My current project is the last book in a series and, in the months leading up to beginning the book, I’ve been considering all the things I need to make sure are covered in the final book of the series, what questions needed to be answered, and what payoffs had to be present.
I would suggest it is more nerve wracking to end a series than it is to begin one. Why? Because as an author, I have to deliver a satisfying end not only for the reader, but also for myself. What defines satisfying to me may not equal reader expectations and vice versa.
What do I mean by that? Let’s be specific, shall we? A satisfying ending is not necessarily a happy ending. Do we want the couple at the center of the romance to have a happy ending? Yes. In a series ending book, it’s about more than the couple at the center of the tale. It’s about all the characters we’ve met along the way. It’s about the overarching storylines which began with book one and now reach their climax or conclusion.
In a satisfying ending, some beloved characters may die. Forever changes may tear some people apart, and while the villain may receive their comeuppance, a price may be paid for this to occur.
Writing a series can be a tough proposition. When you’re in book one, you know that unanswered questions can be answered down the road. When you’re writing the last one, you have to accept that the questions you leave unanswered may haunt your reader, or worse, be left open to interpretation and since no two readers experience the same book, it can leave a bad taste in their mouth.
So the real question is, how do you balance satisfying the author’s vision of the end with the reader’s?
As the author of a series, I have some obligation to fulfill. You may not agree with me, and that’s your right, but I’ve been reading for forty years. I’ve seen series come and series go. I’ve been deeply invested when a series ended abruptly without a conclusion and I’ve been left to fling a book against a wall when it has ended, but not in the way I hoped. I’ve also been left in tears, deeply emotionally satisfied, and yet at sad at the same time because the ending—while perfect—was bittersweet.
The examples I’ll use to illustrate my obligations will include television as well as books, and may also be spoilers if you have not seen or read the series. I’ll do my best to avoid anything published or released/ended in the last year.
A Series Must Be Sustainable
The worst series endings are those that come long after the series should have simply stopped or when the promise of the earlier books gets lost in later installments. I could list a lot of series I made a decision to stop reading, usually two to three books after the disappointment began. Why this happens is anyone’s guess, it can be as simple as the connection between reader and characters frays and dies or it could be that the author’s direction is simply not where I, the reader, wanted to go. Some are in our control, some are not.
For example, I was a huge fan of The Vampire Diaries, both the book series and the television show. I ceased watching the show at the end of the fourth season. Why? While I might be alone in the assessment, the Originals storyline dragged on too long and began to eat the parts of the show I’d enjoyed, but at the end of the fourth season, Elena had chosen Damon, the Originals were leaving and, for the most part, everyone was on a high note except Stefan who was in a crate on the bottom of the ocean. No big problem directly confronted the characters and ending there meant I could have an HEA for the couple I rooted for—it was all good.
I checked out the first three episodes of season five and watched everything I loved about that ending being deconstructed and I chose to stop. I wanted the ending they’d given me and it worked. Three seasons later, I don’t miss the show. I still have my satisfying end, but I think they continued on a route that wouldn’t have satisfied me.
Harry Potter is another series I read from beginning to end. I enjoyed the first two, and adored the third and fourth. I devoured each installment as they released, but when we reached the last book, I loved it all the way up to the epilogue. Seeing the flash forward at the end left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t want to see the layout of Harry’s life after he finally got control of it. You see, for me, prophecy and the flaws and desires of others had driven Harry’s life since the night of his parents’ death. He was never allowed to have his “potential” be his own and to have the mystery of a new world unfold for him in his future. I would like to have had the gift of seeing Harry’s life as all that potential, instead, we got the tied up in a bow and all done. I know a lot of people loved that ending, I simply wasn’t one of them.
So you see, knowing the idea is sustainable is important, but the definition of satisfying is very subjective.
Characters Die, Make Sure the Death is Vital
The death of characters can be an emotionally wrenching experience. I’ve written my share, if there are no tears in the author, there are no tears in the reader. To be honest, writing a romance means you can’t and shouldn’t kill the hero or heroine. They have to have a happy ever after, but the characters around them vital to their world, they are also representatives of the couple’s happiness, experience, and more. What happens to them also affects the characters, but if you kill a character it has to have a meaning—whether it drives the story forward and not be gratuitous.
In Harry Potter, we lost a lot of beloved characters. Some drove the tale or the hero forward, of course, the easiest to identify are the deaths of his parents specifically his mother. Her death not only saved Harry, it also ended with him in the care of the Dursleys because of his Aunt Petunia sharing Lily’s blood. Other deaths came in the series, and many of them painful from Cedric to Dobby to Sirius to Dumbledore.
Senseless deaths happen in real life, and they hurt us, but in a book especially in a series conclusion, the deaths have to be more than senseless. They have to drive the story or you run the risk of depressing the reader.
Romances Should Have Satisfying Conclusions
Whether you’re talking movie, television, or book series, if you make a promise on a romance, you need to pay off that promise. It’s frustrating as hell to watch a show contrive every reason on the planet to keep two characters apart and it is worse in a novel. Yet, if the series has a couple in the will they or won’t they, give them a payoff to that romance. In one book I recall reading, the heroine chooses to lie to the hero at the end of the third book after he has practically turned the world upside down to help her. The lie, a brutal truth, that the children she had were still not his, even though he’d been a great father to them. The heroine’s reasoning was flimsy and unforgiveable. I tossed that book across the room and I never went back.
This is also why at the end of season four, I stopped watch Vampire Diaries. I had an emotionally satisfying conclusion for my hero and heroine in Damon and Elena finally being together, and I didn’t want to watch the show writers find a way to keep giving them conflict or to tear them apart. You can write a successful series with the couple together (hello, J.D. Robb’s In Death series. Hello, Caroline and Charles on Little House on the Prairie. Hello, Jonathon and Jennifer Hart). Too often the Moonlighting excuse is used as to why long-term series don’t want their heroes and heroines to have a permanent romantic connection, citing a limit on storyline potential, but at the end of the day, if you’ve got a romance then you have to deliver on that in the final book if nowhere else, but be wary of waiting too long or throwing too many obstacles in their path or worse, contriving an unbelievable breakup (yes Castle writers, I’m looking at you).
Losing the faith of your readers or viewers means they may walk away and never look back.
Solve the Damn Mystery
Do you have a compelling mystery or series of questions at the heart of the series? Don’t leave your readers dangling, answer them. A big difference exists between an open end and not answering the series questions. Harry Potter without the epilogue would have been an open end. The major series questions had been answered, the villain defeated and the war won. The epilogue just tied everything into a bow. The television show Lost, however, left so many dangling plot threads, viewers are still frustrated, especially those who were invested in the outcomes. Firefly left some dangling plot threads because it was canceled, the same with Almost Human, their writers weren’t given a chance. Conversely, the show Forever, was also canceled, but the last episode left us with an open ending, but the greatest mystery remained unsolved, yet it was still satisfying for what it was.
Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of great series end, their last episodes hopeful or marking new beginnings among those JAG, The West Wing, and Gilmore Girls. Major questions were answered, yet at the same time, the promise of the future awaiting those characters was implicit in each ending. In book series, I felt the same way about the last books in Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragons of Spring Dawning. In Kim Harrison’s Hollows series, we got a lot of answers—more, we got something of a happily ever after for Rachel and a stellar conclusion to a series that I admit, I had my ups and downs with.
What do you need in a series conclusion? Did I miss anything you would like to see? Sound off, I’d love to hear it.