More than an exercise in justifying watching television instead of writing (which is actually totally legit – consider this article from the Atlantic that argues that quality cable television series like The Sopranos and Mad Men represent “the new novel”) this article shares what I have learned about the writing of novel endings from watching the finales of two television series that have been praised for their superior writing, AMC’s Breaking Bad and the first season of HBO’s True Detective.
I can sum the lesson in three words: Tie most of it up.
When Breaking Bad ended its five-season run in late September, most viewers were satisfied with the way it ended things, particularly in how it gave us closure by wrapping up important story lines and presenting a brief but satisfying return of some key characters (not easy to do on a series in which so many of those key characters did not live to see the final episode). I agree with this assessment, mostly, though like The New Yorkers‘ Emily Nussbaum, I thought the ending was also so improbable on so many counts that I wanted to believe it was a dream, much as I do not ever want to see another version of that tired trope.* But maybe we’re just being hard on a series in which the writing gave so much and set the bar for itself so high. What was admirable about the series finale – and what I learned about writing satisfying endings – is that
- you want to wrap up enough of the story to give people a sense of satisfaction/closure,
- remind them of what they loved about the narrative journey you’ve taken them on and why they chose to follow you on it,
- and to give them something to remember
- but not to attempt to account for everything, even if you’re tempted to do so and the audience thinks they want you to do so
I don’t want to give away too many spoilers about the series finale of Breaking Bad, but I found it rewarding to see Skinny Pete and Badger in the back of Walter’s car, gratifying to see justice wrought on those who had wronged Walter, and satiating to see some of the earlier threads of the narrative finally get tied together, such as Walter’s removing from a socket plate a potential weapon of sorts that he had hidden there seasons earlier. In the finale, when the long-suffering Jesse flashed back to the one moment of accomplishment in his life, the building of that box for shop class that he spoke of back in Season Three, I teared up. Important plot conflicts were resolved enough as Walter explained himself to an extent to the family he had hurt and said his goodbye, but his sins were hardly absolved. The baddest guys got what they deserved but as the camera pulls away on the final image of Walter in the lab, reunited with the work that in the end meant more to him than anything else, all is not right in the world (nor could it be). The finale was effective in bringing together enough of the loose ends without tying it all up in the cliched bow, without risking improbability to provide a false sense of closure to the audience.. We don’t know what will happen to Jesse, deeply damaged but somewhat free. We don’t know if Saul ever opens that Cinnabon in Omaha. But we have a sense of it ending as it should have, of most of the threads that we were lovingly following coming to their end, of the knots unraveling in a natural way according to the logic established by the narrative.
Last night the season finale of True Detective aired on HBO and its internet content-viewing site, HBO GO; that site crashed because so many people tried to view it. And some of those people were no doubt disappointed, as the finale answered some questions, resolved some issues, but totally ignored others in a way that has upset many critics and fans. (See this debate on Slate.com for an example). Since it aired less than 24 hours ago, I am going to do my best to avoid spoilers as I try to examine this ending. While Breaking Bad‘s finale resolved its key issues – and no narrative can wrap up every plot point, nor should it – some viewers agree with Slate’s David Haglund that the narrative took us “down the rabbit hole” too many times and offered insufficient wonderland in repayment. It ended with what turned out to be a fairly standard serial killer story with a serial killer who, in the end, was not as creepy as we had been led to believe by the show’s mythology, borrowed from late nineteenth century gothic horror stories of writers like Ambrose Pierce and Robert W. Chambers
(which you can link to in its entirety here.) Thousands of fans and internet obsessives debated possible solutions to the identity of the Yellow King and the meaning of Carcosa and the cajun bird traps and in the end, it kind of didn’t matter. Nor was there a link between the murders and the apparent trauma experienced by Marty’s daughter which was evidenced in one episode and never brought up again. Nonetheless, the narrative remained true to its key theme – “light versus dark” as Rust says near the end – and its focus on the relationship between the two men, Rustin Cohl and Marty Hart. It even ends, despite its almost crushing bleakness for its eight episodes, on a note of hope or aspiration. It did not tie up everything, not by a long shot, and Marty reminds us that that’s not the way life – or all narrative – works. You don’t get all the bad guys, but you get “yours”; you don’t get all the problems resolved, but with any luck the main ones are.
Considering these two very different TV endings reinforces for me that as a writer I have a somewhat paradoxical obligation to give my readers both the ending they expect and have “worked” toward by reading all those pages and one that surprises them enough to reward them for all that work. The last installment in my YA e-novella series Snark and Circumstance comes out in May and, as it’s an update of Pride and Prejudice and a romance, I’m pretty sure my readers are anticipating that my mismatched couple will finally figure out that they belong together and find true love at last. But I have to get those two to that place in a way that’s consistent with everything else I have written about them and it has to be surprising enough to make my readers want to join me for that last installment, to not just be satisfied knowing the two will get together but buy the book to find out how. Plenty of other threads don’t get wrapped up, because, ultimately, they’re not important (like whether one sister stops being a boy crazy ditz, or even whether the “villain” gets his comeuppance). What’s important is that the main characters learn what they have to learn and that they find each other at last.
Will my happy couple stay together after you close the metaphorical pages (it’s an e-book)? While I wrote a sequel that reveals the answer, it’s up to the individual reader to decide. As a writer, I have to leave a little bit of the mystery intact, just as the writers of Breaking Bad did by showing us Jesse busting through the gates of his meth lab prison but leaving us no clue as to where he’s headed next. We may never know what the hell Rust Cohle was talking about throughout the narrative arc of True Detective, but we do see what Rust and Marty learned in the end.
*specifically, I thought that in the tradition of Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, Walter’s return to New Mexico and activities there would turn out to be the fantasy-of-closure of a dying man, seeing as it was unlikely that he would ever get out of that snowed-in Volvo. As a veteran of many New England winters, I know no one clears away that much snow with the flick of the windshield wipers.