by Brighton Luke
(The only spoilers in this are at the end and will be marked ahead of time so feel free to read up until that point.)
Like many people I woke up today reeling from the second to last episode of Breaking Bad and the finale to Dexter. Novels and TV shows are very similar in that they require a large investment of time from the viewer/ reader, making the stakes that much higher at the end. Get it wrong and people will be angry and feel betrayed. Get it right and win heaps of praise for your brilliance.
For novels especially (even more so than TV shows I would argue) the ending can make or break a book’s greatness. For some stories you start writing it already knowing where it will end, for others it’s not quite so easy and you have to dive in hoping you’ll find your way there. The important thing with both approaches to remember is that any ending will work, so long as you write the story that will get you there. Some genres require happy ever afters, some require a mystery to be solved, or someone to be saved. All of those are important and you should know the general expectations for your chosen genre, but what I’ve noticed over the years as a reader and viewer is that no matter the subject matter no matter the genre the good endings were ones that started in act one.
Good endings are not always the endings I wanted, often times they are not at all what I wanted. I’m drawn to stories about very flawed characters who if you gave them their happy ending it wouldn’t ring true as much as I may want that for them. The key to a good ending isn’t that it be happy (though it can be) is to write one that is fitting. You spend all this time creating characters with vibrant personalities all their own, for the end you have to let them make the choices they were created to make. (And if you really hate the way the characters are going to act at the end to be in line with who they are, your problem isn’t with the ending as much as it is with the way you’ve written them up until that point.)
For me, the reason the ending season to Breaking Bad is so damn good (so far, they better not screw it up on the last one) is not because what I want to happen is happening, far from it. Exactly the opposite of what I said I hoped for at the start of this season is what has transpired. What makes it all so good is that at every turn there are surprises but at the same time the gut wrenching feeling of inevitability, each choice no matter how bad or good is exactly what the character that’s gotten us to this point would do. They haven’t suddenly changed on us for the sake of an ending.
The absolute worst thing I believe you can do to a reader (or viewer) is give them an ending where the characters inexplicably change to create the ending. Dramatic arcs are all about change, but that change has to be organic, it has to come from the story, from the character.
DEXTER SPOILER AHEAD
I hate that Deb died. (I’m also not yet over Rita dying either, there’s a reason I’m not going to watch Game of Thrones or read Song of Ice and Fire), and I also hate that Dexter died. I find it tragically fitting that his “dark passenger” lived on. The whole show had been a battle between Dexter trying to be normal and the demands of his “dark passenger”. Many times there were those insisting that the normal Dexter wasn’t real. I personally think he was, that’s what made it so heartbreaking, he was so close to winning, but the inevitable fact that for me made this ending work was that the act of choosing to live a normal and happy life destroyed the very person who had helped him conquer his “dark passenger”. When he chose not to kill Daniel Vogel and to instead do the right thing, he chose Dexter over the darkness, but it also killed Deb, and without Deb there was no way Dexter could continue to win out over the “dark passenger” she was his lifeline, when she died, he died.
The bummer part about writing is that you will never get everyone to agree I’m sure plenty of people have many other opinions on that same ending. The only thing you can do as an author is to keep writing and rewriting until you get to that gut punch feeling of knowing this is the ending the story has brought on itself. (And if you get to that ending, and still hate it, please go back and change stuff earlier in the story to get to the ending you want don’t just tack something not fitting onto the end, thanks.)
P.S. Writers of Will & Grace I’m never watching any shows of yours ever again until you apologize for the train wreck that was the last two episodes of Will & Grace, prime example of characters making choices they would absolutely not make.
P.P.S. What do you guys think is going to happen in Breaking Bad? It’s kind of a similar battle that Dexter had, the internal fight between Walter White and Heisenberg, which one will win? And what novels or novel series do you think really got their endings right, or royally screwed them up? (Also please mark comments with spoilers at the start to let us know which story you'll be discussing the ending to.)