I noticed that the shows I watched handled their mid-season finales very differently. As a writer, even a not-TV writer, I think it’s interesting to look at the different styles. Middles can be very difficult to write, even in novels or films, and I think we can learn a few things from the different storytelling techniques displayed.
Warning, spoilers for The Flash, Arrow, and Agents of SHIELD ahead:
How it ends: The Flash wrapped up most of its outstanding plot lines. The team figured out who their nemesis, Alchemy, was. They used their connection to Alchemy to defeat Savitar, throwing the box that holds him into the Speed Force somewhere. The team has also accepted that Wally will be Kid Flash and that he should continue training to learn his powers. Caitlin appears to have her frosty powers under control for the moment, and everyone looks like they’re in a good place, at least for the moment.
Of course, we’ve been given two visions of the future and know that, even if they don’t turn out to be exactly true, that there is some real pain and conflict for Team Flash on the horizon. These glimpses make the calm of the mid point feel rather ominous, a sort of calm before the storm set-up.
Style: This ends the season in a midpoint lull, basically showing the viewer some of the trouble to come and providing lead-ins to future conflicts, while also providing something of a respite. There isn’t any immediate problem that needs to be solved, so we can break from the show without a lot hanging over our heads.
For a show taking a long break, I think this works well because it leaves the viewers in a place where they won’t get frustrated by having to wait for what comes next. In terms of writing something like a novel or a movie, I think this style can work as well, especially if your story is divided into two very specific points of conflict. A break in the middle can give the reader or viewer a comment to collect themselves and learn something about the characters before being pulled along for more action.
How it ends: On Arrow we got a ton of cliffhangers. Curtis’ husband appears to be leaving him. Felicity’s boyfriend is killed. Artemis is revealed as a traitor and disappears from the team. Diggle is recaptured. And, most strange of all, Laurel inexplicably (for now) returns from the dead. It seems that in the very last episode before winter break, the writers have thrown everyone into conflict, and as viewers we have no idea how it’s all going to turn out and are left wondering what comes next.
Style: Cliffhangers are an integral part of the serial genre. If you’re writing any form of serial, I think it’s incredibly important to be able to string your reader or viewer on to the next episode, and giving them unanswered questions is a very easy way to do that. I think the problem with doing this before a long hiatus is that it can be frustrating for the viewers to wait on, and it will provoke a lot of discussion and generate some wild theories from viewers while the show is off the air (in this instance, for 6 more weeks).
There are, of course, many similar things for fans of The Flash to theorize about, but this cliffhanger method puts the mystery at the forefront of the viewers’ minds and makes them itch to find out what happens next. This is likely to create a high retention of viewers, but the downside is that if you have a ton of theories floating around for a long time and viewers start to get attached to them and the story lines they make up in their heads, you might end up disappointing people.
Agents of SHIELD
How it ends: Similar to The Flash, Agents of SHIELD fully takes out the Big Bad for the season at the show’s midpoint. However, unlike The Flash, the team will now be moving on to another Big Bad right away. Viewers will get to see the team face off against someone totally new rather than having to wait and see exactly how the primary villain returns.
Of course the new villain, Ada the Android, was introduced throughout the first half of the season, and all of the elements that lead to her becoming villainous are introduced. But at the end of the mid-season episode, the show takes a full pivot, bringing her into the forefront as the future villain. Agents of SHIELD even changed its subtitle from “Ghost Rider” to “LMD” to drive this point home.
Style: I think this can work really well for the midpoint of a story or serial when you’ve been working to build up to an interesting and climactic villain story. You can use the first half (or first third, or first set of episodes, or whatever) to gradually build your villain while giving your heroes some really meaningful conflict and character growth moments as they work to solve another problem.
I’m actually using a similar method for my upcoming urban fantasy serial Nine Tails. There’s a primary conflict over the first arc with a secondary conflict building in the background, then that secondary conflict gradually becomes more prominent as the series progresses and the first conflict comes to a point of resolution. I’m being a bit vague here because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I think this can be a really great method for telling your story.
Which do I prefer?
I think all three have their strong points. As a viewer there’s something nice about the lull style found in The Flash, since it allows for resolution and doesn’t make leave me urgently wondering what happens next. It’s a safer approach to the midpoint finale, I think. Cliffhangers can backfire, as we saw a little with The Walking Dead earlier this year. When people are given a lot of time to mull things over, they might decide they don’t like what the writers settle on.
That being said, cliffhangers generally do a great job of creating retention. Naturally we are all hungering for an explanation as to what happened with Laurel, how she’s even there, and what’s going to happen to Diggle being recaptured as well as how Curtis’ marriage is going to pan out, etc. While I am very curious to see how the second half of The Flash develops, it doesn’t carry the same urgency.
The Agents of SHIELD “pivot” style might actually be one of the better methods, as it sort of blends the two. It gives the audience resolution to a story arc and a kind of respite while also setting up a cliffhanger to display the story’s change of direction. As I said, I am using this in my own works. I don’t think it’s always the best style, since it essentially means that you have to have more than one Big Bad for your series or season, but I think it is a format approach to the serial (or even to novels or film) that can work quite well story-wise.
What are your thoughts? Do you like one style over another, or do you think one worked better in the context of the specific show it’s being used on? Thanks for reading, and please leave your thoughts in the comments!