Kids, if you’ve ever wanted an hour-long master class in how not to end a story, this is it. Let’s break down exactly what went wrong and how it can help us improve our writing.
First off, I’ll address the elephant in the room right away. The finale wasn’t a failure because it featured a sad ending. It was a failure because it featured an ending that was not earned by its nine years’ worth of stories. With that said, here are a few lessons that writers can learn:
1. Just because you planned it from the beginning doesn’t make it the right ending. Yeah okay, so they had this master plan all along blah blah. This ending was planned when they had no idea how many seasons the show would last. Since then, there have been nine years of character development that pointed us in completely the opposite direction of the “planned” ending. Because of that, in the last fifteen minutes they had to tear down the stories they’d spent years building just so they could shoehorn them into a nearly decade-old master idea that had long since outlived its relevance. That doesn’t make the ending a clever surprise. It makes it a betrayal of the promises that were made over years’ worth of episodes. Now, think about your own writing, whether it’s for one book or a whole series. Sometimes we plan for one thing to happen in the end, but by the time we get there something else is necessary. AND THAT’S OKAY. If it’s the best ending, if it serves the characters and the narrative, who cares if it’s not what you’d originally planned? If it works better, go with it and be grateful that your world and your characters grew to the point that a better ending was possible.
2. Never erase character growth just because it makes your story easier to tell. So once again, the problem here is over-attachment to the original plan. The showrunners had a particular “twist” ending in mind, yet they seemed to forget about it during all the seasons leading up to that ending. By the time we reached the finale, these characters had so obviously grown beyond their planned ending that they had to be artificially twisted back into grotesque caricatures of their first-season selves. Essentially, every step forward they had taken, every bit of growth they had earned over multiple seasons of experience and life lessons, was completely reversed in order to preserve the master plan. That’s the height of lazy, self-indulgent writing. Consider your own writing now. How have your characters grown from the first chapter to the last? How have they changed and improved? Whatever growth they’ve achieved, don’t ignore it. Embrace it and let it fuel your finale. Then you’ll achieve a conclusion that feels natural and, more importantly, earned.
3. Be true to your tone. I’ve read a few people’s comments that suggest the tone of the show foreshadowed this type of ending all along. If that’s you, I mean this with all respect – you are completely wrong. Take it from a Ted Mosby type of guy. I’m single and in my thirties, and I’ve been out there looking for a long time but still haven’t found the right person to spend my life with. Through the course of the show, there was SO much they got right about what it’s like to persist in the search even when it seems endless and, at times, tragic. Some days you have rousing successes, other days you get kicked in the teeth, and the show was able to capture those moments in ways that felt real and that resonated with me on an emotional level. Because of that, I can tell you that the overall tone of the show was not about tragedy. It was about hope. The finale betrayed that theme by giving Ted what he’d hoped and searched for all along, and then, mere moments later, casually and callously discarding the fulfillment of that hope in exchange for an arbitrary twist ending. Which leads me to my final point…
4. Deliver on your promise. Now, there will be people out there who say “but they never promised a happy ending, only that we’d meet the mother.” Which is, in a word, ridiculous. Sure, they may never have explicitly said, “Ted will meet the mother and she won’t die suddenly a few years later from some mystery disease.” And the fact that they never said that doesn’t matter one bit, because the premise of the show (at least, the part of the premise that they bothered to share with the audience) and the tone of the narrative (as discussed above) did make a promise. The promise was that the journey we were watching would end up being worthwhile. The promise was that the theme of hope would be delivered on. Sure, there may be bumps and surprises along the way after Ted gets his happily ever after, because that’s life. But the promise of the show – that we’d travel with the hero for all these years and finally get to celebrate with him as he finds “the one” and lives the life he’s always wanted – was ignored. They did not deliver. What about your story? What is its tone, and what is it promising? Now take another look at your ending. Does it deliver on those promises? Does it stay true to its tone? If not, you may have some work to do.
As I said at the start, this doesn’t mean that every ending has to be happily-ever-after. It’s not about that, but it’s also not about telling the ending you’ve always wanted – it’s about telling the right ending for the story and for the characters. “How I Met Your Mother” failed at this on a catastrophic level, so much that it will color many viewers’ feelings about every season of the show. Learn from their mistakes, kids, and your writing will be better for it.
Now suit up and get writing.