Never Can Say Goodbye: The Perils of Ending a Series

I've found, on the brink of the final book in my own trilogy coming out any day now (The Descent, the final book in The Taker Trilogy, thank you very much for asking), that my thoughts turn to the dangers of ending a series, either in print or on screen. What you want, as a creator, is to come up with an ending that is both completely unexpected and yet, on reflection, inevitable. That leaves the audience stunned and amazed, but satisfied. What you dread is making a hash of it, leaving major questions unanswered, of not being able to get out of the corner you've painted yourself into and leaving people with a bad taste in their mouth.

Ending a series is nothing short of a high-wire act from which few story creators emerge unscathed. Even the most devoted fan can turn churlish when his or her favorite series draws to a close. They can turn on you, claiming that you've betrayed the characters they have come to care about deply.

Take the case of the last year's most high-profile ending of a literary series, Charlaine Harris' bestselling Sookie Stackhouse series, the basis for the wildly popular HBO television series True Blood. You may recall that a leaked copy of the final book in the series, Dead Ever After, sparked a frenzy among commenters on Amazon when it revealed exactly which character would end up as the love interest for the protagonist. According to this Wall Street Journal article, readers who weren't happy with the way Harris resolved the series went above and beyond the pale, with one reader threatening to commit suicide and the author herself received several death threats. Now that the fervor has died down, Ms. Harris and everyone involved with True Blood will get to experience it all over again when the final season of the show is aired this year.

The big television finale of the year had to be Breaking Bad. For one thing, you could not turn on the television in the months before the finale episode without seeing creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan (not that that's a bad thing). The finale was so hyped that, as someone who had yet to catch up to the end of the series, it meant avoiding Twitter, parties and all water cooler talk at work until the intense chatter died down. While the ending garnered general acclaimed, there were some who challenged it -- as to be expected -- and offered alternate endings including a vocal contingent who firmly believed that the ending was all a dream of main character Walter White as he lay dying from cancer, a hypothesis which Gilligan debunked.

The most common complaint is that the series ran out of steam long before the final curtain call, followed by when a series ends on a note so bizarre or lackluster that it leaves fans embarrassed for having followed it in the first place. Of course, this spectacular a fall can only happen when a series has climbed pretty high, as in the case of Veronica Roth's incredibly popular Young Adult Divergent series. While some readers have expressed disappointment with the way the series ends, that hasn't stopped the final book in the trilogy from hitting the number one spot on the USA Today's bestsellers list on January 2, with the other two books, Allegiant and Insurgent, on its heels. Of course, having a lot of buzz in the newspapers about the filming of the movie based on the first book in the series doesn't hurt.

Of course, in televisionland, disappointing series (and season) finales abound. It wasn't too long ago that viewers were completely dismayed by the endings to Lost and The Sopranos, and people are already whispering that once-beloved Homeland may have jumped the shark and is careering into pointlessness.

The worst of all possible worlds -- from the creator's point of view, anyway -- is when a series in terminated by the publisher or studio before the narrative arc is completed. While television producers have little recourse, for authors at least self-publishing comes to the rescue. Today, authors whose series are terminated mid-series can satisfy their fans by publishing the ending themselves, as did these enterprising writers.

So there you have it, the good, bad and the ugly of getting to The End. Wish me luck!