I’ll admit, I’ve written more beginnings than endings, to the point that I’m tempted to say that writing the first chapter of a book is significantly harder than writing the last. I don’t necessarily disagree with that statement—I myself struggle most with how to best start a book—yet I do certainly think that a misstep on the ending can undo a lot of great storytelling that leads up to it.
Even though I’m nowhere near the stage of writing an epic conclusion to a multi-book series, it’s something I’ve considered a lot as I think through how my series’ arcs should flow. Whitman Court and my two undisclosed fantasy series both have strong concepts for their respective endings. Even Our Company of Fools’ attempted series held on for so long because I had such a compelling idea for an epic end to the saga. I don’t think it’s bad to have a strong vision for a story’s end. After all, you need a clear idea of where the bullseye is to hit it. At the same time, they can be perilous. A lot of changes can occur over the course of writing a book or a series, and those changes may require a different ending than originally planned. We writers must tread carefully, then, when we near our story’s conclusion.
Personally, I’ve gleaned a lot of finale-wisdom from TV shows I’ve enjoyed. The length and legacy of TV shows often allows for extra-satisfying endings, if done correctly. There seems to be more lore or potential for Easter Eggs in TV show endings than there are for book series, sometimes. Here are three of the tropes and tips to crafting a meaningful finale that I’ve picked up primarily from TV show endings (with a couple of honorable mentions from literature):
1) Callbacks: Any series that has had a good run benefits from multiple callbacks in their final episode (or season, depending on the type of show). My favorite TV shows (Agents of SHIELD, Phineas & Ferb, and Gravity Falls) all do this fairly well, in my opinion. Agents of SHIELD has a final season full of SHIELD history, including introducing ancestors of or younger versions of the series’ main villains; Phineas and Ferb has that emotional song tribute to all of their adventures; and Gravity Falls builds into the climactic Weirdmaggedon, which was set up from the very first episode and brings back characters and plot devices from across the entirety of the series. One of the best examples of this comes from another childhood favorite series of mine, Codename: Kids Next Door, whose final episode was a scavenger hunt filled with Easter Eggs and references from all episodes and villains.
On the literature side, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows uses this trope as well. Harry’s final adventure weaves together story threads, characters, and objects from across the prior six books into its conclusion. You have to understand the lore that came before to fully appreciate the callbacks and the satisfaction they bring to an ending.
Callbacks work so well because it feels like an inside joke between the audience and the story. It makes knowing the whole history of the series worth it, in a sense, and brings closure. It emphasizes that we’re coming to the end of the story. Plus, it’s nice to reminisce and recall our favorite moments from the story. It’s something I hope to pull off in each of my series. I think I have a good idea for how to accomplish this in Whitman Court, though I’m still piecing it together for my two fantasy series.
2) Good-byes: There’s something cathartic for the audience when an on-screen good-bye takes place at the end of a series. As characters part ways from one another, we, the audience, are given an opportunity to part ways with them and say farewell, too. Strangely, so many TV shows I love end in this way. Gravity Falls, Agents of SHIELD, The Middle, Codename: Kids Next Door, and even Phineas and Ferb concludes with a final wave from Phineas. Harry Potter, in some sense, also ends with a good-bye as Harry and his friends see their kids off on the Hogwarts Express. The Lord of the Rings ends with the parting of Frodo from the other hobbits as well.
Endings with characters saying good-bye to one another resonate deeply with me. Maybe it’s because I moved around a lot as a kid and there was something strangely familiar or comforting about seeing that even my favorite characters had to say good-bye to their friends. Or maybe it’s because of what I said before: on-screen (or on-page) good-byes help us, the audience, move on from the story, too. I hadn’t really considered this a key part of a satisfying ending until sitting down to write this post, but I do think it’s true. I wonder if there are ways I can better integrate this into my series’ ultimate endings, what happens after the final showdowns.
3) Story Cohesion: Or, endings need to flow naturally from the story. This is certainly a no-brainer, and I could point to plenty of books and other media that do this well, and plenty still that don’t. This goes back to what I said at the beginning: storytellers—myself included!—need to be willing to sacrifice our idea for the ending of a story if it doesn’t work with how the story flows. Meaning even good-byes and callbacks depend on fitting in with the rest of the preceding story. We want organic good-byes. We don’t want forced ones.
The most recent and poignant example of a failed good-bye ending for me is Agents of SHIELD. (Spoilers for the last season, by the way.)I personally loved the show, but the final scene fell flat for me. The last season built up suspense and mystery surrounding the foreknowledge that the SHIELD team’s current mission would be their last as a group. However…in the end, there wasn’t a real reason for why the team split. The only parting of the ways that actually made sense was FitzSimmons, who retired from SHIELD to raise their daughter. A very satisfying ending, considering their turbulent relationship and all the trials they faced. But the rest of the team? We’re never given a solid reason why they stopped working together. And I can’t think of a truly logical reason why they would simply split off to do their own thing. It was frustrating, and the good-bye wasn’t satisfying at all. It failed to move me, because I was so caught up in how it felt like the showrunner’s will, rather than the story’s.
The best endings make narrative sense. Period. A bad ending can ruin everything that came before it. We want endings that satisfy all of our hopes, that bring out strong themes, and, even if it’s not 100% happy, we want it to feel right for the story. Maybe that means going with the happy ending, even when you wanted the bittersweet—or vice versa. I hope I personally can be humble enough to let go of my own vision for my stories’ endings, if needed.
What other elements do you think are needed to write effective endings? Have you ever been disappointed with an ending before?