Ending Well

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Over the last several months a number of long-running TV series have broadcast their finale, and a couple are about to broadcast their grand ending. Because the majority of them didn’t end well, this seems like a good opportunity to ask, What can you learn about ending your book–or series–well?

Let’s take a look at some popular series to examine their final episodes.

Downton Abbey

Based on what I’ve read on Facebook about Downton Abbey’s concluding episode, most fans thought it ended well. But I wonder if viewers weren’t more relieved that no beloved character was killed off rather than actually satisfied with the ending. Downton had been known to break many a heart when lead characters met with death; so viewers had good reason to be nervous. (e.g., Matthew Crawley *sniff*–I still haven’t recovered from that betrayal.)dead end sign

For me, I found the conclusion a yawner, laced with a few sweet moments. The cadence of the ending became clear early on–the viewers would be paraded past a line up of characters and learn what the future held for each. I was reminded of a general moving down a line of soldiers, pinning a medal on each one. Such an obvious structure had my eyes drooping shut. To me, the most fetching scene was when Daisy revealed her stylish haircut.

Ending well? Not in my book.

Possible solution? Start to close the series earlier than the last episode, allowing characters to drift off the show or move into their new roles in the household. The producers knew before the season even began that they were going to shut down the show; why wait until the last couple of hours to bring closure to each and every character? Give us the luxury of soaking in where each character is headed.

Lesson: If you write a series, enter into the plotting process for your last book realizing that tying bows on each plot point in the last chapter isn’t satisfying or even all that interesting to the reader. Allow some characters’ to exit stage left before the very end. If you’re writing a single title, you’re unlikely to have as much to wrap up, but give us a sense that the story is starting to wind down before the last few pages.

The Good Wife

For those of you who haven’t watched this fictitious series, The Good Wife recounted how Alicia Florrick, wife of the governor of Illinois, stood by her man when he was indicted for corrupt and illegal behavior. For the next six years, viewers watched Alicia move from being a “manikin,” who behaved in ways that others expected, to discovering who she really was. She went on to join a law firm and to gain confidence in her ability to think fast and creatively while dealing with office politics, her husband’s political machinations, or dramatic court moments, all the while maintaining ethical stands when faced with a choice. Alicia had well-defined behavioral boundaries, and all the other characters knew it.

But in the last year of the series, Alicia questioned why she kept on being so good when that behavior didn’t seem to serve her well. So she started to lie and connive, but all the while seemed to be sleepwalking, like she was just as lost as she had been in the first episode.

In the final episode, Alicia decides, whenever faced with a choice, to take the me-first road. As it turned out, that didn’t serve her well either.

The first time Alicia lied, I felt betrayed by the writers. Why did they take a basic characteristic of the lead character and make her behave in a way she never would have through five previous years? Alicia had plenty of character flaws to draw from; a new one didn’t need to be created. It seemed as if the producers had decided to dismantle the person everyone who watched the show admired.

Ending well? Not only not ending well but also ending with a confusing scene the viewer would be hard-pressed to know what to do with.

Possible solution (and the lesson): Let the character remain true to who she is. There were plenty of flaws and complex relationships to explore. Don’t stretch the viewer’s (or reader’s) credulity by causing the character to veer off a path that seemed inherent in how that person had responded to circumstances; it makes the character much less likeable. And readers hate being betrayed that way.

Wallander

This BBC production starred Kenneth Branagh, one of the finest actors today. Kurt Wallander is a Swedish detective in this gloomy mystery series based on books written by a Sweden novelist. The setting generally is bleak and dark, with lots of wintery scenes. Not much snow, just brown, windy landscapes. Once you envision that, you understand the tenor of the show.

Wallander is an unhappy man, whom Branagh describes as “an existenialist who is questioning what life is about and why he does what he does every day, and for whom acts of violence never become normal. There is a level of empathy with the victims of crime that is almost impossible to contain, and one of the prices he pays for that sort of empathy is a personal life that is a kind of wasteland.” The fourth season concludes May 22, and I’m writing this post before I have the chance to view it. But I certainly see where the series is going with the character.

Wallander has always been a fascinating character to watch, but not one I’ve felt a particular empathy for. He has a strong dark side, making him a person one watches from a distance.

Nonetheless, this final season has been difficult watch–although it’s also fascinating, akin to watching a train about to run off the tracks. Wallander is showing strong signs of having Alzheimer’s. His inability to stay focused on tracking down a murderer, paying attention to investigative detail, and forgetting clues until someone reminds him, are just plain sad. Viewers are spending the season watching the decline of an astute character.

Ending well? Not.

Lesson: It’s hard to choose which is worse, having a character die suddenly and traumatically or watching one slip away. While Downton Abbey did away with characters with aplomb, Wallander is doing so agonizingly. Neither is likely to leave the viewer (or reader) satisfied. Every time I watch the next episode on Wallander, I recall how Inspector Morris ended abruptly when Morris died of a heart attack while investigating a murder. Somehow that was okay, albeit unexpected. When it comes to doing away with a major character, it seems almost a kindness to let them slip away while on the job, but not killed by a murderous rogue or a violent car accident right after a joyous moment (my thoughts are drifting back to Matthew Crawley in Downton). “Let the reader down gently” might be the best advise. Unless, of course, you’re writing a gritty story. In terms of the bleak tone of Wallander, this might be the “right” way to close it out, but it certainly isn’t satisfying for the viewer.

Mr. Selfridge

Another BBC production, Mr. Selfridge follows the rise and fall of Mr. Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American who opened an eponymous department store in London. With flair, imagination and sometimes sense of creating a circus atmosphere with store events, the character is fun although sometimes frustrating in his life choices. But he is consistently up for taking a risk despite all the naysayers who remind him of what he could lose if his latest harebrained scheme goes awry.

Based on a real-life person, it’s fascinating to watch how the real Selfridge revamped our shopping experience even today in significant ways. He brought such innovations as having perfume and cosmetics at the store’s entry point to sweep the shopper away from the horse-dung odors of the street and into the fragrances of a grand shopping experience; he used elevators to transport shoppers from floor to floor (the series starts in the 1910s); he offered goods on sale for Christmas (and invented the phrase “only ____ shopping days left before Christmas”); he allowed customers to handle the goods rather than having the items kept behind counters with the salesperson showcasing what he or she thought the customer would want, etc.

After the first episode of Mr. Selfridge, I looked up online about the real Harry Selfridge and learned that, while he was incredibly innovative and successful, eventually he became a pauper who lost it all when he took up with twin showgirls, the Dolly sisters, and financed their love of exquisite jewelry and their exorbitant gambling habits–along with his own.

So, when we reached this season four, which will be the final season, I entered into it with reluctance. I like Harry, despite his infatuations with women and his devil-may-care approach to life. I wasn’t sure I was ready to see Jeremy Piven, who stars as Selfridge, standing across the street from his magnificent store, wearing a worn-out top-hat and looking longingly at what he had created and lost.

But I have hope that the show will deviate from real-life for its finale, broadcast on May 22. From what I can divine from my online snooping, Selfridge falls in love with a woman who once was his nemesis, an extremely wealthy but unhappy woman, Lady Mae Loxley. Despite her shrewd manipulations of others, I’ve always admired Lady Mae’s quick wit and wry observances of others’ quirks–and weaknesses. As the show has progressed she’s turned into a much nicer person after life taken her through considerable sadness and betrayals.

I’m hopeful (could it be!?) that Mr. Selfridge will have a satisfying ending. What would make it so? If Harry allowed himself to admit he loves Mae and lets the Dolly sisters drift on to take advantage of some other rich man who loves risk more than anything else in life. I want to see Mr. Selfridge find redemption from the demons that have haunted him from the beginning of his life. Not to find perfection, but to find a person, at last, he can allow himself to just be Harry with.

Lesson: Let the viewer or (reader) enjoy a believable but redemptive closing with a flawed character who manages to make a good choice because of the insight he or she has gained through all of the plot’s hills and valleys.

What TV show or film’s ending worked for you? Why?

What TV show or film didn’t end well for you? What would have made the conclusion more satisfying?

How can you apply those insights to your WIP?

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