Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Cliches I'm tired of seeing - Part Two - "To Be Continued"

At last we’re going to get to discuss one of my biggest pet peeves as a reader. I’ve mentioned before that readers invariably will flip to the back page once they get a script so they can see how long it is. What I didn’t mention is that a page number above 120 is only the second worst thing they could hope to see there.

The worst: three little words at the bottom – “To Be Continued.”

A sure way to get a pass is to hold off resolving the central question of your story in the script, but crafting a final scene that promises all will be revealed in the sequel. Never, EVER, do this. It’s certainly fair to leave a few minor things unresolved at the end of the movie, plot points that could be expounded upon in future films – but if the whole movie is building up to something it’s idiotic to slap a cliffhanger on the film and push the resolution into the next movie. When you’re trying to sell your first script, make sure your story stands on its own with a beginning, middle and end. No one pays $14 a ticket to see just a beginning and a middle.

Look at Star Wars. Despite the fact that it spawned five sequels and a host of spin-offs and tie-ins, the first movie works as a standalone film on its own. In 1977, the only really loose thread at the end is Darth Vader spinning off into nowhere – and the central question of Star Wars isn’t Darth Vader’s fate. Had the movie stopped just as the X-Wings moved in to attack the Death Star and George Lucas flashed text saying “To Be Continued in The Empire Strikes Back” I doubt the film would have been even a fraction as successful.

Who am I kidding? Had Lucas done that in the screenplay, it never would have been made. Look at the first films in any franchise and you’ll see that all of them work as standalone films and none of them have To Be Continueds that leave major story points unresolved.

It’s not that I don’t understand the motivation here. If there’s one thing that Hollywood seems to be hungry for more than anything else, it’s a franchise that they can strip mine to death until everyone wonders what they ever liked about the original film in the first place. So I can certainly see how a writer might think that it’s a great selling point to their script if they come in with a trilogy. “You get to make three movies about these characters! Isn’t that great?” says the desperate writer.

No, genius, because someone has to SEE the first movie first – and there has to be enough of a return on the initial investment to justify the expense of making another one. No one sets out to make a bomb, but you can never predict what films will get accepted and what will get rejected by the marketplace. After Speed Racer tanked last summer, I guarantee that the Wachowski brothers are glad they didn’t sink a lot of capital into shooting two movies at once. And I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the sequel to The Golden Compass either.


  1. "Look at the first films in any franchise and you’ll see that all of them work as standalone films and none of them have To Be Continueds that leave major story points unresolved."

    What about The Fellowship of the Ring? It must be quite an exception. Apparently the only way to make a coherent trilogy is to set out to make three films from the very beginning, a thing you just pointed out takes a miracle to happen. Something that pushes the money people to take the risk.

    I guess I just wanted to point out that making a stand-alone film to be later followed by two sequels doesn't usually produce the best kind of trilogy, a complete arc like The Lord of the Rings.

  2. LoTR isn't really applicable to this discussion as the studio decided from the start they were going to produce the whole trilogy. Furthermore, it wasn't a story sold on spec.

    When I said franchise, I was thinking more of the Die Hards, Lethal Weapons, Batmans, Rush Hours, Back to the Futures, Pirates of the Caribbean and just about every other film series you can think of. A situation like Lord of the Rings comes about once in a lifetime.

    Don't forget - Peter Jackson was originally only trying to sell New Line on making LoTR as two movies, it was Bob Shaye who said, "Why not do three?" The rules are different for established directors and studio heads, especially when dealing with familiar properties.

    A first time writer will never sell an epic trilogy spec. That's just the way it works. And yet I can't count how many unagented specs I've seen where the writer clearly padded Part I with filler so that he could have a cliffhanger ending that is resolved in Part II.

  3. Interesting. One of the things I've enjoyed doing at the end of some of my scripts is to write not "THE END", but "THE BEGINNING". I guarantee you, these scripts are self contained single scripts with definite endings that have done well in the Nicholls. But I've liked pointing out how they also end with strong sequel potential.
    But now you have me worried I've marked them for death. Do you see a distinction between "TO BE CONTINUED", and "THE BEGINNING"?

  4. Yeah, I think there's a distinction. "To Be Continued" is most often employed as a cliffhanger that promises the central conflict of the story will be resolved in a second film. Star Wars (Episode IV, obviously) is a good example of a "The Beginning" sort of script. The main conflict has been brought to the close, with the promise of a new begining or status quo. It sounds like your scripts are an example of this done right.

  5. Whew! Yes, Star Wars 4 is an example of the thing i have in mind, where the story is resolved, but the possibilities for the larger story to continue is pronounced.