Know When to Fold 'Em
In many ways, the ending to a book, show, or movie series is as important as the sum of everything that came before it. While a strong finish will give the fans a sense of closure, even as they have to say goodbye to their favorite characters, a weak one can tarnish and even sour the series they loved up until that point. And there are, admittedly, a lot of ways that can happen. Poor choices get made, bad ideas linger longer than they should, and, in the instances we’re going to be talking about here, creators simply keep the series going for too long to be able to have any sort of satisfying conclusion.
It’s the danger of success, and a shockingly easy trap to fall into for creators on any level. People love your work, it selling/getting renewed/getting greenlit, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to wind things down. And, to be clear, not every type of work needs that strong ending. The Simpsons, for example, can more or less run indefinitely (regardless of what people say about post-season nine quality) because of its nature. It’s a show that is highly episodic, with very light continuity, and no central theme or story running through the narrative. If I go watch a random episode from the last season, having not seen any for a year, I’m going to immediately know what’s going on and require no recap.
But we’re not talking about the Simpsons today. I mean, aside from the part above where we did just that. No, this is a conversation related to pieces of media with an over-arching plot that starts at the beginning and is only wrapped up at the end. One that hit it out of the park, one that faltered by staying too long, and one that somehow managed to do both. Because the ending is hard, and shutting your own work down in the face of success is even harder, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do for the work and the fans, even if it seems crazy in the moment.
Let’s start with the one that hit it out of the park: Gravity Falls. Now Gravity Falls only lasted two seasons, though you wouldn’t know that from how much merchandise, fan costumes, and general internet presence the show has. There’s so much hype and exposure that it feels like it’s been around for decades. But nope, just the two seasons. Despite the fact that it’s success easily would have justified dragging it out for another five, and I have no doubt they’d have been renewed all along the way, creator Alex Hirsch came in with a narrative in mind and he told it in two seasons. Then he let it end. And honestly, without going into spoilers, the show went from being great to a classic on the strength of that ending. It was potent, powerful, and closed out all the major plot threads that had been raised at the start of the series. It made Gravity Falls a strong show all the way through, from start to finish, and that’s no small feat. Nor is it one that could have happened if the show had limped on for extra seasons, padding out the core narrative with hastily slapped on ideas, like, oh I don’t know…
The one that faltered: Lost. Now I know Lost is sort of cultural joke these days, but it’s easy to forget that the show started with so much momentum. Well-deserved, too. Go back and watch the pilot, and try to push everything you know about what’s to come from your mind. What you’ll see is a show nearly drowning in talent and potential. And drown is exactly what it did. A show that, according to interviews, was conceived of with a tight storyline and a planned number of seasons (although they apparently didn’t actually know how they would answer every question they raised) got ballooned out to an unwieldy length because ABC wanted as much as could be made.
So Lost was stretched, the core narrative paced back, new storylines that were never part of the initial plan brought in, a few powerfully planned seasons had their elements sliced up to go twice as far, and… well, now Lost is pretty much a cultural joke. The thing is, as much shit as the ending to the show gets, and given that the entire final season is sort of the finale it’s well-deserved, I don’t know that they could have done much better if they got a mulligan on just that episode. By that point, the story had swollen so large and the over-arching plot was lost in the swirl of lesser-narratives. It ran too long for its own good, and the ending is really a reflection of that.
Which brings us to the last example, the one that managed to both close strong and then stretch too far. Now listen, I know the knee-jerk reaction to this one will be to punch your screen, but hold that fist and hear me out first. Okay, you ready? The one that both nailed the ending and then dragged on too long is… Harry Potter.
Look, first seven books? Great ending. Rowling crushed it. Sacrifice, growth, duty, light versus dark, final epic battle that had been teased from book one, and a happy ending about life moving on. She checked all the boxes so hard they should have lit the name Harry Potter on fire and never permitted anyone to write it down again. But then, the Cursed Child came out. And let me save you the trouble of rushing to the comments, I know it wasn’t a true Rowling work, but to that I have 2 replies: 1) It’s her property, and she allowed it to happen. 2) Go look at the cover and tell me anyone who doesn’t read interviews and stories about this book is going to realize it isn’t all written by her. The billing sure makes it look that way.
Doing my best to avoid spoilers, Cursed Child has a fair amount of issues that have been documented in various places on the web, but the criticism that seems to echo the loudest from all around is that it severely weakens the original series’ ending. Ron, Hermione, and Harry aren’t as happy and cool and well-off as we’d all imagined them to be, because of course they aren’t. This is a book about people’s lives, and Happily Ever After only exists when the story stops. The minute you tell more you have to add flaws and issues to create tension with relatable characters. It’s a necessity of the medium, yet it made a lot of people deeply unhappy. Why? Because with its existence, the end of Book 7, that badass closing that put a cap on the tale we’d been reveling in for years, became an act break instead of a real ending. And the instant we saw what the Cursed Child had to offer, we knew the new ending wouldn’t be even close to the same level as what we’d had. Now you can debate the technical accuracy of this since Cursed Child is, I think, loosely canon at best, but the point stands that people picked it up see what happened to Harry Potter, and many quickly regretted it.
The purpose to all of this discussion, because shockingly I do have a planned ending in a blog about endings, is that as creators we have to keep in mind the trade-off that comes with pushing a story past the limits it was designed for. And here, at last, I’ll talk about it in personal terms. Super Powereds is far and away my best selling series. It launched my writing career, and is what a big majority of my readers know me for. In the past year, as I started on Year 4, it has been very tempting to try and stretch this out a little more. Add in some intern years, or have something happen that holds them all back. But at the end of the day, I know where Year 4 is going, I know the ending I have planned, and I feel like it’s a good one. Maybe I’ll be wrong, that is always a possibility, however it will still be me doing the best I can to give a satisfying conclusion to the tale that started in the Prologue of Year 1. And I think, in the long run, that will be better than squeezing an extra book or two would have been. It’s all only a guess though, none of us can see the future.
All we can do is try our best to deliver the best story possible, regardless of medium, and trust our instincts when they say it’s time to pull down the final curtain on a tale.