Endings are hard.
Endings are important.
And because of this, endings are scary.
Let’s say you’re trying to end something long-form, say, a television series or a novel or a series of novels. You’ve written an story that spans hundreds or even thousands of pages, which is much longer than it would take to relate any of the real events that happened in your life. You’ve created characters so real you occasionally think they take over and write the story for you. But everything has an ending, and now it’s time for yours. Only you have to somehow pick the perfect option that ties up the story and the characters, but maybe not too much since a little ambiguity is necessary for the sake of realism. Granted, you’re never going to please everyone, but the goal is to fit the best ending to the story, no matter the ultimate mood, and trust that you will please the people who really get it. In essence, you’ve finished a gymnastics routine lasting months, but if you don’t stick the landing, you’re going to be stuck with scores of 2s and 3s. Unfair? Sure. The ending is what people remember. You can dodge a shaky beginning, you can survive a shitty middle, so long as you crush the ending. The best endings are at once unexpected and inevitable, which is a little like saying something should be both sexy and scabrous.
That is such a hard tightrope to walk (to completely butcher my sports-related metaphor), even some of the biggest and best out there shit the bed with alarming regularity. As much as I love Stephen King, a lot of his books have endings that leave something to be desired. For every Misery, there’s an Under the Dome. Horror makes truly satisfying endings difficult. Some people only like happy endings, and if your ending is too happy you’re doing horror wrong. And if you write creature horror, chances are the creature you’ve created to hunt the everyman heroes and heroines of the novel is so damn powerful that any attempt to put it away will come off as unrealistic. King often has to resort to desperation plays: the appeal to pity in Under the Dome or the bizarre rite in It. These will play differently based on personal preference, but for me they never quite fulfilled the promise from the beginning of the novel.
Because of the changes in the way we consume television shows, endings have taken on outsized importance in that media as well. Nowadays, people will often wait for shows to end before binge-watching the entire series. For this reason, a good series finale is vital to the ongoing life of a show. Think about it: how many people are going to recommend Dexter to their friends? And that’s what I’m really here to talk about. If you were following me on Twitter during the home stretch of Dexter, you know by now what I thought of the final season. If you don’t follow me on Twitter, I’m assuming you make your own dick jokes and don’t really need me to supply them. In any case, my view of Dexter roughly jibes with the critical consensus: that it was a decent show that flirted with greatness in the beginning, settled for being pulpy fun, and eventually degenerated into a pile of crap that I vowed to stop watching. Only I didn’t, and boy howdy do I regret it.
Dexter is a show that so thoroughly shit the bed of its ending, it’s the perfect object lesson in how not to end a long-form story, and is a good blueprint to explain how to come to a satisfying conclusion. Just in case you’ve been living in a cave for the last ten years — and incidentally, welcome back, and tacos are now served in giant Doritos — Dexter is about a serial killer who exclusively hunts other serial killers. This choice of victim comes from Dexter’s cop father, who, in an effort to control Dexter’s murderous impulses, trained him with a code of conduct. Dexter now works for Miami Metro Homicide as a blood spatter expert, alongside his detective sister, and a group of misfits and oddballs. The show ended up with Dexter faking his own death, abandoning his son to be raised by another (admittedly reformed) serial killer, and turning into a lumberjack.
Don’t worry. If that made no fucking sense to you, it made even less sense to those who were watching. That brings me to the first point on picking an ending:
THE CONTRACT. When the series opens, Dexter is a criminal working for the police. There is an assumption that this will eventually cause some form of tension, since, you know, serial murder is still illegal in the state of Florida. In its best years, Dexter derived some tension from the protagonist staying ahead of the law, though as the series marched on, it became less and less plausible that he would not live under a constant cloud of suspicion. Anyone who suspected Dexter of being a killer always vanished without a trace or turned up dead. A number of people in Dexter’s life were murdered by serial killers, sometimes in Dexter’s home. It got to the point where, to explain the worst cops in history, I had to assume Miami Metro had a slow gas leak. In the first episode, the series entered into an unwritten contract with the viewer by the premise alone: at some point, Dexter will have to face the music of his professional life colliding with his extracurricular activities.
THE PEBBLES. A good series will either consciously foreshadow or effectively mine past hints and plot threads for the eventual conclusion. In The Shield, a show that boasts the greatest series finale in history, the end was directly informed by things that happened in the fucking pilot. Dexter was trapped by its own success. The network wanted to have it go on forever, and thus the pebbles that should have started the avalanche of the ending never fell.
THE ARC. As the skill of writing has become both more visible and more documented, talking about “character arcs” no longer sounds like yoga. The beginning tells us who this character is, and the series is his journey to being something else, or being destroyed in the most interesting way possible. The show introduced us to an anti-hero, and the tradition of shows about anti-heroes is that they suffer and/or die for the ways in which they flouted the social order. The show never committed to the idea of Dexter as an anti-hero (and the subtext of the show, confirmed in numerous interviews, was that he was just a straight hero with none of that “anti” stuff), and thus the punishment seemed arbitrary. There was no scene that hinted at Dexter’s love of, or hostility toward, trees. In fact, Dexter as a character was maddeningly static, shackled both by the network and a group of writers unwilling to find anything wrong with his behavior.
THE FATE. When defending their universally reviled end, the writers explained that Showtime, in its finite wisdom, would not allow them to kill Dexter, and thus lumberjacking was the only other possible fate. This level of myopia is instructive, because it shows how we can get stuck into either/or situations. Death or Lumberjack, said the writers of Dexter. Showtime nixed Death, therefore Lumberjack. There was never any consideration for the final story promised in the Contract, and finding an ending that grew organically from that, plus the Pebbles that never fell, or the Arc that was never traversed. They never took a step back and looked at the story they had been telling over seven years to find an honest conclusion.
There are plenty of places online to find fan-written endings to Dexter, and the remarkable thing is how no two are alike. Most have the same elements, namely that the final season should have revolved around Miami Metro Homicide closing in on our titular serial killer, who finds himself tested by the lessons in humanity he has learned over seven seasons, ultimately resulting in either his death, fundamental change, or you know, cutting down trees and eating his lunch. They are all different, but yet every single one is preferable to what we got, leading to the final, and most important element of writing a proper ending.
THE EDITORIAL OVERSIGHT. Show your ending to a couple people who you are not paying. Listen to them. If they all say the same thing, change the goddamn thing.