We’ve talked about endings a few times now, enough that most of you know my philosophy toward them is that you should never start a series without knowing where it’s going to end. Having that last plot point in mind allows you to build over the course of the series, ensuring you’ve laid the proper groundwork so that the conclusion will be enjoyable and satisfying for the reader. Yet sometimes, stories run longer than expected, or go in directions that are better, but not originally planned.
What do you do when the story you’re writing is no longer best served by the ending you had in mind? Course-correct back to the initial storyline plan, or lean into the turn and adapt your ending to serve this new narrative? The answer will, as everyone should have guessed by now, vary between authors and projects. Rather than breaking down all the different pros and cons in theory, today I wanted to try analyzing an ending that’s famous for falling into this pithole and dig into what made it not work.
Luckily, I’ve got an easy, recent example that (based on the ratings) most people should be at least passingly familiar with: How I Met Your Mother. Spoiler warning for the end of the series, although since it’s been done for four years maybe just watch it already if you really want to. Anyway, HIMYM is the tale of Ted Mosby (architect) telling his kids the loooooong story of how he eventually met their mother. Meeting the mother was always going to be the end bit, it’s baked into the show’s structure. So the series finale arrives, we see Ted and the mother finally get together… only for us to realize she died several years into their marriage (after having the kids) and this story is actually about Ted realizing he wants to go after Robin again. He does, she seems receptive, implied happy ending.
So here’s the thing, if this ending had come at the end of say… seasons 1 – 3, I think it would have gone over well. Ted and Robin still seemed meant to be, a lot of fans were rooting for them, and having them end up together at the end despite all the hurdles they faced might have landed well if they’d done it right. But season 4 starts a new plot-thread (technically it kicked off in 3 when Barney is hit by a bus, but that was just alluding to it) where Barney has feelings for Robin. Once that plot starts, it begins the unraveling of the idea that Ted and Robin should be together. Because in making that storyline float, they have to illustrate all of the many reasons that Ted and Robin actually aren’t a great fit, and every season after feels like it drills the point home over and over. All of Ted’s moves on Robin are seen as mistakes and back-sliding, meanwhile they start building a real story between Robin and Barney.
The final season, in fact, is entirely centered on Robin and Barney’s wedding. Now while that was a questionable choice in itself, the commitment to that original ending meant that after a whole season of watching Barney and Robin come to terms with their love and relationship to one another, we undo it all in a quick montage of the future. Whether they should have ended up happily-ever-after is almost irrelevant, a full fucking season that got spent showing us how well they work together in a relationship is going to be hard to swallow when you cap it with a “whoops, never mind” at the end. But of course, they had to be split up, because how else would Ted and Robin end up together?
This is what I meant when I said a story can “run too long” for the original ending to work. These characters have changed and evolved in ways that were never imagined when the story was first conceived of. The need for new plots and relationships pushed the characters in directions that made the original ending no longer a good fit. We’ve seen Ted go for Robin and fail too many times to think this one will be different. What’s more, the show itself did an extensive job showing us why these two characters shouldn’t be together. Beyond that, the actress who played the mother (Tracy) was a great casting choice who had solid chemistry with Ted, so seeing her snuffed out left a bad taste in plenty of mouths.
Point being, after nine seasons, the ending they had planned didn’t work, and the show lost a lot of its luster subsequently. So, how could they have avoided this? There are a few methods, but none that don’t come with drawbacks of their own.
-Tight-scripting: Some shows know the story they want to tell, and go in with a set number of seasons to do it. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is about to launch its final season purely because the story is nearly over. Gravity Falls did it. Lost was supposed to do it, and serves as a good cautionary tale of what loosening the scripts can do. For authors, this means locking ourselves in to a set number of books/post/iterations to get the story told, preventing ourselves from pushing it out and adding elements that might require a new ending. The trouble here is that you have to pretty much start with this strategy to use it, not much help when you’re already in a series and facing the dilemma.
-Shift the ending. Despite what I’ve said before, it is okay to change an ending if you need to. Usually, you can get away with doing tweaks. Example: In SP: Year 3, Nathaniel wasn’t originally the one to lead that final attack. That got shifted as the story evolved in earlier books and he became a natural person to fill the role. Your ending should probably still be shaped similarly to the original, especially if you want to have all your foreshadowing work, but even that’s malleable if we’re talking about a single book rather than a series. For HIMYM, the solution here might have been to accept that the relationships had changed, and Ted with Robin was no longer a true happy ending. Tracy’s death was a (lightly hinted at) twist anyway, so ripping it out wouldn’t have even required much change in the build-up. This isn’t always possible in every story, but it’s a technique you shouldn’t be afraid to bust out when the occasion demands it.
-Keep tight reins on the characters. The other way to have avoided this was to never put Barney and Robin in the romantic story-arc to begin with. Even though it made for some good narrative moments, the writers would have had to be self-aware enough to say “No, wait, if we do this we risk completely fucking up the emotional core of the ending.” Obviously, they didn’t go that route; however it doesn’t mean you can’t. When you come up with new plots or ideas, set them against what you have planned. Does this new angle substantially change the stakes/feelings/goals/etc of those involved? Will it fundamentally alter the world in a way that shifts the course of where the tale should be heading? You might not be able to figure that out early in a new idea’s conception, but it should be something to watch for as the new storylines take shape. Pay close attention to all the impacts and preemptively shut down options that put the ending at risk. The flaw with this one is that it cuts off a lot of avenues for letting the characters grow organically, occasionally putting you in a position to choose between the character development and the story as a whole.
I hope this helps some of you keep aware of your endings, and how to care for them in the middle of a story. Don’t be afraid to change them, if the story demands it, and don’t under-estimate how important a finale can be. The ending of a story is the last taste left in the reader’s mouth, so we should always try and make sure it’s a satisfying one.