In The New '10s there were a number of rather disappointing endings. This article is intended to help you avoid joining that semi-illustrious pile. Its focus is on analyzing some of those endings, cross-referencing Audience Reactions to same, and explaining how they got there.
Because we are going to analyze endings, there will be spoilers, and they will not be marked.
Necessary TropesWell, this is about endings, so you'll need to have a story to end. Check out Write a Story for basic ideas. Consider also investigating the Three-Act Structure, the Story Structure Architect, The Hollywood Formula and The Hero's Journey. For convenience, we will assume that you are looking solely for advice on how to handle your third act, but where applicable we will discuss the other two as well.
Do you have a Myth Arc? A lot of episodic television does not have this — Long-Runners like The Simpsons are done with no continuity and sometimes even negative continuity in mind — and you can do things this way, if you really want, but at some point your story is going to end, and at that point it helps to have an idea for what, specifically, needs to be ended. If you're writing a Grand Finale, the objective is to pay off as much of the previous material as possible — to make the maximum quantity of preceding content feel like it was and is relevant to the ending. To do that, you'll want to have a clear memory of what you have already written.
Choices, ChoicesFirst, consider your tone. Are you writing a World Half Full where a Happily Ever After is appropriate? Is it a Crapsack World where a Downer Ending would make more sense? Or are you somewhere in between, allowing you to employ the Bittersweet Ending? All of them are viable, but only some of them will feel appropriate to the story you have written up until now.
Consider also your genre and its conventions, if it has any. If you are trying to Write a Love Story, for instance, you're almost forced into the Happily Ever After. Most genres do not really enforce an emotional tone, but they tend to lean in certain ways, and if you are planning to defy that tradition, you need to be sure you can pull it off.
How much do you want to set down in anticipation? It's a tricky question. If you don't plan out enough... well, the rest of the article will examine what happens then. But if you plan out too much, you get a stale, paint-by-numbers Cliché Storm where the audience sees every move coming from a mile away. One of the reasons Writing by the Seat of Your Pants is so popular is that, if you don't know what's about to happen, there's no way the audience will know, or even can know. You could make the argument that a Shocking Swerve is only possible if you aren't planning ahead, and you might not be incorrect. But on the flip side, you could also argue that a Shocking Swerve — a Plot Twist for the sake of a Plot Twist, with no foreshadowing or Chekhov's Guns planted — is inherently bad writing; and this wiki does in fact make that argument. There is such thing as too much setup, but there's also such thing as too little.
So here's a secret: Plot out juuuust enough to know where you're going. Is there an important emotional beat here? A significant plot development there? Cool. Have those set in stone. Leave the rest up in the air. You want to know where you're going, but you want to leave yourself as much freedom to improvise how you get there. We are talking about endings, but It's the Journey That Counts, and so plan out the journey as little as possible — at least, assuming you stay within the bounds of your overall Myth Arc. This gives you a lot of freedom when it comes to individual characters, individual scenes, even entire chapters: you know you have certain specific goals to achieve, but how your characters achieve them is completely up in the air, giving you great spontaneity within a pre-determined framework.
The thing to keep in mind here is your role as an author. Some people will tell you that it's your job to outsmart The Reader — and that outsmarting them is so important that, if necessary, you should withhold important information from them. "The Reader should not be able to figure out what will happen next!," these people exclaim... and they are wrong. Your job as an author is to inform The Reader, to draw their attention to important elements of your story, and to give them a chance to feel smart by correctly predicting where the story is going and how your characters are going to resolve a situation. The "Eureka!" Moment is not just for your characters; in fact, if your readers aren't beating them to the punch, you're not doing a good job. (This is why Technobabble is considered such bad writing: it utilizes rules that the audience never learned because the rules don't exist. The characters feel smart, and hopefully your viewers care about that, but sharing vicarious triumph is very different from being right there with them. In comparison, consider Sanderson's First Law, which explicitly emphasizes the audience's ability to see things coming.) A good writer is predictable, because they have signposted and foreshadowed their plot events. The events themselves can still be astonishing, but it should also be possible to see them coming. If readers guess your ending, that's not a bug — it's a feature.
Finally, consider your Central Theme and your Aesop. The Central Theme is the question of what the story is about — for instance, Harry Potter is about a boy learning he's a wizard (not to mention The Chosen One), as well as the larger question of how death and impermanence affects things like True Love and Undying Loyalty. The Aesop is traditionally an answer to that larger question that is forced on the audience, which is why it is often avoided... but the thing to keep in mind is that, whether or not you are planning to force that answer on the audience, you will subconsciously include that answer in your story, because it's your opinion and you're only human. Therefore, it behooves you to know what your Central Theme, and especially your Aesop, are, and adjust your story to fit. If not, they'll stick out like a sore thumb. Because they're there, whether you wanted them to be or not.
PitfallsHere's where we start doing some analysis. Each ending has a specific Aesop to teach us, and we will highlight those things specifically
Your Ending Should Match Your StoryHow I Met Your Mother is a sitcom that aired from 2005 to 2014. Its Framing Device is of a man named Ted, sitting down to tell his teenage kids the story of how he met their mother. Ted, The Ghost, narrates each episode of the show (voice of Bob Saget, uncredited), which depicts his younger self (Josh Radnor) consistently dating the wrong women, particularly a Will They or Won't They? with fellow main character Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders). The show uses its narration scheme to excellent advantage: the narrator segues into flashbacks, helps set up jokes, is explicitly used as a Scenery Censor who provides Unusual Euphemisms for things Ted doesn't want to tell his kids about (sexual activities, illicit substances, etc), and generally holds the show together; the only other TV show, thus far, to follow the Trope Codifier of "Narrator As Glue" is Jane the Virgin, but we should probably expect others to follow in its footsteps (particularly because JtV shows just how versatile the trope is, being not a sitcom but rather a romantic dramedy and Decon-Recon Switch of the telenovela). The last episode — in fact, the entire last season — takes place when Robin finally marries someone else; as he heads home from the wedding, now the only character of the Five-Man Band who is still single, Ted runs into a woman named Tracy (Cristin Milioti) — the woman who will become his wife. The 90-second-long conversation involves callbacks to elements from all nine seasons (not to mention the immense chemistry between Radnor and Milioti) and instantly sells the idea that Ted has met his One True Love.
The show was critically acclaimed throughout its run... and if it had stopped with that meeting, it probably would have gone down in history as a truly great sitcom. But the show went on for 150 more seconds, one last scene... which resulted in USA Today voting the finale the worst of all time.
First off: despite being essentially a romance, the show does not begin where most romances do — with the Boy Meets Girl. As a matter of fact, it ends with that trope, giving the impression that it has told the story backwards. "Why would you do this?" audiences might ask. "What's so interesting about Ted's love life prior to his meeting The Mother?" The answer is, Nothing, but the answer is also, Everything. Instead of showing Ted and Tracy falling in love, the show spends nine years setting up its Chekhov's Armory as concerns Ted's love life: this is what he wants, this is what he could live with if he had to, here are his absolute deal-breakers. The show is not about how Ted fell in love with Tracy, but rather why. As such, when they finally meet in the last episode, we don't need to see them fall in love: we've spent so much time studying his personality that it's a Foregone Conclusion — even if there weren't flash-forwards to their successful marriage, even if it wasn't the show's title. The Central Theme of the show, in other words, is not Boy Meets Girl — it's Character Development. The Aesop of the show is spelled out in the third season: "Kids, there's more than one story of how I met your mother. You know the short version, the thing with your mom's yellow umbrella. But there's a bigger story, the story of how I became who I had to become before I could meet her." And, for Ted, one of the most important steps in that bigger story is giving up his hopeless infatuation with Robin, whom he said "I love you" to during the pilot episode, on the very first date.
Therefore, fans were a little bit upset when those last 150 seconds of show, the coda after Ted says, "And that, kids, is how I met your mother," involves the kids replying, "No: This is a story about how you're totally in love with Aunt Robin." (That's not a paraphrase, that's a direct quotation.) And if Ted wants to go for it, they continue, he has their permission: after all, Mom was Killed Off for Real (offscreen, a mere 67 seconds after the Title Drop) and Ted is single now. "The point of this story is—" Ted begins to protest, and Penny cuts him off by saying, "Is that you totally totally have the hots for Aunt Robin." And Ted decides they're right. The very last shot of the series is of Ted standing at Robin's door, interested in giving it another try, holding up that blue french horn.
It works!... as an ending to Ted and Robin's story. The problem is, the show isn't about Ted and Robin. It's about how Ted met Tracy — at least, according to the title of the damn show. And yet the show ends by declaring — explicitly! — that its own title is a lie. The Central Theme of "How I Met Your Mother" is How I Want To Bang Your Aunt Robin.
The backlash was... significant.
Completely aside from the show having the wrong name, its finale gave the impression that, in the course of those 150 seconds, Ted has undone nine years of Character Development, reverting to that hopeless infatuation from the pilot episode. Status Quo Is God, to its most obvious conclusion: the entire series, literally from start to finish, was a "Shaggy Dog" Story. And while this is arguably consonant with the themes of the show — just as Robin was the person who provided Ted enough Character Development that he could find a Second Love with Tracy, so does Tracy prepare him for his Third Love with Robin — the simple fact is that the first journey is dramatized over the course of nine years, while the second, well, doesn't actually occur onscreen. The Last Minute Hookup also acts as a refutation of the idea of One True Love, which is another thing the show has been playing with — Tracy is definitely Ted's Second Love, and additional episodes have established that Tracy lives in the specter of The Lost Lenore — and that is a great Aesop too... but the show doesn't actually spell it out that way. Both interpretations hinge on Fridge Logic, which is not a good thing to pin your finale on. At best, the ending feels like a Writer Cop Out, a lazy way for the show to have its cake and eat it too. At worst, it feels like Running the Asylum, the writers proving that they had no clue what story they were even telling.
How could this ending have been salvaged? With just one more set of flashbacks. After saying, "We approve of you dating Aunt Robin," Penny should have said, "And we think it'll work this time. You told us the story of how you did things wrong with Robin, like that one time you—" Some sort of flashback here, using stock footage of an older episode. "Well, when the same thing happened with Mom..." A second flashback, a scene filmed specifically for this episode, of Ted and Tracy being in the same situation and Ted acting differently. "Yeah," Luke chimes in, "and then you also talked about..." More paired flashbacks, contrasting the before-and-after. Do this a few times and you at least touch upon the idea that Ted has continued to have Character Development, even after meeting The Mother. There's still no way that 30 seconds of flashbacks can equal the weight of a 9-year long character arc, but at least those 30 seconds exist — and the show has been so flashback-centric that viewers would be willing to give this brief montage a lot more weight than it might carry in other shows. We're also more prepared to believe the "And the Adventure Continues" trope about Ted and Robin, because we've already seen it happen to Ted and Tracy. But again, this only works if you understand that the show is about Character Development, Ted's character development specifically, and bother to underline that theme.
And, of course, they could have just named the show correctly. But we're not going to go there.
Now, here we need to address something that doesn't always happen to novels, but will definitely happen anywhere else: Logistics. The show's Framing Device involves shots of two kids sitting on a couch. Consequently, their lines at the end — "Go date Aunt Robin" — were filmed in Season 2 and just kept in a box somewhere, because waiting any longer to film them would have resulted in the child actors (David Henrie and Lyndsy Fonseca) aging out of the roles. If you wanted to add to the scene, you'd immediately have to recast the roles, or do some really tricky CGI de-aging that your budget might not accommodate. (And how much had David Henrie's voice changed in the interim? CGI can't fix that yet.) The point is, the creators of the show were locked into their ending as of Season 2; they could not change it, at least not very easily. You tend to have this problem more with episodic media... but the simple fact is, everything is episodic these days, because 1) it's easier to write in smaller pieces, 2) it's easier to consume in smaller pieces, 3) you can make way more money from smaller pieces. So you should assume you'll have this problem.
And so here we have this problem. "We filmed an ending, but it's the wrong one, and we can't go back and add more." What do you do? The answer is, you take out the stuff that doesn't work. Sure enough, when the HIMYM finale came out on DVD, it included an alternate ending which simply abandoned their original plans: it's just Ted recapping the previous nine seasons and explaining his Character Arc, with no footage of the kids whatsoever. This had the side effect of turning certain lines in previous episodes, the ones concerning Tracy's demise, into Red Herrings... but this could also have been addressed by adding even more content: since it's been foreshadowed that Tracy will not live to see Penny's wedding, have the show end with Ted saying, "I wanted to tell you all this because your mom's chemo isn't working as well as it used to. She wanted me to tell you the whole story of our lives, since she may not have a chance to do it herself." And then have Tracy come in — looking ill, but still smiling. "Still, we'll get through this. We're a family. Right, honey?" And the Adventure Continues.
This just underlines what we've said above: Know your Central Theme, and know your Aesop. You have to write the story accounting for the fact that you have to release it in pieces. This increases the importance of knowing where you're going.
Your ending should be predictable.Mass Effect 3 is the final video game in a Space Opera trilogy. The Player Character is Cmdr. Shepard, a human soldier who discovers that The Reapers, Eldritch Abomination death robot demon gods who live outside the Milky Way Galaxy, swing through every 50,000 years to kill all sentient life... and that the last time they did so was about 49,998 years ago. As Shepard, you become a Magnetic Hero rallying the species of the galaxy into a fighting force that will stop the Reapers... and doing Side Quests with some of the most memorable Non Player Characters in the history of the medium. The trilogy, begun in 2007, concluded in 2012 with a suitably apocalyptic Final Battle... but the denouement afterwards caused such a huge fan backlash that BioWare were sued. What happened?
In this case, we can get back to the entire theme of the game: "Stop the Reapers." In the end, Shepard is given several choices: to do so, by blowing them away entirely; to control them, using them to better ends; or, if you've jumped through enough gameplay hoops, to do an Assimilation Plot on them, making them stop hating organics because now they are organics (gross oversimplification, but good enough for this article's purposes). It's a Gainax Ending, with very little foreshadowing; additionally, the "Blow up the Reapers" ending was saddled with additional baggage by requiring you to sacrifice at least one robot teammate in the process. This decision was characterized as being part of a Robot War, at which point the sacrifice of the robot teammate starts to make sense; the only problem is, said Robot War was Ass Pulled right there in that very scene; the Reapers' hatred of organic life is not contextualized as being a product of their syntheticity at any other time in 100 hours of gameplay. (It is retconned in using a DLC pack, but that was small consolation to anyone who played the game on launch.)
Even worse, the Robot War justification opens more Plot Holes than it closes. The Reapers claim that their biocide is out of a sense of altruism: Robot War is inevitable, and so the Reapers save organic species from being killed by robots by, you know, killing them with robots first. (Apparently, there's also a side of Assimilation Plot, and each Reaper actually contains the genetic code of a prior sentient species, but that's small consolation to the former species in question.) In addition to being Insane Troll Logic, the "Robot War is inevitable" premise is not supported by the text. In fact, it can be contradicted by the text if Shepard has jumped through enough gameplay hoops. You can, in fact, fight the Reapers with a united force of organics and synthetics, one that has not only had a Robot War but is now having a Robot Peace.
Almost none of this sounds like the conclusion of a video game where the Central Theme is, "Stop the Reapers." You are not able to Stop the Reapers in two of three endings, and in the one where you do, there are extra consequences which you were not informed of.
Now, the Doylist explanation for this part is simple: Per Word of God, the Central Theme of the game is not about stopping the Reapers. It's, "You can't save everybody." And, in a (pseudo) Robot War where all life hangs in the balance, that's a really great theme to have! The problem is that, once again, it's not in the text. You can save everybody — for instance, you can settle the aforementioned Robot War — except for in certain cases where characters have very clear Plotline Deaths that cannot be avoided. While these moments do have an emotional impact, they are somewhat defanged by a Sadistic Choice in the first game: While Shepard and team are attacking the planet Virmire, two of your squadmates get pinned down on opposite sides of the enemy base and Shepard can only rescue one of them. The game is very explicit about this fact: you must commit a Failure-to-Save Murder. And the game does in fact make you choose; you have to select the name you want to save and click a button and make a conscious decision to condemn the other to death. When compared to moments like that, characters who who suffers a mandatory, non-optional deaths — who do not survive the trilogy under any circumstances — simply cannot achieve the same impact.
There is, in short, a Golden Path — a set of choices you can make, spread out across all nine acts of the trilogy, that lead to an optimal ending with every (non-doomed) character present. You can in fact save everybody... At least until that ending, which was clearly written for a different game. There is a Golden Path but no Golden Ending.
How do you end up this way in the first place? Simple: Because it didn't know its own Aesop.
Why did this ending come about? It's hard to say. We know it is not the original ending, because Drew Karpyshyn, who wrote the first two games, has gone public with his original plans. The motivation behind the revised ending has yet to be publicly discussed, but one very obvious answer is that someone figured it out. Fandom is so sprawling, so well-informed, that one person — and therefore, all of Reddit — and therefore, anyone who cared to find out — deduced what the ending would be. (And that would have been pretty easy because Karpyshyn, who is a good writer, foreshadowed it, obfuscating it solely by Hiding It In Plain Sight amongst a number of other dangling plot threads. See the linked article for details.) BioWare, understandably, did not want to release a game where everyone could see the ending coming... but their alternative was to write an ending that no one could see coming, because — similar to the HIMYM situation above — it was the ending to a completely different story. And this, for good or ill, is what they chose.
How could this ending have been salvaged? Simple: You don't. As mentioned, if you are telling your story properly, people should be able to guess the ending. It's proof that Karpyshyn was telling the story correctly. And one of the things you have to put up with, in today's age of storytelling, is fans outsmarting you; there are more of them, they have more internet time than you, and they pay a lot of attention — "fan" is short for "fanatic," remember. So if you don't want people to guess your ending, what are your options? One is to pull a J. D. Salinger and not let anyone read your stories. Another is to do what BioWare did and go all Shocking Swerve. And the third is to just shrug your shoulders and soldier on. After all, if people are engaged enough with your story that they're Wild Mass Guessing your ending... Well, maybe that just means you're doing a good job?
But let's say — for the sake of politeness — that the "CTRL-ALT-DEL" ending (Fan Nickname, after the fact that you either control, alter or delete the Reapers) was intentional from the start. How do we salvage that? Well, we work its Central Theme into the story more thoroughly. From a programming standpoint, ME3 an unenviable job: the franchise uses Old Save Bonus to import over 1000 player-chosen variables from game to game. The third game has to pay off all these variables in some way. The writers wanted to slim all of that down as much as possible, because writing one thousand different branches... Well, that's a recipe for Author Existence Failure. So the writers trimmed some of the branches. But we can safely say that they went too far. There are literally no situations in which you, the player, must consciously choose who will live and who will die, because writing them would have been too complicated. Even though the conscious choice to let people die was the thematic heart of the game, it was not included in the game. Obviously, one should not hit people over the head with one's Aesop, but failing to include it at all is a problem too.
So, instead, we need to include it. Remember that Sadistic Choice from the first game? We need more of them. Apparently, one such choice was originally in the game — if Dummied Out for some reason (It was to be on Thessia. Your mandatory squadmates were to be Liara and the Virmire Survivor, and you'd only have time to save one before the floor collapsed) — suggesting that the writers had some clue what they were doing; but if anything, they should have doubled down. How about Thessia? It's the end of the second act and the story's Darkest Hour: Shepard is sent to the asari homeworld to retrieve critical intelligence for stopping the Reapers. The way the game plays out, you automatically lose the intel, but rescue your squadmates from a Literal Cliffhanger. What if, instead, the game made you choose? "On the one hand, I have my friends — including Required Party Member Liara T'soni, the deuteragonist of the franchise, a possible Love Interest to Shepard, and the only party member in the franchise who is guaranteed to still be alive right now." (Well, and Shepard. ...But then, Shepard came Back from the Dead at the beginning of the second game, so maybe they don't qualify.) "On the other hand, I have... Every living being in the galaxy." What You Are in the Dark is another big theme of the story — whether you want to play Shepard as The Cape or The Cowl — and both philosophies could make arguments for both choices. But either way... What if you had to choose? What if "You can't save everybody" was not something the writers forced on you, but rather something you were actively required to participate in? What if this happened repeatedly? If you shoot the Virmire Survivor, turncoat Councilor Udina will surrender and you can learn important things about the Bad Guy's plan; or you can save your friend but sacrifice the war effort. On Utukku, where you encounter the Rachni Queen and have to choose between her and Grunt, you actually have to choose, and Grunt doesn't miraculously survive because you jumped through enough gameplay hoops in the second game.
There is, in short, a difference between, "You can't save everyone because of Railroading," and, "You must choose not to save everyone, because The Needs of the Many outweigh the needs of your True Companions or Love Interest." One of them works better than the other. And, if you've been employing the one that actually works, then the CTRL-ALT-DEL ending comes out of left field in terms of its options but still sits comfortably within the story's Central Theme: No matter what you do, there will be a price you must pay.
And that theme is applicable to the writing too. If you are writing your story correctly, your ending should be predictable. And that is why It's the Journey That Counts. Signpost where you are going to end. Do not signpost how you plan to get there.
Potential SubversionsLet's be clear, up front: You cannot subvert an ending. —Well, actually, that's not true. You can subvert an ending... by having No Ending, or by becoming a Franchise Zombie. But that's generally not a good outcome.
The better question is, can you have a subversive ending? And the answer to that is, Yes... But also No. To explain what we mean, let's examine that most beloved of tropes: the Plot Twist. And to examine the Plot Twist, let's take two examples from the last of our to-be-analyzed endings: Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones is a fantasy epic that aired on HBO from 2011 to 2019. They are based on George R. R. Martin's as-yet-unfinished novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, which he wrote as a deliberate reaction to his years as a television screenwriter, in which his imagination was constantly hamstrung by the realities (and budgets) of working on a TV show. Consequently, aSoIaF has Loads and Loads of Characters, eight different narrators in the first novel alone, spans two continents, includes a number of fantastical / non-human beings, and involves a massive Succession Crisis on the continent of Westeros, at the exact wrong time: a Greater-Scope Villain is rising in the Lands of Always-Winter to the north, and the Seven Kingdoms must band together to meet this icy threat. Fortunately, they may have help: far to the east, on that other continent, the exiled princess of a former dynasty has performed the impossible, and revived the extinct race of dragons. Her name is Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). If this show, which has Loads and Loads of Characters in its Ensemble Cast, even has a single protagonist, it is her.
In adapting this story for television, showrunners David Weiss and Dan Benioff faced a number of challenges. First, the Loads and Loads of Characters: over the course of eight seasons, there were 43 names in the opening credits — plus Jason Momoa, who took an "And Starring" credit at the end of the guest-star titles because, in the days before Aquaman (2018), he didn't have the clout to share it with Peter Dinklage. ...Who, it should be pointed out, only took "And Starring" for the first season, after which he led the credits as the show's biggest star. They needed a big budget for that many actors — not to mention the multiple filming locations, the giant crew, and a lot of CGI. They also needed to accurately capture the tone of the series, which is a low-magic Crapsack World and focuses much more on realpolitik, interpersonal drama and Gray-and-Grey Morality — "The Sopranos in Middle-Earth," as D&D put it. Good people do bad things, and bad people do good things; no one is immune from mistakes; and when characters screw up, there is never an Author's Saving Throw. The stakes are high: "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die," Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) says, giving the entire franchise its precis. "There is no middle ground."
This is perhaps best exemplified by the fate of Lord Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), who dies during the first season. Such an event is not that unusual — he's not even the first character from the opening credits to die; and the fact that he's played by the Most Triumphant Example of the Chronically Killed Actor should have given the game away. But the truth is that the story goes out of its way to position Ned Stark as The Protagonist, making the reveal that he's a Decoy Protagonist much more powerful: he's at the center of events, he is doing his best to be The Good Chancellor, and he's played by (at the time) the biggest-name actor in the cast. Even the credits got in on it: Peter Dinklage gets "And Starring" because the opening name is Bean's! Consequently, the moment when Ned is killed is a Wham Episode for the show — not just because of its impeccable acting, cinematography and production, but because it represented a huge plot twist (to any viewer who hadn't already read A Game of Thrones when it came out 19 years ago). The show kills its own main character. "Anyone Can Die" has never had so much meaning.
With that in mind, let's talk foreshadowing, because even unsullied viewers could have seen this coming from a league away.
First off: we know that people in positions of power can die. Ned's already seen that happen firsthand: he's in the dungeon because he refused to swear allegiance to Royal Brat Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) after his father, King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), was killed in a Hunting "Accident". Beyond that, viewers (but not Ned) have also seen Daenerys' brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd) meet a Cruel and Unusual Death after he broke some taboos over on the eastern continent. Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen are the Last of Their Kind, the only descendents of King Aerys II Targaryen whom Robert overthrew, and therefore style themselves the Government in Exile of the Seven Kingdoms... a fact that didn't stop Viserys from getting offed when he overstepped his bounds. Ned has also had a Turn in Your Badge moment because he refused to sanction King Robert's desire to have Daenerys assassinated. Being king, or king-to-be, does not give you Plot Armor, and Ned knows this for a fact.
Second: we know Ned's life is on the line. The very first scene of his final episode establishes this. While Ned is languishing in gaol, he's visited by Varys (Conleth Hill), a member of the Decadent Court. Ned refused to bow to Joffrey due to Ned's belief that Joffrey is not actually Robert's child, but rather the illegitimate, inbred love child of Robert's queen, Cersei Lannister, and her own twin Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). (As it happens, Ned is factually correct.) Varys counsels him to recant this belief, to swear fealty to Joffrey. Ned has the choice between what is right and what is easy, and Varys thinks he should go Easy, because going "Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!" would result in... a second Civil War in a generation; more death, more blood, more war. Instead, Varys counsels, Ned could serve The Needs of the Many. Additionally, being Lawful Evil would have the benefit of Ned remaining alive. The same would be true, Varys adds, for Ned's daughter Sansa (Sophie Turner), who is very much in Cersei's clutches.
So when Ned is hauled out onto the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor (Westeros' equivalent of the Vatican) to profess his crimes, we know what's on the line. We know that if he chooses to do what is right, he will condemn himself to death, he will condemn his daughter to death, and he will start a war with the rest of his family on the rebelling side. The path of expediency, on the other hand, would lead to peace. But we also know that Ned is the poster child for Honor Before Reason. He has always done what is right instead of what is easy; throughout the season, people have both praised and derided him for it. The stakes are very, very high. Additionally, there has not only been Foreshadowing — the planting of the Chekhov's Gun that Ned could become shorter by a head at the end of this scene — but also things going From Bad to Worse. Ned's death has been both foreshadowed and escalated.
So, when he goes against all character and decides to do the easy thing — swearing fealty to his new king in the name of peace and prosperity — but Royal Brat King Joffrey orders him executed anyway, we are not surprised.
I mean, we are surprised. Ned has just done everything in his power to save himself, up to and including perjury... and typically, when Main Characters try to save themselves, it works. But the story doesn't suddenly go in an unexpected direction. We get a Meta Twist where it turns out that Ned Stark is actually a Decoy Protagonist. Him getting Killed Off for Real is not a Plot Twist, because that option was always on the table. We didn't think it would happen, but we always knew it could.
And so, if you want a subversive finale, that's how you do it: you have a Kansas City Shuffle, with the real ending Hiding in Plain Sight. You send signals that you're going one way, but make sure the other is and has always been on the table.
And for an example of how to not do that, we go... back to Game of Thrones.
A lot can happen in 73 episodes, obviously, especially for a setting with as much Back Story as Westeros. The War of The Usurper, where Robert Baratheon dethroned Daenerys' dad, was 17 years back. As of Episode 7, King Robert is dead; as of Episode 9, Ned Stark is dead, and with him the realm's only hope for a We "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot. As of Episode 10, we're officially divided into Three Lines, Some Waiting. By odd coincidence, the three lines can be analogized to one of the nouns in the phrase "A Song of Ice and Fire":
- The song is The "War of Five Kings," as it's called: Joffrey claims his father's throne, Robert's brothers claim it as well on account of Joffrey not actually being a Baratheon, and two other lords seize the opportunity to (attempt to) return their own principalities to self-rule. It's a bloodbath; only one king wins, and only one king survives, and they are not the same person. Cersei ends up as de facto ruler of the Seven Kingdoms by virtue of being the only person who is still alive enough to perch her behind on the Iron Throne.
- The ice: There's a guy named Jon Snow (Kit Harington), the Literal Bastard of the late Ned Stark, who lives in a Bleak Border Base at The Great Wall in the far north. Jon is a member of the "Night's Watch," a group formed to man the Wall and protect the Seven Kingdoms from the aforementioned Greater-Scope Villain, "the White Walkers" (as the show calls them, because the books call them "the Others" but Lost already took that name), an army of An Ice Person Enemy to All Living Things types. Only, the White Walkers haven't been seen in eight thousand yearsnote , and the Night's Watch has become an Army of Thieves and Whores, with criminals who Traded Bars For Stripes rubbing elbows with political dissidents who were Kicked Upstairs or Reassigned to Antarctica. Too bad the White Walkers are actually back, right? Jon's got a lot of work to do.
- The fire is Daenerys, doing her thing where she hatches her three dragons and returns magic to the world. While Westeros is having a civil war and completely ignoring the Night's Watch, Daenerys becomes a Warrior Princess, using her dragons to cut a swath through Essos. But Daenerys is The Cape. Essos is the heart of the world's slave trade, and Dany strikes exclusively at slave owners — she becomes known as "Breaker of Chains" for exactly this reason. She is scrupulous about using her powers against those who would hurt others, and sparing anyone else.
When Dany finally gets to Westeros — which doesn't happen until Episode 61 — she's got a lot of opportunities to exploit. First off, Cersei is a person of great ambition but few qualifications; amongst other things, she solidified her hold on power by getting all her enemies to the Great Sept and then blowing it up, decapitating her opposition but also showing her utter disdain for the country's most powerful organized religion. She serves as the Big Bad of the show. Even worse, it's Grim Up North: Jon Snow has hit the You Are in Command Now trope and is leading the Night's Watch, but it turns out those White Walkers are necromancers and can summon hordes of dead with a gesture, making it that much harder to fight them. Good thing both zombies and ice demons tend to be Weak to Fire. It is, in short, the perfect place for a woman with Chronic Hero Syndrome — and, more importantly, three flying flamethrowers — to make her mark by resolving the song of ice and fire.
Of course, there's a flipside for Daenerys. She is, as her last name would indicate, a Targaryen... and that comes with its own Back Story. Targaryens are descended from an old superpower called Valyria: they have the silver-gold hair and purple eyes of that bloodline, and can tame dragons. (The Dragon Rider bit is why Valyria was a superpower, before it... exploded. ...Somehow.) About 300 years ago, Daenerys' ancestor, Aegon, took his two sisters and three dragons and conquered the entire Seven Kingdoms of Westeros — a feat never before accomplished, cementing his place as one of the greatest Four Star Badasses in history. He became King Aegon I Targaryen, called "The Conqueror," and he founded the Targaryen dynasty... by marrying his sisters. BrotherSister Incest has been a tradition in House Targaryen ever since, and Daenerys is the product of a Royally Screwed Up Tangled Family Tree rife with Royal Inbreeding. The whole point is this: "Madness and greatness are two sides of the same coin," to quote Ser Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney), himself quoting Daenerys' grandfather, King Jaehaerys II. "Every time a new Targaryen is born, the gods toss that coin into the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land." And Daenerys is a Targaryen. Is she Crazy Awesome? Or only Ax-Crazy?
And this is where we get to the part where the first seven seasons of the show have ratings in the 90s on Rotten Tomatoes while the eighth and final season rates 51%.
The brief outline of the final season is this: Daenerys arrives in the North with her army and her dragons, having allied with Jon Snow to Save the World from the White Walkers. Behind them are an unlikely Multinational Team cobbled together of Daenerys' army, the Night's Watch, the northern armies, "wildling" humans who lived beyond the Wall because they dislike Westerosi feudalism, and whoever else had showed up to fightnote . while Cersei promised to send Lannister troops, she doesn't, because she's evil; but that's okay, they succeed without her. The Night King, leader of the White Walkers, turns out to be an Anticlimax Boss who is slain, along with his Keystone Army, in the third episode and without any characterization beyond "Always Chaotic Evil." (This in itself was a huge "Shaggy Dog" Story, but we're going to gloss over that because it's not what we're here to discuss.For the curious... ) They then turn their attention to the capitol, King's Landing, where Cersei has entrenched her power — the remaining might of House Lannister, and a formidable group of Private Military Contractors from Essos. The Targaryen force succeeds at The Siege, and Cersei surrenders. However, Daenerys has suffered some personal setbacks of late: her devoted Praetorian Guard Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) was killed in the battle with the White Walkers; Cersei had another of her advisors, Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), executed as a show of power; and she is now a Woman Scorned because her Love Interest, Jon Snow, broke up with her, citing irreconcilable differences.note So, on the back of her dragon, she Turns Red and decides to burn King's Landing to the ground, killing Cersei, Jaime, and a whole bunch of unnamed civilians.
When planned in the writer's room, this was unquestionably a Shocking Swerve. "Holy shit: our Main Character has been Evil All Along!" But when it showed up on screen, fans were unanimous: "No, this wasn't a Plot Twist. This was an Ass Pull."
The final episode goes about as you'd expect: Daenerys makes a public speech that's in line with her Black-and-White Insanity (including a lot of Evil Is Cool visual imagery), and Jon is forced to conclude that she's Beyond Redemption and Shoot the Dog (followed by Cradling Their Kill and Manly Tears). Those are both of Daenerys's scenes in that episode. Instead of being executed, Jon is Reassigned to Antarctica one last time, rejoining the Night's Watch. One of the other 43 names in the credits is chosen to be king, Peter Dinklage's character Tyrion gets a position in that king's cabinet, And the Adventure Continues.
The ending was a decent wrap-up of everything that had happened... But a lot of viewers had trouble reconciling that ending with what had happened in the penultimate episode. Simply put, they felt that Daenerys being Ax-Crazy was Character Derailment. While very few people can disagree that there was accurate foreshadowing — that whole "madness and greatness" thing is quoted in that very episode — what was missed was the escalation. There's no Slowly Slipping Into Evil, there's just a FaceHeel Turn with almost no set-up. Indeed, the "Previously On " segment to the episode does a better job of foreshadowing Dany's Turn than the actual show does, precisely because it gets to Ron the Death Eater her via a biased recap of the text. Daenerys has has spent 70 episodes consistently having Chronic Hero Syndrome, doing things that a wiser (if colder) ruler would turn away; the only way the show is able to make her seem evil is by ignoring much of its own material.
Now, this doesn't mean the Plot Twist itself is invalid or flawed. Is there a character arc where Daenerys, who has Chronic Hero Syndrome, comes down with Samaritan Syndrome as well? What if she gets tired of doing the right thing only to face relentless and unfair consequences? Where she gets frustrated by the fact that she can never catch a break? Where she's so tired of being a Failure Hero that she decides that it's time to don a coat of a different color? The Unfettered, say. Could such a character arc exist? Yeah, absolutely!
The problem is that it didn't. Or, if it did, it takes place in a single shot.
Daenerys Becomes Her Own Antithesis in mere heartbeats. We see her on the back of her dragon, getting angrier and angrier... And then she starts lighting the city on fire, and she is literally not seen again for the entire episode. In fact, Daenerys the person is never seen again; in both of her scenes in the final episode, she's The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask, trying to make the best of the tenuous political position that resulted from her outburst. There is not a single moment where she sits back and reflects: "My God, What Have I Done? Was it worth it?" Is she actually Beyond Redemption? If she decides it was, then, yeah, she's a mass murderer; if she decides it wasn't, then she's had her Tragic Mistake. Either way, it validates the idea that she must die for her crimes — either because she herself admits it, or because she refuses to. Like HIMYM above, this is another situation where an entire television series could have been salvaged with a mere 30 seconds of additional footage.
But we don't get that footage. The show doesn't care whether she's Beyond Redemption; the writers have decreed she must die, and so she does. She is a victim not of injustice or genetics but of Creator's Apathy, losing all characterization to instead become some sort of object lesson about... something the show is unclear about. Tyrion levels what is meant to be the main criticism of her character by proclaiming, "Everywhere she goes, evil men die, and we cheer her for it," and he's not wrong... But his assumption — that he, and by the extension the audience, were wrong to cheer for someone who kills evil men — is not supported by the text (not to mention being a Broken Aesop). Are we instead meant to believe that With Great Power Comes Great Insanity? Are we meant to believe that she was merely Drunk with Power? Are we meant to believe that there can be no heroes, that anyone who does good things will inevitably be revealed to be a bad person? There is no textual support for any of these interpretations. There is a Watsonian explanation for why Daenerys might decide to commit war crimes, but none as to why she did — much less as to why she did it so quickly. There is no explanation; there is only Railroading.
And the worst part is that her Character Derailment pulls almost everyone else Off the Rails as well. The show — once renowned for Grey-and-Gray Morality — eventually committed itself (for reasons not currently known) to a portrayal of Black-and-White Morality, and Jon — who at this point has all but stolen the title of The Protagonist from Daenerys — needs to be put in a situation where he can kill Daenerys ethically. So Tyrion and Varys, two of the savviest political operators in Westeros, get hit with Third Act Stupidity. Cersei, who is also a mass murderer, gets to Karma Houdini her way out of the Cycle of Revenge (which is a little goofy considering that there are only 10 episodes of the show that don't live in the shadow of the Cycle Of Revenge started by Ned Stark's death, and he himself is alive during nine of them); not only that, she's recast as the victim of Daenerys' rampage. Sansa has the Moral Luck to distrust her despite having no Watsonian reason to do so: Dany is here to put an end to Cersei, who is Sansa's personal nemesis, and also to save Westeros from The End of the World as We Know It, but Sansa doesn't like her, because... well, she just knows somehow that Dany was Evil All Along, even though that is impossible for Sansa to know because Dany hasn't done her "Jumping Off the Slippery Slope In Thirty Seconds" thing yet. And yes, Daenerys Pays Evil Unto Evil... making her merely identical to every other character mentioned in this paragraph, all of whom have killed and murdered in the name of war or self-defense or justice, and all of whom are nonetheless framed framed, by the final two episodes, as sympathetic characters. It cannot be denied that slaughtering civilians is a bad thing... But if our train of logic is, "Daenerys has power, therefore she must turn evil," then every "hero" in the show has already turned evil, with Daenerys in fact being the shining exemplar who resisted the longest — a fact the show kind of forgot to think about.
(And yes, there's a great deal more that could be criticized about the final seasons as a whole, from the Dynamic Difficulty posed by the Lannister opposition to the Red Herring of Jon's Unexplained Recovery to the absurd amount of Hollywood Tactics used against the Night King to the Red Herring of the Prince that was Promised to the Character Shilling on behalf of Jon Snow to the preponderance of Easy Logistics and Traveling at the Speed of Plot to the aforementioned "Shaggy Dog" Story Anticlimax Boss to Bran Stark's entire existence to Jaime Lannister pulling a Ted Mosby and invalidating some of the finest Character Development in the history of fiction... But we're trying to provide teachable moments here, not start Complaining About Shows You Don't Like.)
Nonetheless, Daenerys's ending shows how you can subvert expectations — and also what to avoid when trying the same. Another good example will be her arc in the remaining two novels of the book series, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. It's known that GRRM deliberately allowed Weiss and Benioff to write their own Gecko Ending, out of respect for the needs of TV adaptation... but it's also known that he told them exactly five things about the remaining two books (Shireen's fate, Hodor's fate, and three other bits that D&D have declined to share). It's relatively safe to assume that Daenerys' fate was one of those things. Her ending in the show will be her ending in the books. However, when Daenerys goes Ax-Crazy in the books, it won't be an Ass Pull. (Reader speculation: the character of "Faegon" will instigate the Sanity Slippage, which they were unable to do on TV because they were Adapted Out.) Daenerys, as a narrator in the books, is very aware of the fact that Targaryens have madness In the Blood, and is constantly questioning her own actions and whether she has gone too far. Consequently, when she starts to fray, The Reader will catch it — even though she, presumably, will not.
Suggested Themes and AesopsAs we began, so shall we end: the themes and Aesops you employed at the end of your story should be the same ones you have been using through the beginning and middle of your story. If you arrive at the ending, and you still do not know what these things are, then your story is not done. Do not publish it, do not submit it to fanfiction.net, do not pass Go: instead, step back and look at the things you have been subconsciously weaving into the story. Stephen King gives a good example. When writing Carrie, he tells us in his memoir On Writing, he had no conscious intent of using blood to link the story together. But when he stepped back and read the first draft, he discovered that it was showing up three important moments: when Carrie has her first menstruation and awakens her Psychic Powers; during the prom prank; and during the final confrontation with her abusive mother. So, on the second draft, he consciously looked for places he could sneak the symbol of blood into the story. King did not set out to write a theme; he did it nonconsciously, without intent. You, dear author reading this article, have done the same. The theme is there, and the Aesop is there too; you just have to find it in all the stuff you wrote.
Another thing to keep in mind is that your theme and Aesop determines your ending. This is part of what enables the No Ending trope to exist: you arrive at the conclusion of an arc, even if it's not The End. To contrast How I Met Your Mother, let's look at another narrated character drama that masquerades as a romance: (500) Days of Summer. The film is about a man named Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who meets a Manic Pixie Dream Girl named Summer (Zooey Deschanel), falls in love with her and can't get over her. The film uses Anachronic Order — its first scene takes place on Day 488 — to explore Tom's mentality and reactions as he tries to get over The One That Got Away, not to mention his own deeper issues with being In Love with Love, Loving a Shadow of Summer instead of the real her. In the final scene of the film, he's at a job interview and he runs into a girl named Autumn... And, on screen, the day indicator flips back to 1. Is this an ending? Is Tom about to be a victim of History Repeats? Or has he learned enough to maybe make a new start? The answer is, it doesn't matter. The story is fundamentally a Coming-of-Age Story, and its Aesop is, "Loving a Shadow is bad." Tom stops doing this; he has learned what he can from his 500 days of Summer and is ready to move on. Therefore, it doesn't actually matter if Autumn is his Second Love or another stepping stone on the path of his evolution; the story of his 500 days of Summer is over, even if The Adventure Continues. It is an ending... To the story director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are actually telling, not the one audiences thought they were. And it works, because Webb and Neustadter and Weber knew what story they were telling — something the writers of all the previous works were not sure about.
Another example is Inception, which has one of the most famous No Endings in history. The movie is about a group of cons who are hired to perform a heist in someone's dreams using Applied Phlebotinum. One of the themes constantly underlined in the film is the difficulty between telling dream from reality, and main character Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has a top that he spins to figure out whether he's awake or not: if he's asleep, it will defy physics and never stop spinning. Another is the question of whether Ignorance Is Bliss; Dom knows he can just Lotus-Eater Machine himself to a happy ending, but he also knows it will be a dream. This question is underlined by the heist itself, which involves invading someone's dream and planting an idea in his head in such a way that he believes the idea was his own — the eponymous inception — because if he realizes it was planted, he won't believe it. At the end of the film, Dom finally gets his heart's desire. He starts spinning the top, but looks away before he can see the results; likewise, the film cuts to credits before we see whether the top stops spinning or not. Filmmaker Christopher Nolan had to explain that the reason Dom looks away from the top is that he doesn't care anymore; he has decided that ignorance is bliss. The story ends, correctly, when Dom accepts the film's Aesop. (The fact that Word of God had to explain what the Aesop was is, undeniably, a flaw of the film itself; but that's a matter of execution, not intent. "Doing a bad job telling your story" is a very different flaw than "Not telling your story because you don't know what it is".)
And finally, let's take a look at Harry Potter. As a massive multimedia franchise with huge cultural impact — it set the stage for an explosion of young adult literature, leading directly to things like Twilight, The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey; you could also argue that it opened the world's eyes to the power of fantasy, thus segueing directly into Game of Thrones — it had a lot of people making guesses over what would happen in the seventh and final book. Some of them were obvious; author JK Rowling, when Jossing a Fan-Preferred Couple, pointed out that she had seeded "anvil-sized" hints about whether she was planning to execute on that theory. Also, since Harry himself was The Chosen One and Chosen Ones are always The Only Ones Allowed To Defeat the Big Bad, it was safe to assume that Harry would defeat the Big Bad. However, we knew almost nothing, going in, about how Harry would do it — aside from the fact that Harry would employ The Power of Love, because that's always been his greatest strength. And that was even before Rowling released the title of the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, revealing that a bunch of magical objects which had never been mentioned before over the course of the series would play such a pivotal role in the victory that the book would be named after them. While critics derided the existence of the Hallows as an Ass Pull — and they had a point — it also helped prove that It's the Journey That Counts. The ending of Harry Potter wasn't thrilling because we didn't know if Harry could handle You-Know-Who; it was thrilling because the Deathly Hallows and the horcruxes — not to mention the Rule Magic — gave Rowling the tools she needed to turn a "Circle Of Extinction Single-Spell Battle Wizard Duel" into something that was, well, actually interesting. Instead of a special-effects-laden Final Battle, which would have been rather boring on-page, we have Harry as a Martial Pacifist who withholds the fight until the very end, and instead uses his Breaking Speech to try and pull Voldemort back over the Moral Event Horizon... partially because, due to his mastery of Hallows / Horcruxes / Rule Magic, Harry knows his victory is a Foregone Conclusion. And, because he knows he will win, he tries to talk Voldemort out of fighting at all. Because that's The Power of Love.
There's also that "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: 19 years later, Harry has grown up and married and is seeing two of his three kids off to Hogwarts. Does it Taste Like Diabetes? Arguably. Is it mundane that a man who saved the world places so much emphasis on sending his kids to school? Unarguably. Is it in character?—for a man whose lack of loving family is essentially his Freudian Excuse? Absolutely. It might not be the fate that fans would have chosen for Harry, but it is unquestionably the fate he would have chosen for himself. And while it erodes his credibility as an Escapist Character, Tropes Are Not Bad... and you could make the argument that, because it steps away from escapism and into character development, it's a superior storytelling choice.
Fundamentally, endings are powerful because they provide you, the writer, a chance to show that you know what you were doing. It should cap off your theme and underline your Aesop. If the ending does not do this, it actively contradicts the story that came before it, and that's kind of a problem. It should complete the story, not break it in half. And even if it does break it in half, that break should fit with the Theme and Aesop.
End your story. Not the story you thought you were writing; not the story you meant to write. End the story you wrote. You may piss people off. But at least you won't get sued.