Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! Photographer Chris Washington is apprehensive as he prepares to meet the family of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage, as they do not know that he is Black. When they arrive for the weekend at her parent’s house Chris meets Rose's brother Jeremy and their parents, neurosurgeon Dean and hypnotherapist Missy. Throughout the first day and night, her family makes disconcerting comments about Black people and Chris witnesses strange behavior from the estate's Black staff, Georgina and Walter. The next day, dozens of wealthy white people arrive for the Armitages' annual get-together. They make odd and ignorant statements to him. Chris calls his friend, Rod, about the strange behavior.
Eventually, Chris convinces Rose that they should leave. Meanwhile, an auction is held with a photo of Chris, making it clear that Rose’s parents plan on selling Chris in some way. While Chris packs to leave, he finds photos of Rose in prior relationships with Black people, including Walter and Georgina, contradicting her claim that Chris is her first Black boyfriend. He tries to leave the house, but Rose and her family block him.
Chris awakens strapped to a chair in the basement. In a video, Rose's grandfather explains that the family transplants their brains into others' bodies, granting them preferred physical characteristics and immortality. The host's consciousness remains in the Sunken Place, conscious but powerless. When Jeremy comes to fetch Chris for the surgery, Chris manages to escape, leaving Jeremy, Dean, and Missy dead. As he is leaving in his car, he is intercepted by Rose and the possessed staff. After a lot of fighting, it is down to Chris and Rose. Chris begins to strangle Rose, but stops when a police cruiser pulls onto the scene. Rod steps out of the cruiser and rescues Chris, leaving Rose bleeding out on the road.
Jeni: So, some movies really stay with you, and this is definitely one of those movies. The premise itself is disturbing on so many levels, and the visuals are just as disturbing, even though in general this movie isn’t as graphic as a lot of horror movies. I really appreciate how the writers play with the viewer’s expectations. I especially like that they use tropes in such a smart way to trip the viewer up. Like, you just know that there has to be one good person among all these white people. Just one. But nope, even Rose is evil. They’re all in on it. It’s so powerful and really speaks to the history of racial inequality in America. I feel like we can’t talk about this movie without touching on that. This story really couldn’t be told in any other setting and have the same meaning. As an American, I tend not to think of America as a “setting,” but it’s more than that. It’s also that all of these people, while they act very strange, are the people we’d normally see as protagonists in a movie. Rose has “final girl” written all over her. I think that gives the fact that they are all evil even more impact. And that end scene! OMG. I know we will probably talk about this later, but there was originally another ending to this movie, which definitely would not have had the same impact. Very well made. And just as importantly, I think this movie is part of an important turning point for the industry, where the old white dudes in charge can’t say white people won’t see or can’t relate to a movie with a black lead. The viewer very much roots for Chris and wants him to get away. Anyway. Brilliant. Loved it. Could go on at length about how amazing it is. Given all that, I do have to say, as disturbing and intense as it was, I didn’t really think it was scary. What about you?
Carly: Wow, just wow. I loved this movie. I don’t want to see it again, because... scary, but it was really so good. I can do scary when the movie is this well done. The cinematography was gorgeous. And I loved all the small bits of foreshadowing and clues that slowly built to the big reveal. And honestly? It kept me guessing. I knew where the story was heading, but I wasn’t sure if everyone was in on it and who knew what. I’m very hard to surprise, and while I wasn’t surprised per se, I was unsure until it was finally revealed that the girlfriend was bait and knew exactly what she was doing.The tension was amazingly well done, and the clues were perfect. If we hadn’t already done an episode on clues, I would be all about them for this one. So Jeni, what did the movie do well that writers can use in their own work?
Jeni: I’m so excited to talk about this. I think the best thing about this movie is the ending. It’s so, so satisfying. The pacing through the whole movie is really spot on, and like you said, there are so many surprises. It’s really a sign of good writing that it can surprise people who are really well versed in tropes. So when that police car pulls up with its lights flashing, and you JUST KNOW Chris is going to jail—and then his friend gets out...I literally almost cried in relief. I actually laughed out loud because I had such a strong visceral response.
So let’s talk for a minute about what makes a satisfying ending in a story. I want to point to the word satisfying because that’s not necessarily the same as happy. Happy or sad or mixed—that’s a personal preference. But what you have to have is an ending that’s satisfying. Foremost, a satisfying ending has to show the result of the main conflict in some way. It doesn’t always go into explicit detail, especially with shorter stories, but it at least needs to give hints at how things turn out. For example, if horror movies have taught me anything, it’s that there could be a sequel because Rose wasn’t actually dead yet. So we see Chris drive away, but that’s not the same thing as a complete resolution. Does that mean there’s a sequel in the works? Who knows. A satisfying ending also gives a balance of the expected and the unexpected. You don’t want it to be predictable, but you also don’t want it to feel like it comes out of nowhere. We see Chris call his friend pretty early on in the movie, but it’s a clue that sort of gets lost in the chaos of the rest of the plot. So you may not realize that it’s going to be so important later. That’s good writing. A satisfying ending comes as a result of the main character’s actions. Chris didn’t just get rescued. He fought his way out to this point, and his ally only shows up because of Chris’s actions in calling him. A really strong story ending will make the reader or viewer feel something. Like I said, I had this strong visceral response at the end. I wanted to clap and cheer and cry. I was just exhausted haha because I was really on this journey with Chris.
Carly: Exactly. I love a good satisfying ending, and this movie nailed it. So what a lot of people may not know (or maybe they do), is that this movie had an alternate ending. Jordan Peele, the writer-director, originally wrote that the cops show up and arrest Chris for killing the family. And the viewers know that Chris will never “get out” of jail. This was the original ending because Jordan Peele wanted to show that we aren’t in a “post-racial” America. That there is still huge racial inequity. But then current events made him reconsider the ending. With the media and America finally paying attention to the deaths of Black men at the hands of police officers, Jordan Peele wanted to give viewers something more hopeful. He didn’t need to drive home the point, viewers already feared that the cops were going to arrest, or even kill, Chris. Jordan Peele said, “It was very clear that the ending needed to transform into something that gives us a hero, that gives us an escape, gives us a positive feeling when we leave this movie.” And it was perfection.
The fear that we feel when the cop car shows up is visceral. We’ve been cheering Chris on as he makes his escape. I was smiling while he murdered all of them (or was that just me?). I was beyond happy that he got his revenge and he was going to live, that he was going to be free. But when that cop car pulls up, you immediately feel fear. And that fear is indicative of the fear most Black Americans feel when the cops show up (even when they’ve done nothing wrong). And while yes, Chris just killed a bunch of people, we don’t feel that he’s done anything wrong. He needed to get away and they would have stopped him. It was self defense. But the viewer knows that won’t matter, it won’t look good from an outside perspective. So when Rod steps out, it is such a relief, and so satisfying. Like Jeni, I nearly cried in relief. I loved Rod so much and just wanted to hug him. Chris deserves to be a hero that takes out this evil family, he deserves to live and get out. Of course, it is always more complicated than that, but this ending gives us hope. Hope that he can overcome this.
So what makes this ending good is that we are relieved, hopeful, and it makes sense. As Jeni pointed out, Chris has wrapped up the central conflict of this story, and he has done it in a way that builds on clues and tensions created through the rest of the movie. We see him pull cotton out of the chair he is strapped to in the basement, and we know he’ll be able to block out the hypnosis triggers that put him to sleep. We see him call Rod, so it isn’t crazy when he shows up. The ending builds on the clues and the arcs that come before it, so by the time we get to the ending, it all makes sense and works. That is what makes it satisfying.
Jeni: A good plot arc has a big change in the plot about every 1/8 of the story. It starts with a hint of the external problem the main character will have to overcome, but we mostly see the character in their normal world. In the case of this movie, we see Chris and Rose, and they seem like a happy couple. We get hints that there are going to be some issues around race, but of course, we have no idea what those will be at this point. As the story progresses, there are important beats that need to be hit in order for the reader or viewer to feel the pacing is strong and for them to stay invested in the story. In some ways, this is even more important in the film industry than it is in publishing. The book Save the Cat—the original version, not the newer one about writing a novel—is about screenwriting and addresses all of these points for movies, and they’re really the same for books. They’re all based on three act structure, which divides the story into the first 25%, the middle 50%, and the last 25%. I don’t love that that’s how it’s set up, but I don’t make the rules. So, every 1/8 of the plot, something major happens that changes the direction of the story, and then the main character has to respond by weighing their options, making a decision, and taking action that moves the plot along to the next point. When done right—and by right, I mean usually after several revisions—this leads to an ending that checks off all those boxes I mentioned above.
Carly: Yes exactly. A good plot arc is so important to the story, but writers often forget that they also need a good character arc to fill out the story. A character arc is all about the internal changes your character goes through as the plot acts on them. Characters can change positively or negatively by the end of your story, but the important thing is that they change. They don’t need to become entirely different people, but internally they need to grow and learn.
So we break that down into three pieces to create a solid character arc:
By the end of this movie, Chris has had a negative character arc. He ends the movie in a worse place than where he began. In the beginning of the movie Chris’s goal is to impress his girlfriend’s family and to be in love and happy. He wants to be accepted and to have a family. The lie he is telling himself is that Rose loves him, that her family isn’t that bad, that they will accept him if he just braves it out. The truth is they are evil, Rose was trapping him, she never loved him. His goal was destructive, and by the end of the movie he has learned the truth. He is in a worse place than he was at the beginning. He’s been tortured, kidnapped, and forced to fight his way out. While he made it out, he is forever changed by what he endured.
You always want strong character arcs in your story. Your characters need to grow and learn and change. If it is a positive character arc, they end the story a better/improved person. They’ve learned to overcome the lie that was holding them back. If they have a negative character arc they learn that their goal was harmful, they are disillusioned.
Jeni: Bringing plot and character together is haaaaard. At least it feels hard when you’re learning. It’s all about how to keep the plot and main character intertwined as the story moves forward. Ideally, you want a plot that couldn’t happen without this MC and an MC who is only able to resolve their inner arc because of the events of this plot. Another way to think of this is that a plot isn’t just about what happens to a character. A story is when we see how a character responds to the events of the plot and how that changes them inside as a result of their involvement with those events. It’s in this response that we make the connection between the plot arc and the character arc. Your plot needs to be tied directly to the character’s internal problem. The main character must make all their actions from motivation created by that internal problem. When you do that, you’re able to create a plot with meaning for this character. You show your reader not just what happens but why it matters, why they should care.
Carly: So there are a few classic ending tropes or categories that authors should be aware of. The two main types go back to Shakespeare and determine the type of story. There are comedies and tragedies. In his plays tragedies end with everyone dead and comedies end with a wedding (or multiple weddings). Nowadays there are more types of endings, but they often fall under a loose form of the originals. Either everyone is happy or everyone is sad/destroyed. Your characters can go through awful things or happy things, but more often than not, what dictates the type of story is the ending.
There are a few other common ending tropes. There is the “everything is resolved” type where, just like the name, everything is resolved. You can have cliffhangers or open-ended endings. I must say, these are my least favorite as they are usually used to get readers to want the sequel. That being said, you can resolve some things while still leaving a hook that will leave readers eager for the sequel, yet still satisfied. You can have flashforward endings where you start the story with the ending and then circle back to it. This one can be very tricky to pull off. And lastly, you can use epilogue endings where you jump forward in time to fully close out their stories by showing where they end up. These ending tropes are loosely interrelated, which works out because you can make different endings by using different combinations of these tropes.
Jeni: With each of the various kinds of endings, there are ways to create an ending that feels satisfying. Let’s go back to what makes a satisfying ending—resolving the main plot, balancing the expected and the unexpected, comes as a result of the main character’s actions, and makes the reader feel something. So you want to keep each of these in mind, regardless of what kind of ending you write. So, for example, with cliffhangers. You can absolutely write cliffhangers that still feel satisfying, but you have to make sure you give enough resolution to the main conflict that the reader doesn’t feel cheated. You can, however, leave subplots unresolved or create a new goal and conflict by resolving the main plot. What you don’t want to do is just cut a story off without a sense of resolution. So if you’re getting feedback that your ending feels off, consider: do you resolve the main plot? Is it clear what the main plot is, as in, do you establish that early in the story and have those mileposts along the way? Does it feel either predictable or like it comes out of nowhere? Are there elements that might need to be mentioned earlier to plant the seed in the reader’s mind, like the phone call to Rod in the movie? Is the main character the one who actually resolves the plot, or do they get most of the way there and then someone else takes over (therefore taking away from the main character’s agency)? What are you making your reader feel? Sometimes it can be nearly impossible to answer these questions about your own writing so this is why feedback from trusted partners is crucial.
Jeni: You know one place where you can’t talk about the ending? Query letters. This month our query is for a young adult horror novel, and it sounds plenty tense! Another great match this month! How do we keep doing this? What are your thoughts on the query?
Carly: Okay, well first of all we need to discuss the fact that this query comps a book that you worked on. How cool is that?! Okay, now on to this query. I loved it. I think the stakes are clear and strong. The world of magic is clearly laid out. It is clear, concise, and interesting. I would say that my biggest problem with it is the first line. I want a solid pitch that hooks me in. Right now it starts with a catching line that doesn’t tell me much about the story. I want to be pulled in with the stakes, not an incident that happened 5 years before the story begins.Instead, start with what gets this story moving and the main conflict. Other than that, I loved this!
Jeni: Okay, I’m actually going to disagree about the first line. I kinda love how the first line sets the tone and mood in just a few short words, and it really speaks to the main character’s emotional wound as well. If we didn’t get to see in the query how the story circles back to that fact—basically if it wasn’t clear how this moment is important and relevant to the plot and character arcs—then I would totally agree. But I feel like it does serve as a strong hook. It gives a sense of mystery, tension, and foreboding from the beginning of the query and so sets up that context for the rest of the explanation. And beyond that, I also love it. I want to read this story so bad. It’s right up my alley, all my favorite kinds of books. So hurry up and get querying so I can have this book on my shelf soon!