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How To Close Your Film

"Daughter From Danang" (2003), a verite documentary by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, delivered a powerful third-act climax that neither the audience nor the filmmaker could have predicted.  (Photo courtesy of filmmakers and American Experience.)

"Daughter From Danang" (2003), a verite documentary by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, delivered a powerful third-act climax that neither the audience nor the filmmaker could have predicted. (Photo courtesy of filmmakers and American Experience.)

Act Three:
Answering the Central Question

Screenwriters know that at the end of Act Two, things should be as bad as they can imaginably get.  Then in Act Three, they get even worse.  The function of the third act is to ramp up suspense to a crisis that is so unbearable that the protagonist must call forth a supreme effort.  This crisis, the story climax, will answer with finality the film’s central question:  did the protagonist get what she desired?

In verite films, of course, the ending is impossible to predict.  By extension, so are the production schedule and costs–which is why observational films are unpopular with funders.  Verite films that are good bets for funding are likely to be structured around a contest, an election, a performance, or even an effort, i.e., having a baby or organizing a trade union.  These measurable endeavors furnish predictable obstacles and probable climaxes within foreseeable time constraints.  For example, in Spellbound (2002), a film about a national spelling bee contest, or Journeys with George (2002), a verite film about George W. Bush’s first campaign for president, there is an obligatory scene (the contest or election) that can supply a treatment paper with an obvious third-act climax.

While funding may be hard to come by, filmmakers undertaking less predictable verite films can take heart.  A verite documentary can deliver a powerful third-act punch precisely because the ending is unexpected.  In Daughter From Danang (2003), the startling story climax earned the film an Academy Award nomination.

Denouement:  Giving Good Closure

The denouement (also called “resolution”) should give the viewer two valuable aspects of closure:  a chance to catch their breath after an emotional climax, and a glimpse of what life is like now that the protagonist has concluded her journey.  The denouement is occasionally constructed as an epilogue, a device more commonly found in documentaries than in narrative films.  As in Daughter From Danang, the epilogue can take the form of a “two years later” verite snapshot.  Or, the epilogue may be solely comprised of end cards that tie up loose ends and update viewers on character’s lives. Some films, like Capturing the Friedmans, combine both verite snapshots and textual cards to resolve the story.

Whatever form the denouement takes, it should not drag on. Ambitious attempts to spell out the film’s meaning, or the influx of new conflicts that require a bumpy double climax, can fatally flaw a film.  Audiences want one ending, not two.  And they appreciate a denouement that will let them exit the theater with enough energy to ponder the story’s meaning in their own company, not the director’s.

Audiences today bank on the promise that non-fiction cinema will thrill them with the hero’s call to adventure-bringing them into a real world they have never visited before-and then safely guiding them through the obstacles, reversals and climaxes of a meaningful story.  And while screenwriters no longer have a lock on good narratives, they can still offer invaluable structural guidance to today’s emerging documentary storytellers.

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