The Sense of an Ending: A Writer’s Take on Final Episodes

By Anja De Jager

Back in the days before K-drama addiction struck, I once attended a screenwriting seminar by a famous US TV writer and he made the point that you should end a drama series on a cliffhanger so that you’d get commissioned for Season 2. The purpose of the end of a drama season, in his opinion, was to make sure it never ended. TV series had a Beginning, a Middle and a Season 2. I disliked that approach intensely. As a novelist, I’m forced to write these difficult endings. For me, a satisfying ending is much harder to craft than a gripping opening so why should showrunners get away with never having to end anything? Looking back, it’s probably when my love affair with K-drama started: sixteen episodes and an end!

So why do I care about endings so much? Why do I feel they are so important? Some of that is grounded in the classics. Plays were (and often still are) written in what’s called the Dialectic Approach. Basically, the writer poses a question or provides a dilemma in the opening section of a play, subsequently discusses this throughout the drama and finally shows with the ending which side of the argument they fall on. The ending is important because it’s where the writer puts their cards on the table. Even with modern dramas this often still holds, and I find this a very useful lens to examine endings through. 

A drama I enjoyed this year, Do You Like Brahms (Spoiled Yak here), posed the question: if you love something or someone deeply, but it isn’t working out, should you just try harder?  In the opening episode, we see two areas in which this is set up. First of all, our heroine loves playing the violin but she is the worst in the class and isn’t allowed to play in a concert. Secondly, two people go to the airport to meet a person they love, who is/was dating their friend. Should they continue to love this person, as Brahms loved Clara Schumann all his life? I won’t spoil it by saying which side of the argument the writer chooses, but, crucially, with this question you could make an argument for either side. Finding out what the writer has decided is what keeps us viewers engaged.

Heaven’s Garden (2011)

Another example is a little-watched older drama called Heaven’s Garden (2011), which features a woman with two daughters who is left penniless when her husband goes to prison. She has no choice but to move in with her estranged father who is much more willing to accept the biological youngest daughter than the eldest stepdaughter. It poses the question: what makes a family—blood or love? Until the final two episodes, I didn’t know which way the writer was going to go (especially when biological parents show up) and that meant I was gripped right until the end.

This is why romantic dramas so often go wrong. The only question the writer has posed at the start is, will those two people end up together? and we know that the answer is going to be “yes”. There is no suspense, no curiosity. After the meet-cute, there is no plot, the two main characters just run around in circles and we get Noble Idiocy because there’s nothing else the writer can think of. We’ve all watched the rom-com that suddenly became a corporate takeover drama, or the cute drama that introduces a deadly illness. The drama spins off course and viewers are left with a feeling that we are no longer watching the drama we came here for. As a writer myself, I can tell you that this is very easily done. You suddenly realise that your plot (or your question) isn’t enough to fill the pages. For me, that’s the moment to take a deep breath (it’s never a good moment) and start again. For too many dramas the opening episodes will have already aired by this point and there’s nothing to do apart from fill the allotted air-time for whatever viewers are left.

I watched the Chinese drama Next Time, Together Forever (2018) recently about a contract marriage between a guy who’d been divorced twice already and doesn’t want to start a new family but needs to get married for financial reasons, and a woman who is desperate to have a baby but can only get IVF if she’s married. The final question seemed to be: should you give up on something you desperately want, to be with someone you love? In his case his reluctance to have a family, in her case her desire for a baby. Something has to give or these two cannot be together. A dilemma that some of my friends would tell me is real enough. Roll on the ending. After they’d got divorced from the contract marriage, they meet again by chance, he proposes, she says yes, gets a ring and everybody is happy. Apart from me.  She didn’t want a ring – she wanted a baby. Clearly someone had given in but who? Had he changed his mind? Had she? The least the writer could have done was have either of the leads mention the baby during the proposal. She could have said, I’ll marry you even if we don’t have a baby, or he could have said, let’s get married and have a baby.  Or alternatively, let’s get married and let biology decide the whole baby thing. Maybe that’s what the writer was going for but I couldn’t really tell.

Next Time, Together Forever (2018)

It’s a bad ending where the drama poses a fascinating and difficult dilemma and then doesn’t actually answer it. It might seem obvious by now that I believe that openings and endings should work as bookends. With the ending, the writer should nail their colours to the mast: this is how they see the world. Questions are posed and answered. In the case of Next Time, Together Forever, I was left wondering if there was a cultural (or censorship) reason why they chickened out from making clear how the baby conundrum played out and hoped that cuteness would make viewers forget. (Hint: it didn’t.)

Even though the ending, in an ideal world, should be as important as the beginning, it’s most often the part that suffers from the culture of live-filming and time pressure in the Korean drama industry. All too often endings haven’t been written yet when openings air, or are changed due to K-netizen pressure (still bitter), or the openings seem forgotten about by the time the writer writes the ending two months (sixteen episodes) later.

A good ending leaves us viewers happy and satisfied. Even if you’re not consciously aware of the question that the drama posed, you can sense that something has been answered. If the writer sees the world in a different way from you, this can be eye-opening as you’re asked to understand a different viewpoint from your own. That’s the power of storytelling and I hate bad endings because they squander that.

However, instead of complaining about endings I hated, I want to end on a positive note and mention some excellent 2020 drama endings. Apart from Do You Like Brahms, which I talked about before, this year I loved the final episodes of My Unfamiliar Family, 365: Repeat the Year, and Memorials/Into the Ring. Plus, a special mention for how the Drama Special Hello Dracula finished.  These are all dramas that I would recommend to anybody. 

And maybe that’s why endings are so important. Have you ever recommended a drama to your friends “because the beginning was just so satisfying”?


Anja is the author of the Lotte Meerman series, writing crime like K-dramas should. Find out more about her on her website at https://anjadejager.com/, buy her books, and don’t miss her outings on the Spoiled Yaks for Do You Like Brahms, My Unfamiliar Family, and Search WWW and Perfume.

7 thoughts on “The Sense of an Ending: A Writer’s Take on Final Episodes

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  1. Oh yes, endings! Thank you! I am 100% about the endings. A great ending can salvage a drama that has gone off the rails. A bad ending can ruin one I’ve been previously gripped by. Like you the thing I hate the most about a ‘bad’ ending is if I’m left scratching my head about what the writer was trying to say all this time. What was that supposed to be about?

    Big is the obviously one and is emblematic of what I dislike about the Hong Sisters generally. They always pose these fascinating conundrums, these Gordian knots of scenarios. And then at the last minute they decide it’s all too hard and have people run around for a while before throwing in a time jump and telling you the conflict is resolved off screen. Sometimes I too wonder if it’s because they’re hampered by networks, advertisers or focus groups (or censors in China’s case). Or if they simply didn’t think things through. Either way, for me, the ending is almost everything. Unless, like with Jealousy Incarnate, I just pretend it ended four episodes earlier and the ‘real’ ending never happened.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Last year’s People With Flaws epitomizes that for me. The opening 2 (maybe 4) episodes were bad. Like really, really bad. The leads were deeply weird and whatever plot there was, was all about the ML’s diarrhea. I wish I was exaggerating. I don’t know why I watched it. Maybe because Kim Seul-gi was in it?

      But then, it found its feet and dropped the toilet obsession. It became pretty clear what the drama was going for: if people have flaws, should you just love them regardless or try to fix them or walk away. It embraced the characters’ weirdness and did a good job with the ending through what must have been a very tough time for the cast. I still have a warm and fuzzy feeling whenever I think about it (which admittedly isn’t all that often), so yes I ended up loving this drama even though it was deeply flawed – which funnily enough was its theme. That it ended well, erased most of the memories of that terrible beginning.

      A drama that started well, got better and then had terrible episodes 13-16, I would have hated.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “A drama that started well, got better and then had terrible episodes 13-16, I would have hated.”

        You’ve just described Do Do Sol Sol La La Sol, and yes, it was one of the most rage-inducing endings of my drama life.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. This is a wonderfully written piece that had me nodding vigourously at several points! I definitely agree with you about the questions raised in a beginning that need to be answered (explicitly or implicitly) by an ending. Otherwise it feels as if the writer took you down a path that led off a cliff, or the drama drove you in one direction for seven weeks and then took a hard left at an unrelated highway.

    100% agree on My Unfamiliar Family of course, and 365. This makes me excited to finish Into the Ring and watch Brahms!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I finally have a name for the formula I like! The Dialectic Approach, huh? I agree with everything said here (although I actually have recommended dramas because the beginning was satisfying – Cheese in the Trap, Fated to Love You…)

    When I was younger, nothing with do except an objectively happy ending. I’m not convinced though, that I really had a sense of what a happy ending is. Nowadays, what I want is an ending that fits the drama. Firstly, in the sense that it should answer the questions it poses, but also in tone.

    An example of an ending that kept consistent to its tone and theming the whole way through is Shitsuren Chocolatier, a show about a man whose all-consuming affections for a woman leads him to go to France, study baking, and open a chocolate shop all in the single-minded pursuit of her. This is not your typical romance – Shitsuren Chocolatier is about love as much as it is about obsession, idolisation and how shallow the hero’s “love” actually is. It has a melodramatic and quietly sinister feel to it. So many people were outraged by the drama ending with a painful break-up, but I would argue it was the perfect ending for this show, which was constantly screaming that the relationships it had crafted were deeply unhealthy ones.

    On the other hand, we have dramas like Mistress, a mystery thriller that aired a few years ago. I was completely enamoured with it until the ending. It seemed to forget for a moment that it had carved its identity in being moody and cut-throat. So when it gave me a bizarrely joyful ending and, without ceremony of any kind, resurrected a character who was buried alive, I wasn’t happy. In five minutes, they had turned a finished product into something lacking.

    Consistency is what I like, I suppose. If you’ve written a thriller, you should thrill me. If you’ve written a bubbly rom-com, you shouldn’t pretend to kill the hero at the end and then reveal it was all an elaborate joke at the heroine’s expense. You know. It’s just common sense.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ah yes, genre is everything. Just imagine if – late in the 16th Century – the Globe Theatre had said: come see this new rom-com called Romeo and Juliet. People would have thought that Shakespeare was the worst writer ever.

      Faked death doesn’t have a place in rom-coms

      Liked by 3 people

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