We talk a lot about first impressions in our day-to-day lives. You want to make a good first impression when you meet new people, or when you go for a job interview. The same goes for stories – you want your first chapter, first scene, or first episode to be a good one so that your audience is interested in seeing more.
What I think is less talked about is the importance of final impressions. They are just as, if not even more important than a first impression. A bad opening might scare your audience away, but a bad finale can ruin all of the work you’ve done so far. A poorly-written ending will live on forever as a disappointment in the minds of fans – especially in the age of the internet.
But how do you write a satisfying finale? And I mean satisfying – not necessarily “happy” – an ending that will leave your audience feeling like they just had a full serving of their favorite meal.
Today, I’m looking at two of my favorite TV series, Avatar: The Last Airbender and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (you’ll forgive me if I use acronyms for the rest of the post). Not only is each series consistently good throughout its run, but they also both end on what I feel is a satisfying note.
I’ve talked about both series before in passing, but since we’re talking about finales, it’s important that you understand each story’s premise as well. BEWARE OF SPOILERS!
Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA)
Avatar is set in a world divided into four nations based on a specific element: water, earth, fire, and air. Some people can “bend,” or manipulate, one of these elements. Our hero, Aang, is the last airbender, but not only that, he’s the Avatar, a person who has the ability to master all four elements. He must use his abilities to defeat Fire Lord Ozai, who is intent on conquering the world. Aang is joined by water tribe siblings Katara and Sokka, and Toph, a blind earthbender. And as if that wasn’t enough, he is also being pursued by the banished Fire Nation Prince Zuko, intent on capturing the Avatar in order to regain his honor, and Zuko’s Uncle Iroh.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (FMAB)
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (Not to be confused with the 2003 anime adaptation, simply titled Fullmetal Alchemist) tells the story of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric. In their world, some people can practice alchemy, a sort of “science magic” (my words). Alchemy has one main principle:
[Alchemy] is not an all-powerful art. It is impossible to create something out of nothing. If one wishes to obtain something, something of equal value must be given. This is the law of equivalent exchange, the basis of all alchemy.From the intro to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (Ep. 3)
After losing their mother to illness, the grieving brothers attempt a forbidden type of alchemy in order to bring her back to life. Things go poorly, and both boys pay the price. Al loses his body, and Ed loses a leg and then trades one of his arms in order to bring back Al’s consciousness and “link” it to an empty suit of armor.
At the start of the series, the boys are on a quest to find the mythical Philosopher’s Stone, which they believe will help them reverse the damage.
Without further ado, let’s get into what makes the endings of ATLA and FMAB stand out from the crowd. Last warning for SPOILERS AHEAD!
Rule #1: Know When to Stop
Both ATLA & FMAB are relatively shorter series, running for 61 and 64 episodes respectively (about 25 hours, give or take). This is considerably shorter than other popular TV series like Game of Thrones (173 episodes, 70 hours) or The Office (201 episodes, 100 hours). Part of that could be blamed on the genre or format, since many animated series tend to have shorter runs (with exceptions). However, I also think it is a large credit to the writers themselves, who knew how and when they wanted the story to end.
The lesson here isn’t that your stories should be short, but rather you should start your story with an ending in mind. Both ATLA and FMAB establish early on what the end of the story will be: when Aang masters all four elements and saves the world, and when the Elrics regain their bodies. Nearly every episode and scene moves the story in that direction. Without a clearly defined endpoint, you run a greater risk of having a sloppy ending.
Rule #2: Don’t Forget Your Supporting Cast
Both ATLA and FMAB have several main characters, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to say Aang and Ed are the primary protagonists of their respective series, since they are the key players in each finale. More on them in a moment.
That being said, each series also brings closure to the stories and arcs of secondary protagonists and side characters.
My favorite scene in ATLA is the reconciliation that takes place between Zuko and Uncle Iroh. Not only does it “hit you right in the feels,” but it also brings Zuko’s arc full circle: he has finally realized the path he must take. But I’ve already talked about that scene at length in another post, so I want to focus on another part of the ending: the final “Agni Kai” match between Zuko and his sister Azula.
This battle is a certainly a big moment for Zuko, but it also important for Katara. During the battle, Zuko intercepts one of Azula’s attacks intended for Katara and is seriously injured. Once Zuko is out of commission, Katara finishes the battle and defeats Azula, then heals Zuko’s injuries.
The scene does similar things for both characters: Zuko’s choice to put his life on the line for Katara and Katara’s choice to heal him and finish the battle both illustrate that these former enemies have become allies, giving the audience some closure on the tension between them. In addition, allowing Katara to finish the battle gives her the chance to finally have justice against the nation that brought so much hardship on her family and people.
There are also plenty of examples in FMAB, but my personal favorite involves Ling Yao and May Chang, two travelers from the eastern nation of Xing. Like the Elrics, they are also on a quest to find the philosopher’s stone, but their reason is different. Ling and May are from two different Xingese clans, and they hope to find the stone in order to gain favor with the Emperor of Xing and secure the safety of their respective clans. Ling is the one who succeeds, meaning he will become the next emperor. May is visibly distraught, and understandably so given that her clan is much smaller and weaker.
However, in a surprising turn of events, Ling promises May that he and his family will look out for all of the others, including the Chang family. So in the end, both of them get what they want – Ling becomes emperor, and May’s family is secure. Both of their stories reach satisfying conclusions.
You’re about as stupid as I am, getting mixed up with this country’s problems. And you didn’t even end up with a Philosopher’s Stone. You know what this means. My clan won. As far as your clan goes… the Yao family will protect yours at all costs.Ling speaking to May after the final battle (FMAB ep. 64)
One final note: while this is most necessary with dynamic characters, giving static characters a satisfying end is also important. In ATLA, Iroh leads the charge to liberate the Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se from Fire Nation control – the city he once laid siege to as a Fire Nation general.
When I was a boy, I had a vision that I would one day take Ba Sing Se. Only now do I see that my destiny is to take it back from the Fire Nation, so the Earth Kingdom can be free again.Iroh (ATLA 3.20)
In FMAB, Ed and Al’s long-lost father Hohenheim is finally able to find peace after a long (and I mean LONG) and hard life. Satisfied that the world is safe once more and his sons are in good hands, he passes away next to his wife’s grave with a smile on his face.
Living through all these endless years, I always felt like I’ve been struck with a curse, but then I found you, and we had our sons, and I suddenly felt blessed, grateful for the life I had. I’ve had a fulfilling life. And thanks to you, it has been enough.Hohenheim speaking at his wife’s grave (FMAB ep. 63)
Rule #3: Find the solution that isn’t obvious, but is necessary
This is easier said than done.
At the end of their respective series, Aang and Ed are each faced with a major problem. Aang must defeat Ozai in combat and ensure that he can never rise to power again. Ed’s case is a little more complicated – during the final battle, Al sacrifices himself in order to restore Ed’s missing arm. Al isn’t dead; more like he’s trapped in a void. Once the battle is over, Ed is desperate for a way to bring his brother back once and for all.
Both of these problems have obvious solutions, but both characters have strong convictions that prevent them from using that obvious solution. Instead of feeling defeated, they use their determination to find an alternate solution, one that is completely out of the box and often takes everyone else by surprise. In other words, it is not the obvious solution, but the necessary one.
|Major Problem||Obvious Solution||Strong Conviction||Necessary Solution|
|Defeat Fire Lord Ozai||Kill him||Aang is a pacifist and is strongly against taking another person’s life (even if that person is an imperialist megalomaniac)||Aang learns a new ability that requires a strong will, but allows him to take Ozai’s firebending power away.|
|Bring Al back||Use a philosopher’s stone, or allow their father to exchange his life for Al’s||Ed (and Al) don’t want to make anyone else pay for the mistakes and choices that they made.||Ed sacrifices his ability to perform alchemy in order to rescue Al.|
To pull this off, you need to be intentional about showing your character’s beliefs and principles throughout the story. It’s established early on how Aang wishes to honor what he was taught, and how Ed and Al are determined to reach their goals without causing harm to anyone else. These obstacles don’t just come up out of nowhere.
It’s also important to ground your alternate solution in the story’s reality. With FMAB, a bunch of complicated alchemy stuff is established in earlier episodes to help us know that:
- Al is not dead and can be rescued (unlike their mother)
- It is possible for Ed to make the exchange that he makes.
With that in mind, it’s not a stretch at all that to say that Ed can sacrifice his alchemy – represented by a physical “portal” – in order to make an equivalent exchange and bring his brother back. It also makes for a nice way to wrap up Ed’s character arc.
This portal, I know it contains every secret alchemy has to offer. However, it’s also led me astray. I saw the truth that lies within it. And I became convinced I could solve everything with alchemy, but I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong. That was just arrogance.Ed (FMAB ep. 63)
ATLA does feel a little more deus ex machina – Aang learns his new ability from a conveniently placed giant lion turtle. However, the solution that is given is a natural progression from already established world building. And once again, it also gives us the bonus of seeing Aang’s character arc come full circle. His stubborn resolve is what actually allows him to practice this ability in the first place.
In the era before the Avatar, we bent not the elements, but the energy within ourselves. To bend another’s energy, your own spirit must be unbendable… or else you will be corrupted and destroyed.Lion Turtle (ATLA 3.21)
So what’s the main takeaway here? Be intentional. Put in the work while planning, outlining, and writing your story so that when you get to the end, it feels like all of the pieces are finally falling into place – for you and your audience!