, you need to know in advance what the ending of your screenplay will look like.

One way of doing this is to use a three act structure when writing your screenplay. This is a way of structuring your story into three acts, so that major plot points are evenly divided between the first, second and third acts.

That means the ending of your screenplay should resolve the drama and conflict that’s been built up in the first two acts. Tensions reach a climax, and the story is either resolved or left as a cliffhanger ending – it’s just up to you to write that perfect final scene.

One way to map out your entire script to ensure it flows well together is by using index cards. Writer and director Edgar Wright explains the system in his BBC Maestro course, Filmmaking:

“You basically break the script down into its three-act structure by assigning ten index cards to the first act, twenty to the second act, and ten to the third act, and you write all the significant plot points on each card to get a sense of the full arc.”

If you’re a visual person, you can also storyboard your film to outline exactly what happens in your film, on a scene by scene basis, by using comic book-style panels. This not only helps you to plan out your narrative, ensuring your ending works with the rest of your screenplay, but it also makes it easier to make adjustments if something doesn’t quite work when you come to shoot it.

Two people watch the end credits on a cinema screen

How to get the screenplay format right for your final scene

You’ve written the final piece of dialogue. You’ve given the final directions for your characters. You’ve tied up the loose ends (or not) and the narrative of your final scene fits in with the rest of your screenplay.

What happens next?

First, you should write ‘The End’ to signify the end of the action. This seems like a silly point, but it’s often overlooked. Then, you’ll need to indicate in your screenplay what happens at the very end, after the final scene of action.

The main options for this are:

  • Fade to black: This means that the final scene will slowly fade from a fully lit picture to a black screen.
  • Blackout: This is an instant switch from the final scene to blackness, unlike the slow fade to black.
  • Fade to white: Instead of slowly fading to a black screen, the final scene will slowly fade to white
  • Smash cut: A smash cut to the credits abruptly changes from the final scene to the credits, with no fade to black or black out.
  • Roll credits: An alternative to a smash cut is to roll the credits over moving images at the end of your film.

Getting the screenplay format correct can be a little tricky, but screenwriting software can help with this – and will ensure that your screenplay looks professional, ready to impress.

Are you feeling inspired? Whether you want to hone the other aspects of scriptwriting or want to find out more about the other aspects of making a film, our maestri are here to help. 


Find out more about writing for television with expert advice from Jed Mercurio on everything from ideas to getting your TV show made, or learn about making films from Edgar Wright, who covers everything from storyboarding to pitching to studios.