Michael Arndt – His Take on Great Ending

Several years ago I attended the Hawaii Writers Conference (now defunct), where Michael Arndt, an Academy Award screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine, spoke about how to craft a great ending. What Michael Arndt discussed was inspiring. He made a lasting impact on my understanding of successful storytelling. Afterward, I watched Little Miss Sunshine over and over and over again, trying to learn how Michael Arndt had achieved the film’s emotionally and viscerally loaded ending.

Note: Below is merely a ‘snapshot,’ my take from Michael Arndt’s talk; therefore, any errors or misrepresentation of his ideas are solely my fault. To fully understand Michael Arndt’s great ideas of how to write a great ending, I strongly recommend you attend one of his talks.

Michael Arndt’s Idea of a Great Ending

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine film poster

Many story has a great beginning, a good middle, but fails on its ending. As a writer, you invite the readers into your story world, and your task is to guide them through the fictitious world, and then, at the end, allow them to exit your story loaded with “lasting impressions.” You want your readers to remember your story. You want your story to impact your readers. It’s all about what some writers call the “abiding moments.” It’s all about the readers’ experience. That lingering feeling that stays long after closing the book. To achieve this, the ending must be an emotional and visceral conclusion to your story. In film, Michael Arndt explained “it’s all about the climactic last few minutes, when the ‘meaning’ of the story is revealed. Ideally, that meaning should tell us ‘how we should live,’ impressed by a sense of euphoria.”

Michael Arndt Defines Three Possible Endings

  1. Bad ending = positive, but predictable
  2. Good ending = positive, and surprising
  3. Great ending = positive, surprising, and meaningful (resonate with people’s heart)

Michael Arndt Defines Set of Values to Drive a Story

The ‘meaning,’ an important ingredient to achieve a great ending, is built on a ‘set of values.’ There are only two kinds: (1) dominant value, and (2) underdog value. Throughout the story, the two values are always in conflict. When the dominant value verges on defeating the underdog value, tension is created. Then, at the end, a sudden reversal happens, which overturns the moral order, and thus a great ending is achieved, where the meaning supercharges the emotions. (Watch Little Miss Sunshine and you’ll understand what this is all about.)

Michael Arndt Defines Three Stakes to Drive a Story

There are three “stakes” in a story.

  1. External (physical, achievable goal)
  2. Internal (emotional)
  3. Philosophical (abstract meaning)

These three stakes must be made clear, each with its own scenes, each with its own antagonist and mentor. The resolution of the three stakes – external, internal, and philosophical – must occur at the climax in proximity, best in ascending order of importance.

In the classical ‘three act’ story structure, each act must have its own goals and setbacks, which, when repeated, build tension. Then in the ‘third act’ everything must turn out badly for the main character, leading the character toward a ‘moment of despair,’ a ‘no way out’ situation, a situation where the audience (or readers) can’t see any hope. Then the character acts in an unexpected way (surprise), where the audience (or readers) would scream, “Stop” (climactic tension).  This is the ‘kamikaze moment.’

Pushing the character to the extreme is the key.  Find a dominant value, then counter it with an underdog value. Build it all on emotions.

Michael Arndt’s Stakes and Values in Little Miss Sunshine

  1. External Stake = Win the Contest.
  2. Internal Stake = “Am I pretty?”  “I don’t want to be a loser, because daddy hates losers.”  Fear of failure.  Winning Daddy’s love.
  3. Philosophical Stake = There are two kinds of people, Winners and Losers.
  4. Dominant Value = the Market Value.  The public success.  Fame.
  5. Underdog Value = “You live your own life.” Enjoy. Have fun. (Note: Grandpa is the mentor supporting this underdog value.)

Michael Arndt Digs into the Three Acts Structure of Little Miss Sunshine

(Note: Below is a brief outline of how Michael Arndt structured Little Miss Sunshine to achieve a great ending. Please watch the film for greater understanding.)

ACT One: Break – Set off for Redondo Beach

The ‘inciting incident’ kicking off the story is Aunt Cindy’s call, which puts Olive, the main character, in motion.

The two values – dominant and underdog – are laid out in scenes; goals and setbacks are layered into the fabric of the story.

  • Richard fails
  • Grandpa dies
  • Dwayne fails

ACT Two: Goal – Arrive at Redondo Beach

The ‘reversal’ happens at the hotel, when visually, all becomes clear that ‘Olive will not win.’  So most rush to try to stop her in fear of her embarrassing herself.  The ‘kamikaze moment’ is when the mother says, “Honey, you don’t have to do this,” but Olive decides – listening to what Grandpa would have wanted her to do – and go for it.

ACT Three: Final Setback at the Contest

The ‘climax’ – when the underdog value wins over the dominant value – is the ‘Super Freak’ dance sequence. Then, to elevate the climax higher, Richard and Dwayne, both of whom had failed earlier, join the dance (this scene, for me, brought strong emotional and visceral response; I admit, I teared up).

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Now, having written this blog about Michael Arndt’s how to craft a great ending, I’m motivated, again, to watch (and study) Little Miss Sunshine. If you too are inspired to watch the film, please let me know what you think about Michael Arndt’s ideas on how to craft a great ending.

5 Comments

  1. Pingback: All’s Well That Ends Well: Star Wars Ep. IV – Civil Enginerd

  2. Jake

    Great job, Almon. The information is clearly presented and very helpful.

    Reply
    1. J. Almon Polk (Post author)

      Thank you, Jake, for your kind words. So much to learn from Michael Arndt, isn’t there? I read your post “All’s Well That Ends Well.” You’re right about Arndt reading a lot of screenplays. He said in his talk in Hawaii that his first job was reading through hundreds of screenplays, and that job gave him the deep understanding of the importance of structure, what works and what doesn’t, which led to his writing Little Miss Sunshine (LMS). When you watch LMS on DVD, there’s a bonus feature that shows alternate endings (scenes) that were considered. If you have time, watch those alternates. Of course, the ending that was selected in the final cut is the best. Thank you again, Jake. My website is a lonely place; you put a ‘little sunshine” in it. Happy writing.

      Reply
  3. Chris Norbury

    Terrific post. Thanks for sharing. Talk about getting the essence of a great story in a nutshell.

    Chris

    Reply
    1. J. Almon Polk (Post author)

      Thanks, Chris. Michael Arndt is a great storyteller. So much to learn from him.

      Reply

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