This is the final installment in a series analyzing the humor, heart, and zany plots of various Pixar films. The focus is on applying these principles to children’s stories, however, writers of all genres can benefit from Pixar’s literary genius, so I highly encourage you to have a seat and prepare to write like the wind!
Do you prefer happy or sad endings? I gotta admit, I don’t like sad endings (it’s too expensive to keep buying Kleenex boxes). On the other hand, happy endings make me raise an eyebrow and think, “Well, that ain’t gonna happen to me.”
That’s why I love endings that have a hint of sadness. They make me happy without giving me an unrealistic portrayal of life. After all, life isn’t all storm clouds, but it’s not all sunshine either. Good will always conquer, but that doesn’t mean darkness isn’t still hanging around in the shadows.
But you’re probably thinking, Wait! Pixar endings are happy endings. Are they really? Are they fairytale perfect? Do all the characters’ dreams come true?
I hope you’ll join me for my last article in this series as I show you five tips to craft an ending that will bring tears to readers’ eyes and a smile to their faces.
1. Make Your Protagonist Sacrifice Something They Love
If you aspire be a published writer, you might have to skip a coffee date to finish your daily word count. You might have to venture outside of your introverted comfort zone and actually talk to people (or worse, talk on the phone!). You might even have to spend some of your hard-earned advance to make sells. What I’m saying is, if you’re pursuing your dream, you’re going to have to make sacrifices to achieve it.
The same goes for our characters. We can’t expect them to reach the finish line without some kind of sacrifice (however small). Woody didn’t go with Andy to college so he could be with his friends. Carl Fredricksen abandoned his cherished house (and thus the lovely memories he made there with Ellie) to rescue his newfound buds, Russell and Kevin. Sulley let Boo go home to grow up and a live a normal child’s life, even though she’d become like a daughter to him.
Besides adding realism, a sacrifice contributes meaning and value. It shows readers that the character’s inner goal and your story’s moral (see below) is worth the bruises. So what can your character sacrifice to win his battle? Try to make it something that actually means something to him. Maybe his dream job, his favorite cowboy toy, or first place in a race he longed to win his whole life.
2. Uphold Your Story’s Morals
One of the reasons I disliked Toy Story 4 (spoilers ahead) was that it didn’t remain true to the values of the first three movies. Woody had always been devoted to his kid and his gang no matter what—then suddenly he decides to abandon Bonnie and his friends to live a life of excitement with Bo Peep?
Obviously, if a story revolves around truth, family, and hope, a writer isn’t going to end it with the protagonist ditching his family to become a swindler. Even a novice writer isn’t that inept. However, you might be subtly undermining your story’s themes without realizing it.
For example, if your story is centered around contentment, you shouldn’t tie off your story with your protagonist finding a long lost pirate treasure. How can he learn contentment when he has everything money can buy? Wouldn’t it be better for him to find gratitude in the small treasures of each day? Unless your character has a negative arc, such an ending will (most likely) rip your moral apart and leave readers feeling empty.
What if Mr. Incredible had decided to save Metroville on his own—without his family’s help? What if MacQueen had won the race, and then turned back to help the King? What if Remi had decided to return to his clan and cook for his family? Most of these aren’t bad endings of themselves. If The Incredibles was about protecting your family, that would’ve been a perfect finale. If Ratatouille was centered on finding joy in the mundane, that would’ve been a touching ending. If Cars had been about winning no matter what the cost, well, no one would’ve watched the movie. But as is, these alternatives endings shatter the moral of the story.
Look at your ending for a moment without thinking of your story’s moral. Think of yourself as a person who stopped into a bookstore and you randomly skipped to the ending without knowing the rest of the story. What theme(s) does it give off? Do they match the rest of the story?
3. Don’t Let Your Protagonist Get What He Wants
The soldier wins the war. The knight conquers the dragon. The guy gets the girl. Sorry, but those are fairytales. Oftentimes, the battle is just starting, the knight finds out the dragon is one of many, and the guy has no idea where the girl is. Yes, sometimes we do get what we want. Dreams can come true…after a while. But it’s an exception rather than a rule. And even when we receive what we want, we don’t always get it when or how we would’ve liked it.
Did Mike become the world renown scarer he always dreamed of being? No, he was kicked out of the university. Did Russell’s dad start spending time with him? Nope, he was still as busy as ever. Did Lightning MacQueen continue racing for the rest of his life? No, he retired and a become a racing coach.
The two primary reasons we shouldn’t let our characters have everything is 1) it’s unrealistic, and 2) the thing they want isn’t what they need (and they can’t have both). Think of them as your babies (which they are). Stop feeding them cake and give them what they need to become strong characters that will impact the world.
4. Continue the Story
First, I want to clarify, the subtitle does not mean you should write a sequel! If it works and you’ve got the guts, go for it! Many times you’ll find a stand-alone is the best option, but just because your book ends, doesn’t mean your story does.
The sad thing about most fairytale endings is that it implies the story is (more or less) finished. They live happily ever after and nothing bad ever happens again. But as long as a character’s living, that’s not going to happen. They’ll encounter problems, have new experiences, and continue to grow and learn.
In The Incredibles, the ending was just the beginning of their new life superheroing as a family and fighting against villains like the evil Underminer. In Finding Nemo, Marlin and Dory had a whole ocean to explore as Nemo grew into adulthood. In Wall-E, the characters had a planet to clean and cultivate as they started a new life on earth.
Your character’s life doesn’t end on the last page. Try giving readers a glimpse into future adventures, challenges, or life happenings your character might face. Maybe they’ll have to deal with the hazards of a puppy. Maybe they’ll have more races to win. Or maybe they’ll be starting up a new factory that operates on laughter instead of screams.
Then let readers’ imagination fill in the rest.
5. Provide a Greater Good
Saving the world is important, but sometimes other things are the greatest good your character is ever going to get. Like spending time with their wife, for example. Hanging out with the kids. Relaxing in a small town. When you don’t give your character what they want, you need to provide them with something better.
Sure, Mike didn’t become a scarer, but he gained a best friend and together they could do anything. MacQueen forfeited the race, but he found a hometown that’d always root for him—win or lose. Remi lost Gusteau’s, but he become a cook in a small restaurant where he was loved and appreciated.
Even though these endings weren’t what the characters wanted (or expected), they were still happy. In fact, they were happier than if their wishes had been granted. In life, the best things aren’t physical—they aren’t shiny piston cups, dream jobs, or unending fame. A true happy ending is when we become a better version of ourselves and embrace truth.
Ask yourself what greater good you can give your protagonist that fulfills their need. Maybe they’ve lost their home. Give them shelter in their family’s love. Maybe they’ve lost their best friend. You can give hope by having them fulfill their friend’s mission to cure cancer. Or maybe they’ve finished a beautiful book, you can give them a new one to read.
So Long, Partner
No one likes saying goodbye. Especially readers who love your story. How can they let go of the characters they’ve walked with on every page? But alas, goodbyes are a part of life. So make your farewell a good one. One that will make them want to revisit your story again and again.
And it seems, dear reader, we’ve come to the end of our Pixar journey. We’ve met likable protagonists, fascinating worlds, and dastardly villains. I hope you’ve had as much fun as I have, and that my words will help you take your story to infinity and beyond.
For the rest of the posts in this series: