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Stick the landing to avoid sour endings

If you watch gymnastics competitions during the Olympics or whenever else they’re on TV, you’ve heard the commentators emphasize how important it is to “stick the landing.” A wobbly finish can make the miniscule difference between first or second place. No matter how many mistakes in the routine, the gymnast can make up for some of those errors by at least having a strong finish at the end.

I remember one of my music teachers from years past telling me it’s important to not make a mistake on the last note of a performance. The audience will be listening the whole time, but messing up the last note, the last thing they hear, is extremely memorable. If my fingers slip and hit the wrong key on the piano at the very end, it won’t matter how nice my playing was beforehand. The discordant sound will be the last thing they remember of the performance.

“Sticking the landing” is vital not only in gymnastics and music performances, but also in storytelling as well.

Nobody is clamoring for writing advice from me, but here are my thoughts on the subject anyway:

I can think of plenty of examples of terrible endings to movies, TV shows, books, and other media I’ve consumed over the years. Ones that left me sitting on the couch with my arms crossed in frustration, and others that made me so angry I wanted to flip a table. (I have not, in fact, flipped any tables, despite the temptation.)

The series finale of “How I Met Your Mother” is one that still makes me angry just thinking about it. After a season of episodes stretching out over the course of a weekend, the final episode instead chose to cover several years of time, summarizing the lives of the main characters in little vignettes. It was so jarring, to me, to see the story jump ahead. The series finale felt tacked on and rushed, and it unraveled years of character development. In my opinion, they could have ended the show with the episode before the finale and I would have been satisfied.

Instead, I was so angry with the show that I couldn’t watch reruns of it for a long time afterwards! My fond memories of the story had been soured by the ending. (For the record, I do sometimes watch reruns of the show now… just not very often.)

Everyone has different opinions on how a story should end, which makes sense because everybody likes different things. (Some people actually did like the ending to “How I Met Your Mother”.) But I think we can agree on a few overall generalizations.

Some endings are bad because they don’t wrap up the story and they leave behind too many unanswered questions, like maybe the people behind the scenes ran out of time. Some are bad because the story has already dragged on for too long. Other endings are not good because the events are nonsensical or they don’t conclude the character arcs well.

I remember, in particular, a friend complaining to me last year when “Supernatural” ended after 15 seasons on the air. She didn’t like where the characters all ended up. I’ve never watched the show, so I don’t know much about that to judge myself. But I understood how she felt because I had a similar feeling after watching “Avengers: Endgame.” I still scratch my head sometimes thinking about where all those characters ended up.

But for every terrible ending, there are also just as many good ones as well. I personally like stories where it feels like the characters have grown and changed and are ready to take on the next chapter of their lives.

It’s been several months since I watched an old anime series named “Revolutionary Girl Utena” but the ending is still vivid in my mind as one of the best and most satisfying I’ve ever watched. It’s a very confusing series full of strange metaphors and allegories and things don’t really become clear until the last few episodes. But the final part of the last episode shows a main character finally breaking free from what’s been holding her back the whole series. With a suitcase in hand, she simply steps over the threshold of her school and into the real world. The ending doesn’t wrap up the story with a neat bow on top, but it does provide enough hope that left me, as a viewer, happy to see.

This is just something I’ve been thinking about this week, as I’m always seeing and hearing discussions about how this TV show ended or how that movie wrapped up. Any aspiring writers out there, including myself, should keep these things in mind when working on something.

It’s always a good idea to try to “stick the landing.”

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.