After drawing it out forever because I didn’t want it to end, I finally watched the series finale of The Next Generation this past fall. I was a little apprehensive because I didn’t really like a lot of the writing of Season 7 — many of the episodes felt like they were trying to hard to drop revelation after revelation on the audience, totally changing the fabric of the show. But I needn’t have worried.
The series finale of TNG, for those of you who, like me, live under a rock, is a 90-minute-long episode called “All Good Things,” in which Captain Picard jumps through time to solve a puzzle that could destroy humanity. Unsurprisingly, the plot is caused by Q, but it turns out that, in the end, Q was actually trying to help Picard solve it (and Picard finally figures out that Q is on his side).
I sat down to study and instead found myself totally absorbed by contemplating this finale, which is what you want with any excellent ending to a beloved series. It got me thinking about why I loved it so much, and how I could extrapolate that out to endings that resonate with me in general and how to create them. And then I got started writing a blog post on endings and realized there was way too much I wanted to say for a single post, so here’s part one: how to use bookending for a resonant and satisfying ending.
Bookending is an easy but effective device for an ending that involves mirroring the images that began the story. To use the example from the Next Gen finale, TNG begins with Captain Picard finding himself on trial before Q in a court reflecting mid-twenty-first-century Earth after the nuclear war, representing humanity’s total crimes and having to defend the existence of our species. Astutely, the writers used Q again in the series finale, and he reveals that humanity’s trial had never really ended. Picard finds himself back in the courtroom once more. By the end of the episode, though, it’s clear many things have changed, among them that Q seems to really be pulling for humanity against all the odds and Picard’s interactions with him and understanding of the universe have broadened considerably.
Bookending appears everywhere from the beginning and end of novels to book series, TV series, movies, and more. Some examples:
- The Hobbit (novel): Beginning and ending with Bilbo in the Shire. At the beginning, he is a comfortable homebody with no desire to be anything else (or so he thinks). By the end, he bears the mark and treasure of a remarkable adventure, and his life is never the same.
- Harry Potter (novel series): One of the first images in the first book is Hagrid carrying Harry on his flying motorcycle to live with the Dursleys. In the last book, Hagrid has to carry Harry (who he believes to be dead) one last time.
- Galaxy Quest (film): The movie begins with the Galaxy Quest theme music showing the last episode to be made, followed by a depressing convention that sees the actors at each other’s throats. It ends with a spectacular entrance to a screaming crowd at a convention in which the actors all take a bow together, followed by the theme music and the beginning of the new series.
- Pirates of the Caribbean (film series): The first movie begins with Jack Sparrow standing on the mast of what turns out to be a tiny boat as it sink to the dock. The third movie, the end of the original trilogy, ends with Jack in a tiny boat, having lost his ship yet again.
Sometimes, you don’t even realize as you read (or watch) the ending that it’s echoing the first image that you saw — you just feel it resonate. And if the opening image is as striking as it should be, this technique automatically creates the opportunity for a striking ending image. Just make sure that enough changes between the two scenes to show how far your characters have come — or that they’re so similar, a la Pirates of the Caribbean above, that it shows in spite of everything, nothing really changed.
This is the first part in a series I’m writing about endings. What do you find most compelling, or irritating, about the best and worst endings? If you’re interested on hearing more in the mean time, check out the podcast we did on the best and worst of endings!