How to Write an Ending Like a Boss: Ask Pixar

So you wanna write a great ending. Look at the classics, right? Well…

Disney Pixar animated GIF

It may or may not surprise you to learn that we watch a lot of kids’ movies at our house. Rather, it might be more correct to say that we watch a few kids movies a hell of a lot. Now, I love a good kids’ movie. In top rotation at our house are Frozen, Cars, Toy Story, The Lego Movie, The Little Mermaid, and an occasional Despicable Me or Aladdin (which the kids will suffer through only when my wife and I can’t stand another iteration of the first string). Now, those are all, in their own right, pretty good movies. Check their Rotten Tomatoes scores for that. But what I didn’t realize was just how good these kids movies were at endings.

Think about it. How many stories have you read, movies you’ve watched, TV series you’ve slogged through, only to get to the end and say “what a let down”? Fantastic premises can take you only so far. A good ending ties a bow on the story and sends you walking out of the theater or running out to buy the next book in the series buzzing with excitement.

As a general rule, any writer will tell you that you should never solve a conflict without a cost. For every step the protagonists take toward their goal, either the target should move or the zombies should snap at their heels. As a result, the story becomes a series of “Yes, but”s: Do the space pirates find the lost treasure of Kala-Zeron? Yes, but the ruins of the ship are filled with moon-vampires; or “No, and”s: Can the star-crossed zombie lovers find each other before the survivors hiding in the mall blow their brains out? No, and also, each of them is losing limbs at an alarming rate.

It’s not hard to find this pattern in any story. Good stories do this effortlessly, but what I’ve noticed is that not only is the entire plot of Toy Story set up this way, but the last ten minutes not only sticks to the formula, but cranks it up to eleven.

These go to eleven.
These go to eleven.

The characters go from ALL IS SAVED to ALL IS LOST again and again, and each setback is worse than the last.

Take a look at the last ten minutes of Toy Story to see what a roller coaster ride a good ending can be, and bear in mind that all of what happens below passes after the big bad has been dispatched.

Woody and Buzz and Sid’s toys best Sid in time to make it to Andy’s car before he leaves on his move across town. ALL IS SAVED! But Buzz, with Sid’s ridiculously oversized rocket still strapped to his back, can’t fit through the fence. ALL IS LOST.

Woody jumps off of the car to help free Buzz from the fence. ALL IS SAVED! Buzz is loose, but the car drives off just as they reach for it. ALL IS LOST.

Luckily, the gate strap on the moving truck hangs really low, and as it drives over them, they realize they can grab hold of it and get onto the truck. ALL IS SAVED! They catch the moving truck, but Sid’s dog (who was let out of the house earlier in their scheme) chomps onto Woody’s leg and he can’t get on the truck. ALL IS LOST.

Buzz is no slouch, and saving people in need is his jam. Just as Woody did for him, Buzz sacrifices his ride to launch a suicide attack on the dog, who immediately lets go of Woody. ALL IS SAVED! But, now, Buzz is in a tangle for his life with the dog. The dog whips him around and he skitters to rest under a car as the truck drives off. ALL IS LOST.

Woody is safe on the truck, but is now more determined than ever to bring Buzz home with him. He opens the back of the truck, quickly finds his buddy RC car, and kicks him out onto the street to go scoop up Buzz. ALL IS SAVED! But the other toys, distrustful of Woody after knocking Buzz out of Andy’s window in the first place, think he’s just tried to murder another of their friends. They toss him out of the back of the truck. ALL IS LOST.

Buzz, still on a crash course with the truck from Woody’s driving, plows into Woody and scoops him up. Now they race after the truck together on the remote controlled car (now driven not so remotely by Woody). ALL IS SAVED!

They catch up to the truck through some smooth driving, but they can’t quite make it onto the platform dragging behind the truck. ALL IS LOST.

Slinky Dog extends himself as a lifeline to pull them in. They catch hold of Slinky Dog, and it looks like they’ll make it into the truck after all. ALL IS SAVED! But all of a sudden, the car’s batteries start to die, and as the car slows to a halt, Slinky slips out of their hands and goes recoiling into the back of the truck. ALL IS LOST, for real this time.

This time, it really looks dire. RC is dead weight, and the truck has sped off into the distance. All seems lost, but then they realize that Buzz is still wearing the rocket, and Woody still has a match to light it. ALL IS SAVED!

Woody lights the match, but a passing car blows it out. ALL IS LOST.

Woody prostrates himself on the ground in sorrow. The light from the sun refracts through Buzz’s bubble helmet and begins to cook Woody’s hand. Woody, having earlier been roasted under a magnifying glass, has a revelation; Buzz’s helmet can function as a focusing lens. They can light the rocket. ALL IS SAVED!

They light the rocket, remembering an instant too late that rockets explode. But there’s nothing for it; the rocket ignites and sends them screaming after the truck.Their breakneck speed causes them to lift off as they close on the truck. Woody tosses RC car back into the truck with the other toys as the rocket carries Woody and Buzz soaring into the air.

It looks like they are well and truly fargoed. Either the rocket will blow them to bits, or they will smash themselves to pieces as they fall back to earth. Woody says his goodbyes, but Buzz extends his wings, shearing the tape. The rocket explodes in dramatic fashion as Buzz and Woody sail away on Buzz’s previously-thought-useless wings.

They sail through the air with the greatest of ease, passing the truck entirely. The ride ends as Buzz and Woody drop through the sunroof into the very car they were trying to get into in the first place.

Tracking the ups and downs is enough to give you whiplash, not to mention the callbacks to previously established arcs (Buzz’s determination to fly, Woody’s redemption in saving Buzz, Sid trying to blow up Buzz but giving him the means to save himself and Woody). This is a truly masterful ending. Now, if only I could get a fraction of that many twists and turns into my upcoming ending…

All screencaps are courtesy of Disney Screencaps dot com. Toy Story is property of Disney / Pixar.

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