It was so nice of the How I Met Your Mother people to schedule their much-reviled series finale the same week I’m teaching endings at McDaniel. I’ve only seen half a dozen episodes of HIMYM, so I have no investment in the finale, but I am interested, as always, in the reactions to story by readers and viewers. And this is a big reaction.
We’ve talked here before about the contract with the reader, the promise the story makes at the beginning. In the case of HIMYM, it was that the story would end with how Ted met his children’s mother. SPOILER: Nine seasons later (and sometime we should talk about stories overstaying their sell-by date), in one episode, Ted meets the woman who will be the mother of his children, marries her, has the kids with her, sits by her bedside while she dies, and then goes to find the woman he’s loved all along, “Aunt Robin.”
Viewer reactions have not been good. Again, I’m not a regular viewer, but just looking at the facts in the above paragraph, I can tell you that if you promise the reader something and then after nine years deliver it and take it away again in forty minutes, you’re kneecapping reader satisfaction in a big way. The speed of the resolution, the neck-snapping turns the plot took in those forty minutes, the abuse of characters established over nine years in under an hour, all led to a feeling that the writers had said, “Fuck it, let’s end this sucker and go get a beer.” This is bad because it violates the number one rule of endings:
You have to make the climax the best part of the book because if it’s not good, the whole story goes under.
Why? Because it’s the promise that’s kept the reader reading, that need to see the protagonist and antagonist face off in a fight to the bitter end, to see the girl get the guy she deserves, to see everybody back in a stable world, the story finished and reader catharsis delivered. Beyond that, it’s bad just because it’s the last thing the reader reads and therefore the thing she’ll remember most. If the climax doesn’t deliver, your story is toast.
What’s most interesting to me about a lot of the internet chatter about HIMYM is that there are people defending the finale because everything in it was foreshadowed in the previous nine seasons, or because it was clear that that’s what was right for the characters, or because that’s what the fans wanted. It’s as if they just explain the ending, everybody will say, “OH, now I see,” and change their minds. But people have already seen the ending and they didn’t like it; the number of people tweeting, “It wasn’t called How I Met Your Aunt Robin” must be in the hundreds by now. If an ending tanks, explaining why it was good is useless. If people didn’t like it, it wasn’t good.
My lecture on endings has this to say about the impact of the story climax:
Bob Mayer and I used to argue about the Most Important Scene in a story. He insisted that the first scene was the most important because it set everything up, introduced the protagonist, and put the story in motion. But mostly, he said, the first scene was the most important because if your reader didn’t like it, she wouldn’t read the rest of the book, making any other scenes in the story moot.
I argued that the last scene was the most important because that’s the pay-off for the reader, the big finish, and if that scene doesn’t satisfy her, everything that went before it was wasted, the entire story experience falling flat, which leaves you with a frustrated, unfulfilled reader. Have you ever read a book that started slow but had a magnificent finish? Did you read that author again? Have you ever read a book that was wonderful right up to the end, but failed miserably at the climax? Did you ever read that author again?
Or as Mickey Spillane put it, the first page sells the reader on this book, and the last page sells the reader on the next book. I’m less interested in the selling aspect and much more interested in the reader satisfaction aspect, but the ideas are the same: fail at the beginning and the reader might stick with you to get to a great ending, fail at the ending and the entire story fails.
I asked the McDaniel students to talk about bad endings they’ve read and great endings they’ve read, and I’ll extend that to film here. What makes a great ending? What endings have failed for you? Reaction to the examples is subjective–I’m one of the few people who think the ending of The Sopranos was brilliant–but I think the reasons behind the reactions are objective: What kills an ending for you? And more important, what makes for a great finish?