Two seasons ago, I decided to stop watching How I Met Your Mother. I was frustrated with the slow unfolding of the main plot line and decided to shelve that show in favor of others. But a friend brought me back into the fold by encouraging me to get back on board because “it gets better.”
So I binge-watched the penultimate season and then watched the final season, which recently concluded with the series finale. I’d seen a bit of hubbub surrounding the conclusion of the series, but I didn’t understand until I watched the hour-long show the next day. I promise not to give any spoilers, but like many fans my take-away was . . .
Worst. Finale. Ever.
Sorry, but I’m weeks past that moment, and I’m still kind of angry. Which got me thinking about series finales in general — whether a TV series, a movie series, or a book series. What makes an audience thrilled with the ending, and what makes the audience revolt in frustration?
Here are my own ideas about giving fans a good series finale:
Don’t cop out with a twist ending. Yes, you want to go out with a big bang. But a big bang is probably more of the same. Make it bigger and better, but don’t pull a bait-and-switch on the audience. It may feel clever to introduce something entirely different at the end — like you’ve created a breath-taking A-ha! moment. But it can backfire.
If you do give a twist, make it one that falls in line with the tone of the rest of the piece. For example, this is the best-ever twist ending for a TV series I’ve seen:
Do maintain the character arc. The main and supporting characters should grow through the series. Through trials and triumphs, they learn something important about themselves. They’re still the people we’ve come to know and love, but a better version for having gone down the path we journeyed with them. Keep that arc until the end. Regression is not acceptable. If they learned something, let them hold onto those hard-earned lessons.
Do answer the main question. If we know that a character’s main goal in life is discovering the true identity of his mother, and we endure seven books or five TV seasons or four movies, the protagonist better know who Mama is by the end. Not every thread must be tied up perfectly, but if a question has been a driving force throughout the series, it needs to reach some satisfactory conclusion. Maybe it’s not even fully explained, but it’s enough for the main character to find peace.
Don’t get silly. Maybe you can’t imagine what this point is about. But you know it when you see it: Lost, the Ewoks of The Return of the Jedi, the last few seasons of Heroes, . . .
When writing a series, the author or screenwriter may feel like they’re running out of material or they may wish to push the envelope further and further. It can be tempting to get more and more imaginative until you finally cross a line that makes your fans say, “What the heck was that?!” Instead, keep the tone, the tension, and the integrity of a series all the way to the end.
Those are my four Do’s and Don’ts for giving fans a good series finale. But ultimately, you have to Respect the Audience. Think about why the series has been so successful and then amp that up for the final goodbye.
Who’s done it well?
One that comes to mind is the most watched finale ever: M*A*S*H:, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” The finale remains a classic because it honored the characters, pushed Hawkeye (the main character) through the remainder of his personal struggle, and gave closure to the series through the ending of the Korean War and the characters parting ways. As they said goodbye to one another, we felt like we were saying our goodbyes as well. If you want to watch that final scene, you can find it here.
And now for the beginning of my series of progress updates with this round of A Round of Words in 80 Days.
1. Read 12 books. Read The Collector by Victoria Scott. One down, 11 to go!
2. Finish editing SHARING HUNTER, a young adult contemporary novel. Put this off until I finish the first draft of another story I needed to finish. No progress this week.
3. Edit one short story to publication quality. Worked on a plot hole I need to resolve in one story. Some progress.
4. Publish and promote two short stories. Not ready to publish until end of the month or early May, but I finally picked all of my stories’ titles — with the fabulous help of my fabulous book cover designer, Melinda VanLone. Need a cover? Check her out here. Progress made!
5. Stay on top of ROW80 sponsor duties. I already submitted my sponsor article for the ROW80 blog, and it should go up later this month. Then checked in on everyone on Friday. Done.
Now what’s your vote for best and worst book, TV, or movie series finales? What advice would you give to an author or screenwriter when crafting the final installment of a series? And how was your week?