Giving Fans a Good Series Finale

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.

What were you thinking?

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.

MASH Goodbye Final Shot

And now for the beginning of my series of progress updates with this round of A Round of Words in 80 Days.

ROW80 Update

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?

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15 thoughts on “Giving Fans a Good Series Finale

  1. My week was okay–went to visit my mom twice and had some fun times with friends, but I’m still dealing with my dad’s passing and Passover is tomorrow.
    My vote for best TV series finale would either be “Everybody Loves Raymond” or “Gilmore Girls.” I wouldn’t say “Seinfeld” was the worst, but I didn’t like that the characters went to jail. I stopped watching “Desperate Housewives” after the plot got too crazy, but now I’m watching the last season on DVD and it’s much better than I thought it would be. Don’t give away the ending because I’m only up to Volume 2–LOL

    1. My sympathy about your father passing.

      Gilmore Girls is one my favorite shows ever! I don’t remember how Raymond ended. I wonder if I saw that… And yeah, the Seinfeld finale was just weird. That ended up on a lot of people’s bad finale list.

      1. Thanks, Julie, for your message. I loved Gilmore Girls. Raymond had an operation and they were worried because it took him a few minutes to wake up from the anesthetic so they were all worried. It was a good ending.

  2. Great analysis, Julie. I thought one of the best TV series endings was “Star Trek: The Next Generation” because they brought the series full circle, ending with an encounter with the alien entity known as Q, whom they encountered in the very first episode seven seasons and 177 shows before. Won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but how the crew deals with it compared to what they did at the first encounter, shows how the characters have grown, and also answers deeper questions of humanity and morality.

    I agree with “M.A.S.H.”, and another good one is “30 Rock” because it remained true to all the characters you came to love as a viewer, and offered us a little poignancy about where their lives were ending up, while still maintaining the comedic tone.

    1. I remember that Star Trek TNG! It was good, wasn’t it? Good call, Kristin!

      I’ve never seen 30 Rock, though. I’ve heard it’s good, but it never quite piqued my interest for some reason.

  3. You got all this exactly right, Julie. Excellent! There have been a great many endings that I was satisfied with to varying degrees (“STNG,” “Buffy,” “Fringe,” “Seinfeld”), but the classic of classics was “Newhart.” The problem is that its twist became the golden ring to which so many (especially sitcoms) have reached since and missed, some terribly. Fortunately for me, I didn’t watch “How I Met Your Mother” so I’m thankfully not one of its victims.

    1. Thanks! Guess I should now finish watching Fringe, which my husband and I lost track of somewhere in season two. We need to go back and binge-watch that series!

      I like your comment about the golden ring. I do think some writers try too hard with finales, rather than just being true to what made the series so good in the first place.

  4. I never watched How I Met Your Mother, probably never will. The premise never did anything for me. :shrug: I completely agree with Newhart and MASH. Great analogy Julie. You’re doing great with your goals. Wishing you continued success!

  5. Never watched any of the shows you mentioned except MASH. I loved a lot of the humor but hated the anti-war message and disrespect for authority underling it.

    Most series I can think of just sorta petered out rather than having real finales. One that did have a pretty good finale was The Closer. The finale let people wanting to watch the spin-off, Major Crimes. I didn’t like the way the final season showed Brenda Leigh being more and more at odds with Chief Pope. They had her doing some things that were sorta crazy and him withdrawing his support of someone who always supported him and made him look good.

  6. The HIMYM finale was a big disappointment on many levels. This season did such a fantastic job of bringing the entire series to a close, but the finale left me with “meh.” I did like Barney’s final, final evolution though. I heard the season DVD will have alternate endings, which makes me wonder why they ended up picking this particular ending.

    1. So you saw HIMYM too? That’s fascinating that they bothered to make alternate endings. Because I can think of a lot of alternate endings that would have been better than the one they chose. A few fans loved it, but many were disappointed like we were.

  7. The HIMYM finale was a huge disappointment. My guy watched the entire series with me until this final season. He stopped watching with about 5 episodes to go. The writing took a turn for the worst; we figured the writers quit when they knew they had to go find new jobs at the end of the final season. I finally watched those 5 episodes last night and didn’t laugh-out-loud one single time. I did cry when Barney met his daughter – that was my favorite part. The rest of it was just not very good. In my opinion.

    My biggest suggestion is to not insult the audience. For shows like this, where people have stuck around for years, finales like HIMYM are infuriating. Heck, I wasn’t even impressed with the casting of the mom. Ted had “star-quality” girlfriends all series long and then when we meet the mom, she’s a relatively unknown actress. AT least my guy and I had no idea who she was/is.

    Now, Psych. There was a GREAT season finale. It wrapped everything up with a pretty red bow… and left it open for the potential movies we keep hearing about. As an avid Psych-O, it doesn’t get much better than that. The series finale didn’t insult the audience and it kept true to the characters we have grown to love.

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