One of my favorite endings across all media was the finale of Orphan Black, which at the time was the best show nobody was watching. Thanks to being on a smaller channel, it was able to survive until its planned ending. Which…unfortunately, I can’t do spoiler tags on Medium and this is an ending that would ruin the entire show. I’m still trying to get people to watch it.
Here’s the thing about television: Many shows don’t have good endings. Historically, TV shows were episodic and ran until they stopped getting good ratings. Star Trek: TOS has no ending. Because it was truly episodic, it didn’t need one.
Then Babylon 5 came along and suddenly people realized that television could tell this much larger, planned story. Audiences started to demand it.
Unfortunately, many shows still ran until they were canceled, resulting in travesties like Angel ending on a full blown cliffhanger. (This was also a problem with Beauty and the Beast as many people never saw the final season. Beauty and the Beast was actually an excellent attempt to do a good arc…I refused to see the remake because I’m finicky about remakes). Or the ending of Quantum Leap which I’d honestly repressed until I looked it up. I thought it had no ending. It did. Just a bad one.
Alternatively, shows got canceled in advance, the writers realized they needed to do an ending, but had no idea how.
This gives us things like the Battlestar Galactica remake (nested epilogues should never be a thing), whatever the heck happened in Lost and, let’s just say, it was all a dream/made up should never be a thing in any media, St. Elsewhere.
So, Can we Learn Anything from TV Show Endings?
First of all, the examples above tell us what not to do. I read a book as a child that I am now unable to locate the title or author of (I remember it as The Magic Box, but that appears to be incorrect). I was maybe eight when I read it.
A kid goes on a country vacation, where he meets Herne the Hunter and goes on amazing Celtic-themed adventures. I loved Celtic fantasy as a child.
Then he woke up still on the train. I threw the book across the room. It was my introduction to “It was all a dream/hallucination/daydream” as an ending. I have hated them ever since.
Dream world stories that are explicitly introduced as such can work well. But endings which leave the reader feeling betrayed, that change the genre of the work, etc, aren’t going to go down well. (Yes, you can have the ending reveal the reader was wrong about something, but it’s hugely difficult, and I have yet to try it and probably never will).
But what else can we learn from TV show endings? Here’s some thoughts:
- Don’t nest epilogues. Well, most of the time. Timeless nested epilogues and it worked because they feinted us with an unsatisfactory ending then went “Nope. You really thought we’d end it THAT way? Of course not.” If you can pull it off better than they did, go ahead. But multiple epilogues generally aren’t helpful. Some readers hate epilogues altogether.
- Give yourself enough space for your story. I’m looking at Timeless again, mostly because I finally watched the second season over the last couple of weeks and finished yesterday. They needed another season. They didn’t get one. This resulted in an ending which was rushed, and the defeat of the bad guys was pat and unconvincing. You aren’t a TV producer who’s gonna get canceled. Don’t try to squeeze a novella into a short story or a novel into a novella. Guilty. I’ve done it. I’m trying to stop.
- Have an ending. You might change it if you’re a gardener, but you should always start your story with some idea of where your characters are going to end up. Don’t forget genre conventions (you can’t sell it as a romance without at least a happy for now ending). But TV shows with arcs that don’t end up with endings satisfy nobody, likely including the writers and actors.
- Unless you’re self publishing and are absolutely committed to that four book series, give book one an ending. Think of it as that first season you know you’re getting. If you never write book two, will your readers be okay with that?
- Know when to end your story and don’t go past that point. This happens a lot in television when the writers write the ending and then the network goes “Oh, wait, you can have one more season.” Even Babylon 5 suffered from this a little. It can also happen in other ways too. Smallville seemed to last longer than the writers’ interest and I’ve heard things about Supernatural on that front. The Batman prequel show Gotham had a really good ending and then just…for some reason…added another episode that not only added nothing to the show but actively distracted from it.
- Make sure your ending makes sense for the characters. Leverage had a very good ending. The characters ended up where they were clearly heading for seasons prior. (I miss that show).
Thankfully, TV show writers seem to be getting better at endings as they get more practice (the growth of the mini-series and the single planned season show is only going to help with this). But we all have something to learn from how our favorite show comes to an end.