“Avengers: Infinity War” is still going strong a month after it opened, even though its whopper of a cliffhanger ending continues to divide audiences. The final chapter of the film isn’t set to hit theaters until May 2019, and the filmmakers faced a task familiar to writers of franchises going back to “Star Wars”: How do you plot out the penultimate film in a series so that you both satisfy audiences of the current film and make them want to return for more?
We spoke to the screenwriters behind “Infinity War,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and other series, and asked them how they approached writing the film before the one that brings a story to a close.
Spoiler alert! (Don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and plan to.) The “Infinity War” screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely say they always knew Part 1 of their project would end with “the Snap” — that is, the moment when the villainous Thanos has secured the six Infinity Stones and snaps his fingers, destroying half of all life in the universe. But when should that moment should take place? “It wasn’t just, well, we’ve got too much story, we’d better chop it in half,” as Mr. Markus put it.
Structure by Design or Accident? A two-part finale was always the plan. Mr. Markus said that in one draft, the Snap didn’t occur until the second film. “But what we realized is, it would feel more like a cliffhanger than we intended,” he continued, and they had always meant to make distinct movies.
Had the Snap been pushed to Part 2, “it would be a continuation of exactly what you were watching before,” he said, when, as the culmination of 10 years of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, it should “be as big as it wants to be, and as sprawling.”
Instead, they aimed for a first movie “that went all the way to a tragic ending. And then one where mysterious things happen that I can’t tell you about.”
Mr. McFeely said that, because Part 1 ends with the Snap, “it’s really, I think, difficult to predict where we go next” in Part 2.
Writing Approach: Though Marvel didn’t mandate any story or character arcs, Mr. Markus said, “we’re never writing without knowing where the end goes.” For instance, Captain America and Black Widow mainly defend Earth in “Infinity War,” but they “have a much bigger role to play in that second film.” In Mr. McFeely’s words, “We gave ourselves license to pay off later.”
Making a Penultimate Movie Work: “Had we started from scratch, we would not have chosen six damn MacGuffins,” Mr. McFeely said, meaning the Infinity Stones. “That’s not that helpful. It was difficult to get that all in.”
The screenwriters know some fans are unhappy — Mr. McFeely said, “I read a tweet this morning that said, ‘Good morning to everyone, except Markus and McFeely’” — but that’s O.K.
Mr. Markus said, “We still argue that ‘Infinity War’ is its own, complete film,” adding, “It’s just the one where the bad guy wins.”
When T. S. Nowlin was co-writing the script for “The Maze Runner,” the 2014 adaptation of the young adult series by James Dashner, he did not know whether there would be a sequel. The first movie of the eventual trilogy was self-contained and answered one question: How would a young group of teenagers escape the maze? It was a surprise hit and a follow-up — “The Scorch Trials” — started filming a month after the first one was released. The series concluded this year with “The Death Cure.” “Maze Runner” followed the books, giving each one a solo movie.
Writing Approach: Mr. Nowlin said he was “definitely thinking about the finale” as he was writing Part 2. “I think you need to have a plan. The big challenge is having each installment feel complete and satisfying in and of itself, while also putting together the overarching story,” he said.
For him, “that comes down to relationships. If the audience is invested in these people and what happens to them and where they go, then they’ll be coming back. You have to feel like you’re building to something, which is not repeating yourself, and giving each chapter its own sort of vibe and identity and making sure you’re always moving the characters forward.”
Making the Penultimate Film Work: “My understanding of a cliffhanger is something that holds back the payoff of the movie, which is something that a movie can’t really do,” Mr. Nowlin said. “You have to answer whatever essential question the movie tries to ask. The first movie, the maze, you have to end the movie with either they get out of the maze or they don’t. You can’t stop short of that.”
He continued, “What’s interesting about the second movie is that you can actually let your characters lose. Obviously, you can draw from ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ You can have the characters be defeated.” That’s why he allowed the maze runner Minho, played by Ki Hong Lee, to get captured at the end of Part 2. The finale would be about “how the characters work together and stop running and turn back the fight against these people pursuing them.”
Melissa Rosenberg, the screenwriter behind “The Twilight Saga,” said she and Stephenie Meyer, who wrote the original novels, decided during production of Part 3 of the series that the finale, “Breaking Dawn,” would be divided into two films about the ramifications of the marriage between the human Bella and the vampire Edward.
Sequel by Design or Accident? Ms. Rosenberg said the decision to divide the finale wasn’t quite made when she began work on the scripts. “We were letting the story dictate to us,” she explained. “Does the story merit two movies or not? I started to write the story and once we got the outline, it was very clear.”
Writing Approach: She scripted the two movies “as one long four-hour movie,” outlining Part 1, then Part 2, before following through on drafts in similar order. “I sort of wrote them as a pair,” she said.
Making the Penultimate Film Work: “Having worked in television for a long time, it’s kind of what we do. Every episode has a beginning, middle and end. There’s an ongoing story that continues, but you have a story line that has a beginning middle and end. In this case, it was the turning of Bella into a vampire and it was the birth of the baby. And then you have the second half, which was about the right to continue on. They are really two very different stories.”
After “Star Wars,” written and directed by George Lucas, turned into a blockbuster, he brought in Lawrence Kasdan to help write “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”
Sequels by Design or Accident? “George didn’t know there would be a second movie” for sure, Mr. Kasdan said. “That was all a surprise.”
The Crucial Plot Twist: Mr. Lucas gave Mr. Kasdan the story idea that would become pop culture lore. “I’m very proud of what I contributed, but it was his design. As soon as you say Darth is Luke’s father, that goes a long way for the rest of the two movies,” Mr. Kasdan said.
Making the Penultimate Film Work: Mr. Kasdan has studied classical drama and he views the second to last entry in a series as the most interesting. “At the end of the second act, everything is up in the air, everybody’s up the tree. All the suspense about Act III is, how will it be resolved? People are always disappointed by the third act. That’s all you can think of? But the end of the second act is when you’ve got the most attention. Being able to do that with ‘Empire,’ having everybody in trouble, that was fantastic.”
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