False Finish

This year’s editing plan has led me to really start thinking about story structure. I’ll post a few of those thoughts here over the next few months – do let me know if you agree or disagree with my conclusions, or have any wisdom to add to my musings.

One of the plot points which is often highlighted in structure plans is the “False Finish”. It has various names, this is just the one I prefer. The idea is that towards the end of the story, the hero either thinks he’s succeeded or thinks he’s failed. It feels like an ending, but it’s unsatisfactory for one reason or another and ultimately is actually the beginning of the true ending, which will tie things up much more convincingly.

If you think of story structure as a fight scene, this is the point when Hero lands a killer punch on Villain’s jaw. Villain falls down, apparently dead. Hero turns to Love Interest and smiles. It feels like an ending, but it isn’t because in fact, Villain isn’t dead and will suddenly appear for one last-ditch attempt to kill Hero, only to be foiled by Hero’s quick reactions or a Sidekick character dealing a truly fatal blow. (This is the true finish, leaving only whatever wrap-up scene is necessary to show Hero and Love Interest riding off into the proverbial sunset.

Alternatively, the same thing, but with Hero seemingly knocked out, Villain looking up victorious (false finish), only for Hero to actually be pretending and rise up to save the day (true finish).

I get it, and I get that a false finish can be a good plot point. I’m just not sure it’s there in every great story. In fact, outside the Action and possibly Romance genres, I’m struggling to think of many examples. I’ve read that if you want to study story structure, movies are just as useful as novels, but even in the movies, I’m short on examples outside those genres. Stand By Me has one: they find the body (false finish), Ace arrives and they stand up to him (true finish), but I’ve gone through an awful lot of movies in my head to find that one.

Can you help me with other examples of the false finish? Do you think it’s really imperative? I’d love to hear from you.


Filed under Writing

6 responses to “False Finish

  1. Jen, I’m trying to think of anything I’ve seen or read recently that doesn’t fit into this category, but since my fiction is mostly mysteries or thrillers, false finishes abound. I’ll think a bit more and see what I can come up with. I don’t see lots of movies, so I may not be the most helpful person for that. But I wanted to let you know someone’s reading your posts. 🙂


  2. Steve

    I’m not sure I can think of any good examples either… except to say I think that something similar is common in a certain kind of horror movie e.g. A Nightmare on Elm Street (from hazy memory): heroine has defeated Freddie and undone his evil, joyous reunion with her mother, then suddenly it turns out Freddie’s somehow not dead at all, cue cliffhanger which launched a string of sequels…
    Of course you could argue that’s not really the same thing because actually it’s more like a retraction of the ending.

    On a more mainstream note, the Total Recall remake (action sci-fi) has a False Finish. (Note that I don’t recommend actually watching this to verify since it’s not a patch on the glorious OTT Arnie original)

    • Hmm… I’ve seen the Colin Farrell version but I don’t remember it well enough, clearly. Not sure I can bring myself to watch it again … apart from the delicious Mr Farrell, the only thing to really recommend it is knowing some of it was filmed here in Toronto.
      Keep the suggestions coming, though. I want to know if I’m missing something here.

  3. Sarah Ann

    Hi Jen, I’m looking forward to more of these posts.
    As to the false finish, I think it’s used too often in films. Of course, I can’t come up with a list of examples now when I need them, but the predictable ones annoy me – when you know that the end isn’t the end, that there’s another scene coming that will put everything right.
    I don’t seem to read false finishes though – maybe that’s just the books I choose.
    I prefer a story to end rather than end, hang on for a bit, then end again. The false finish isn’t imperative – but I’m looking forward to what others have to say.

  4. I also think false finishes are far from necessary. I read quite widely, but my core genre is sci-fi/fantasy. Thinking about some of the “greats” from Asimov and Clarke to Pratchett and Gaiman, I can’t think of any false finishes from them.

    I’d echo what another commenter said, that a predictable or transparent false finish is worse than none at all. I’d say they’re mainly a plot device for lower-brow audiences or stories that want to stay safe and low-risk. Hence why they’re more common in cinema, but not – I think – in theatre…

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