The Four Types of Endings: The Green Knight
To understand the four types of endings in traditional narratives, let’s take the approach that well-constructed dramatic narratives are actually two stories being told simultaneously. Nearly every story has an inner journey and an outer journey.
The outer journey is the plot of the film (A search for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, a quest to destroy the One Ring of Power, a romantic tale that hinges on the pursuit of a specific relationship, A horror story in which the monster must be destroyed). The outer journey, or the plot of the story is the driving force of story structure. These are the elements that we can most clearly plot out on a timeline; they are the tropes that tend to lend themselves well to standard models of storytelling (e.g., plot points, reversals, act breaks, etc.). This is what the main character WANTS in the story.
The inner journey is a bit more nebulous. It’s the part of the story we feel, and it unfolds differently from story to story… also from genre to genre. Some genres have internal journey’s woven into their fabric, for example, monomythic stories, like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Jason and the Argonauts, Beowulf, and The Epic of Gilgamesh all have similar inner stories. Monomythic stories tend to be about a lowly person rising up from their humble beginnings to go on an epic journey for the purpose of destroying their ego and somehow making the world a better place.
Horror stories are also stories that have embedded themes. They are typically about retribution of sin or confronting your own personal demons (which are personified in the monster of the story).
Drama is the genre in which the writer is free to explore any theme he or she wants. Dramas can be about courage, trust, honor, greed, love, hate, etc. Drama is also the genre we see woven most heavily into nearly every single modern story.
Hollywood doesn’t really make true genre films anymore (with the exception of some horror films). Nearly every Hollywood film we watch is actually a hybrid of drama and at least one other genre. This gives the writer the chance to explore different themes in other genres. The Silence of the Lambs is not a pure horror film. It’s a horror drama. Even though Clarice must contend with her inner demons (which she fails at doing, by the way), the story unfolds following the tropes of drama rather than horror, even though the film is often classified as horror.
So the inner story is the part of the story that represents what the character NEEDS.
Outer journey (aka the plot) is what the character WANTS, and the inner journey is what the character NEEDS.
One note on the inner journey. At the beginning of the story, the main character is completely oblivious to what they actually need, or as in the case of The Green Knight, Gawain wants honor, but he is oblivious to what acquiring honor actually requires. It is clear in the narrative what his opinion of honor is; it’s something you just choose for yourself, or you just wake up one morning and find that you’re an honorable person. So, in The Green Knight, just like in any good story, our main character is broken at the start of the journey. And addressing that brokenness is what the story is all about.
In real life, when we’re broken, we go see a therapist, but that’s not very cinematic. In story, instead of sending a character to therapy, we send them on a meticulously and intentionally constructed journey to produce the same effect.
In 1997, David Fincher made a film called The Game. It’s a story about a man thrown into a game that plays out in real life. The authors of the game meticulously crafted scenarios that forced the main character to deal with his inner problems. This film is actually a great example of what every writer should be doing in their storytelling. And when authors learn to look at their stories in that light, the process of writing not only becomes easier, but it immediately becomes imbued with purpose. The conflicts, antagonists, and trials your character faces are anything but random. They are specifically and intentionally crafted to force the main character to face their inner darkness in a way that gives them no other option but to deal with it.
In good stories, main characters have no choice but to move forward into their innermost caves and stare their abysses in the face. They’ve needed to do that for a long time, but normal life never forced them to do so. And THAT is what the story journey is about… forcing a character to deal with their shit.
So how does all of this apply to the four different types of story endings? As stated before, it’s important to first understand that all good stories are two stories being told simultaneously, in tandem with each other, and (if you’ve done your job well) these two stories are inseparable from each other.
If we have two different stories playing out simultaneously, that means each story can end either positively or negatively. The endings of each of these two overarching stories should answer two fundamental questions respectively… Did the main character get what they WANT (the external story) and did they get what they NEED (the internal story)? Since either of these questions can be answered with a YES or a NO, we can therefore have four different endings.
The Four Different Types of Endings
The DOUBLE POSITIVE ending: In the double positive ending story, the character gets both what they WANT and what they NEED. They find their courage AND they find the buried treasure. These stories tend to be audience favorites, especially here in The States. We’re all familiar with the “Hollywood Ending.” The Hollywood Ending is universally understood, even people in other cultures know what it means. It’s the ending in which everybody lives happily ever after. It’s the Disney-fied story. The good person wins; the bad person is defeated; Cinderella gets her prince; and all the good people in the story are deeply satisfied. These types of stories sell tickets, which is one of the main reasons Hollywood keeps making these types of movies.
The POSITIVELY IRONIC ending: The positively ironic film is another type of film that Hollywood doesn’t shy away from. It’s the ending in which the main character does NOT get what they WANT (i.e., they fail at achieving the goal of the plot), but they succeed in getting what they NEED (i.e, they’ve learned a lesson or been healed of some internal wound).
Audiences also like these types of stories, because of all the types of endings, the positively ironic story tends to feel the most honest. How many times do we fail at some life endeavor, but in the end we still look back on the journey as a positive experience because we learned so much - that’s positive irony.
Rocky is one of the best examples of a positively ironic film. In the end, Rocky loses his final battle, but he becomes a better person for having gone on the journey. On a side note, if you ask someone who hasn’t seen Rocky in years to recount the story, many people will inaccurately remember Rocky winning in the end. He did not… but the ending was so powerful, positive, and resonant, that all audiences remember are the wonderful feelings they had after watching the film and then falsely conclude that Rocky surely must have won his final boxing match.
Before we get into the negative endings of stories, I should mention that negative endings are very hard to pull off. We don’t see many of these types of stories because, 1) they don’t sell lots of tickets, and 2) they’re just really hard to execute.
The NEGATIVELY IRONIC ending: The negatively ironic ending is an ending in which the main characters DOES get what they want (i.e., they succeed at accomplishing the overarching plot goal of the story), but they fail to get what they NEED.
One of the most masterful examples of the negatively ironic ending is the aforementioned film, The Silence of the Lambs. At the end of the movie, Clarice gets everything she wanted. She graduates at the top of her class; she proves herself in a misogynistic “man’s” world; and most importantly, she defeats the villain (serial killer Jame Gumb [aka Buffalo Bill]) and saves the senator’s daughter (who is the McGuffin of the story by the way).
But, despite succeeding in everything she set out to accomplish, Clarice never deals with her inner demons, which are represented in the story by “the screaming lambs”. In the penultimate scene of the film, Clarice takes a call from Hanibal Lecter after she’s literally saved the day. The first words out of Lecter’s mouth are, “Are the lambs still screaming, Clarice.” Lecter ends up disconnecting the call and leaving Clarice to think about what he’s just said. The scene ends with a medium wide shot of Clarice as the camera slowly pulls back. Clarice just keeps talking into the receiver, saying over and over again, “Dr. Lecter?... Dr. Lecter?... Dr. Lecter?” It’s a beautiful moment of exquisitely executed language-of-cinema. We visually pull back to reveal how alone Clarice still is, and her constant repetition of the line, “Dr. Lecter?” illustrates audibly that inside… Clarice is still running in circles.
Up in the Air is another great example of a negatively ironic film. George Clooney’s character is a traveling businessman who has one central external goal, acquiring the coveted GOLD MEMBER card for flying 1 million miles. And in the end, he gets exactly that. But it’s so meaningless because his journey revealed to him (and the audience) just how pointless his pursuit was and how much of life he missed out on while chasing after corporate affirmation.
On a lighter note, The movie Back to the Future broke all convention and became a crowd-pleasing film that is TECHNICALLY a negatively ironic film. In the end, Marty gets everything he ever wanted, but his character doesn’t really arc. For all intents and purposes, Marty is really still the same ol’ high school kid he was before he went on the journey. But the journey was so fun, and he did some many selfless, positive things in the film, that we didn’t really care that his character didn’t arc. It wasn’t until Back to the Future 2 that we actually get to see the completion of Marty’s internal journey. It happens when a bunch of high school bullies provoke him to drag race. The bullies push Marty’s buttons by taunting him with his trigger phrase, “What are you, McFly… CHICKEN!?” Marty agrees to race, but in the end, he chooses not to, and the scene unfolds in a cinematic fashion that reveals Marty’s character has truly arced.
The last type of ending is the least popular and by far the most difficult type of story to tell, especially in long-form. Our brains have evolved to seek out meaning in narratives, so when both the internal and external journeys end tragically, it’s a hard pill to swallow.
We call this type of ending the DOUBLE NEGATIVE ending. This is a story in which the main character NEITHER gets what they WANT nor do they get what they NEED. It’s hard to find examples of this type of film in American cinema because double negative films don’t sell many tickets, and the average American still goes to the theatre to feel good. But one American filmmaker is notorious for his double negative and negatively ironic endings - Darren Aronofsky. Black Swan is arguably a negatively ironic film, but Mother and Requiem for a Dream are both double negative ending films. EVERYTHING in these two films ends tragically.
But don’t discount the double negative ending just because it ends on such a sorrowful note. Double negative films, when done masterfully, are usually cautionary tales. And cautionary tales have been around since the beginning of recorded history, they just tend to be more palatable in short form. Two hours of storytelling that culminates in a double negative ending is a hard watch.
One could argue that the earliest story ever written, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is a double negative ending story. In the end of the epic, Gilgamesh’s world is made better because of the journey he went on, but Gilgamesh didn’t really destroy his ego and accept his mortality, nor did he find the magic that would grant him eternal life - which was the whole reason he set out on his journey.
The story ends with Gilgamesh being… kind of a pathetic character.
The Green Knight
Though The Green Knight has been criticized by some for its ambiguous ending, I would argue that it’s not nearly as ambiguous as it might seem. David Lowery (who has been featured in this blog before) masterfully leaned into language-of-cinema to communicate important story elements to us. The most important, and most obvious, is Gawain’s relationship with the protective belt his mother gave him.
One of the most important things a filmmaker must learn to do is to master the art of “externalizing the internal.” And one of the ways we do this is by imbuing physical objects with meaning.
This is why jewelry is often used in storytelling. Jewelry is expensive and almost always has meaning and significance attached to it. If I see a man take off his wedding ring before entering a bar, that cinematic action tells me A WHOLE LOT about his character. But, without that cinematic action, he’s just a guy entering a bar.
By imbuing the belt in The Green Knight with meaning, the audience now has a litmus test. Whatever Gawain does with that belt tells me where he is on his journey to find REAL honor. So in the end, even though it’s possible that Gawain still didn’t go through with his beheading… maybe he flinched once again… language-of-cinema tells me that he almost certainly went through with it. His decision to remove the belt told me that Gawain learned his lesson… that honor is something that one must acquire through humility, hard work, facing one’s demons, and even contending with death. Once Gawain removed the belt, the story was over - this cinematic action was the full completion of his journey. The ending was victorious, because Gawain demonstrated that he wanted real honor (even if it was only for a few seconds) rather than a lifetime of dishonor. And that is profoundly beautiful.
One of the reasons why the outcome of the beheading isn’t really all that important is because it wouldn’t have really mattered what happened next. Now, I will note that if Gawain had flinched once again, then the whole story would have fallen apart, but when Gawain removed the belt, language of cinema tells me that he’s not going to flinch this time, so if that’s the case, there are really only two outcomes now: 1) Gawain dies and finds honor in death, or 2) he doesn’t flinch, is saved through some sort of irony, and proves he become honorable because he was at least willing to die. That second ending is the type of ending that we expect in film. We expect characters to face death but survive anyway. But what I love about The Green Knight is that it begs the question… “What if you aren’t saved? Is honor still worth seeking?”
On a final note, if done masterfully, the thoughtful omission of theme in a story is a technique that can actually make theme so noticeable. After watching The Green Knight, I commented that “It’s a story about honor with very little honor in it.” But, it’s this contrast that made the theme of honor just ooze through every frame of the film.
Despite its somber tone and arguably depressing ending, I would actually call The Green Knight a positively ironic film. In the end, the language of cinema infomrs me that Gawain got what he needed… but he probably didn’t get what he wanted.
Victories in stories are often celebrated in the context of community, but in the end of The Green Knight, Gawain was completely alone, which again drove the theme home EVEN STRONGER. He was not only willing to give up his life for two seconds of real honor, but he was willing to do so knowing it was quite possible nobody would ever know about it. If that’s not honor, I don’t know what is.
I have a feeling that the film would have been much more positively received if Gawain’s beheading had taken place in front of his family, friends, and all the King’s Court. Just imagine if every character from the film was present for the finale. It would have been powerful… but had that been the case, one could have made the argument that it was actually Gawain’s pride that drove him to face death… which isn’t very honorable.
The bleak isolation of his beheading, and his willingness to remove his protective belt, and even the character of the Green Knight’s almost loving, fatherly acknowledgement in the end that Gawain made the right choice all seemed to indicate that Gawain went through with it and was fully realized by the end…
...even if it was for just a few brief seconds.