When to Quit

Bill Watterson/Andrews McMeel Publishing

For those of us who remember the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, which dominated the comic section of just about every American newspaper for a decade, I dare say that most of us reflect upon the panels of witticism with a nostalgic smile. I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone that said, “Meh. I don’t know what anyone sees in that.” While I admired cartoonist Bill Watterson’s continual ability to produce funny strips, the thing I think I admire most about him was his willingness to bring the era to a close.

Credit: Bill Watterson/Andrews McMeel Publishing, Dec 31, 1995

I know that sounds odd. “You loved the comic, but you’re glad the guy stopped drawing it?” Let me clarify. What I admire is the way Mr. Watterson came to a place where he felt he had done what he could with the concept, and decided to move on to other projects, even though he could have continued to reap huge financial benefits from everything to more strips and books to plush toys and car window decals. He knew when a good thing had come to an end, and he had the guts to leave things on a high note with his fans.

As a writer, I’m hoping that I will be able to follow this model so clearly exemplified by Bill Watterson. First of all, I’m hoping my work gets to the point where I can say it has a steady fan base who is looking for the next book or set of stories that I write. If I can get to that point, I then hope I will have the courage and the character to tell those same people, “This is where the saga ends.” Even if they are clamoring for more books. If I’ve done what I believe is best with the world, I pray I will have the integrity to go the way of Calvin.

What I don’t want to do is have sitcom syndrome. You know how it is: something is popular for a whole bunch of seasons, but after a while, viewership dwindles, so the writers interject either a baby or a pet into the scenario. Or twin babies. In an effort to resurrect something that has explored all the avenues that work, the writers try to create fresh avenues with new characters that seem to have nothing to do with the original premise or intent of the show. I don’t think the ploy has ever worked, since it always comes off as a desperate grab for the doorframe, when the creative property in question really should have allowed itself to be gracefully ushered into quiet, dignified retirement.

I know it’s weird to be thinking about how I want to end my book series that are just getting started, but it’s also no new thing for me to think way too far ahead. But at the same time, I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a view on the tape across the end of the race, since none of us mortals can run forever. It’s my goal not only to run my hardest, but to pace myself, gauge the race, and thus, to finish well.

What about you? Have you seen places where a story, show, or other narrative ended at just the right place? Or what about the opposite—what have you seen that drones on and on until it collapses into a dehydrated pile that should have long ago been entombed?


About Rebecca Minor

Rebecca P Minor draws perspective from her pursuit of various art forms, including writing, drawing, and music (singing mostly, though there was a time when a trombone figured in.) A 1997 graduate from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Becky earned a BFA in animation. Since then, she has worked as a character animator, a freelance artist, an art teacher, and most importantly, a wife to her husband Scott and mother of three boys. She is in the process of republishing her current body of work. The first installment of The Windrider Saga, Divine Summons, is available as an ebook novella on Amazon. She also has short stories available under the umbrella of The Windrider Canticles.

12 comments on “When to Quit

  1. I think a current example would be 2 1/2 Men. I have never watched the show, but when you loose your star (and your character chemistry I would presume) you need to call it quits.

    One show that I loved that did this was News Radio. I was an am a huge Phil Hartman fan and when they replaced him after his death with Jim Lovitz (and then ALSO screwed with the Stephen Rod character storyline- the news outlet owner, Jimmy James) it totally fell apart. It lost so much of its charm with the loss of those two characters and set Lisa up with some not-Dave doofus guy. I stopped watching because it hurt to watch.

    My husband is tellinlg me over my shoulder that Seinfeld knew when to stop, but I never liked Seinfeld so I can’t really say. I’m gogin to brood on this a while and see if I can come up with another example of who did it right. I jusrt have never been much of an episodic tv watcher. There were shows that stopped while they were good, but unfortunately, those were due to cancellation.

  2. Ah, now what I love it that you brought up the whole thing about plush toys and car window decals. I think that is where too many go overboard. Even if they end the story at the right place, the “stuff” becomes a joke.

    Let me contrast:

    I am a huge Harry Potter fan, and most people who know me also know I cringe at Twilight. Part of that is the fact that I love JK Rowling’s writing and find Steph Meyer’s quite lacking. BUT, it also has to do with how they handle the “stuff.” JK Rowling opted for making the Harry Potter stuff well-made collectibles, the movies are top-notch, and I can attest that the theme park area of Universal Studios is incredibly cool. Everything seems to stick to the quality of the books themselves. She weighs every endeavor and makes sure it measures up. I’m hopeful her Pottermore venture will do the same. Although there is a part of me that thinks if she goes one more step, she’ll be crossing the line into selling out.

    The Twilight saga is different. So soon after the books hit big, you couldn’t walk into Walmart without being slammed in the face with Twilight t-shirts and posters. The bookstores had every imaginable Twilight item displayed everywhere, including Edward Cullen action figures at the check-out. It all just screamed of commercialism. I could have possibly gained some respect for Meyer if she’d held back on that stuff.

    At this point for me, I have no hopes of even reaching the point where there will be decisions to make on that kind of “stuff.” But if the time ever comes, I intend to do my best to I handle it with class and dignity and draw the line in the right place.

  3. I think the series, Monk, went past the ending. The last season was good, but there were several seasons that really dragged. Once you’ve played it for all it’s worth, then you need to move on to something else.

    I seem to remember Aslan making a similar point in the Chronicles of Narnia when someone wanted to repeat a great experience.

  4. Loved Calvin and Hobbes! And have many of the strips saved, as well as a couple of published books of the strips.

    You’ve touched on one of my pet peeves with daily blogs. I subscribed to several writers’ blogs when I first became aware of them; some were weekly or a couple of times a week, some were daily. Now I find that my inbox is inundated with daily blogs that I simply don’t read. I’ll check in occasionally, but very few command my attention every day. (Hey, I’m supposed to be writing, not reading.) I realize the “gurus” say we must blog regularly to establish our presence and our platforms, but frankly, I’m turned off by the blatant promotion on some of them, or the striving to find anything to say by others.

    Of course this is from one who is struggling to get into a regular routine myself! 🙂
    Thanks for your good perspective, Becky.

  5. Interesting post, Becky. Television seems plastered with examples of people not knowing when to quit. There are so many shows that I stopped watching and then they got cancelled the next season.

    I’ve got a sequel planned to my first novella, but after that I’m not sure where the characters will go. If there’s a great story there, then let the series continue but if you find yourself forcing the matter — that’s when it’s time to move on to something new.

  6. I will jump back aboard here and say that the Japanese seem to have (or at least HAD… I have no idea how it stands anymore) a great idea in some of their anime that they plotted out the series with a definitive beginning middle and end, and seemed to know on what episode number a show would end before production began (versus stretching the arc out as far into the infinite future as possible). There are several examples of shows that ran only 25 or 26 episodes and managed to tie up their story arc with satisfaction, but I think the best one that quit where it should have was Cowboy Bebop. They could have done a lot more with the show to be sure, but it ended well before I got tired of Spike and the gang. They came out with a feature film a few years back that I thought was a great visit with the foursome (spoiler: especially considering one had died at the series end). Of course I also have found that series like Wolf’s Rain and Samurai Champloo, while possessing a blessedly- limited- within-reason-to- the -true- story- arc plan, also wasted a lot of time in recap episodes that really weren’t necessary given their short duration. In other words they padded the show for NO REASON with the worst kind of fluff imaginable. And their recaps weren’t cool like some of the Simpson’s clip shows, they were just blatant full repeatative episodes. I could say the same good things about Firefly and I did BeBop, but it was cancellation that killed it (though the followup feature film rocked, and was able to tie up many of the loose ends… though not answer all the questions)

    A book series that I enjoyed but went on too long was certainly the RA Salvatore Drizzt series. I stopped at book 17 where he FINALLY got together with Cattie Brie. Finally. I dont care what happened to everyone after that book to be honest. The only character that still interested me even a little at that point was Artemis Entreri, and after 17 books I just couldn’t get into him and Jaraxel (or whatever the heck his name was) int he Sell Swords series becasue I wouldn’t dare commit to another endless series. I saw where Salvatore is still writing Drizzt and where the tale is set in the future and Cattie-Brie and Brunor and everyone is dead… Why the heck would I want to read that? I was supposed to like that original character package, and I did. Drizzt with a new cast seems wrong. Let a drow die.

  7. I was very disappointed with the endings of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. SG-1 should have ended after season 8, and their introduction of the Ori made me mad, namely because of the anti-religion theme. I remember reading that Atlantis wanted to end on a high note, and there may have been a Syfy issue in paying the stars, but I thought they ended flat. There was a lot of potential with the Wraith that their ending did not fulfill. I laughed at the final fight scene with Ronin. So predictable.

    As far as doing it well, the Dune Prequels did a great job with scope and wrapping it all up to set up Dune. I can’t think of any other series I read/watched all the way through that ended well.

  8. Every show from my childhood went too long: Diff’rent Strokes brought on Sam, The Facts of Life brought on George Clooney, The Cosby Show brought on Raven Simone, Cheers brought on Kirstie Alley (though Frasier worked well), Gimme a Break brought on Joey Lawrence, Family Ties brought on Brian Bonsall, and the Smurfs brought on Wild Smurph. Once the new character was brought on, the dynamic changed and the show just wasn’t funny.

    Lucky Charms did it too. I remember how excited I was when they added the purple horseshoe to Lucky Charms. i begged my mom to get it. And the next year they added red balloons? I haven’t eaten a box since.

    The only shows that I think ended well were those that were canceled: Sportsnight, Freaks and Geeks, and Arrested Development.

    And, of course, The Wonder Years. I’m a sap for nostalgia, that show was all nostalgia, and it ended at its natural breaking point, when Kevin finished high school.

  9. Seems I can think of examples that didn’t end well. I recall Batman of the 60s kept adding new Bat vehicles and Batgirl in an attempt to keep things fresh after the audience grew tired of the superhero spoof nature of the show.

    The Monkees, by contrast, shut down after two seasons, and the actors forced it. They felt there simply wasn’t much more they could do with the premise. And based on the last show, directed by Mickey, it was so weird that not even Mickey knew what it was about.

    In contrast to that, Lost in Space, which was already pretty locked into a formula that had grown tired by the end of the second season, went on with a third season that was for the most part just plain weird. I mean, when they land on a planet full of talking vegetables, you know the writers are drawing on an empty well.

    Interestingly enough, I have a two book series. Just published the first book, Mind Game. I have a second in the series, Hero Game. But that book seemed to have ended the story. I almost feel like to do anything more would require tacking on something different, or a new character coming out of the woodworks. Maybe something that fits will come to me, but at this point, it appears it will be just a two book series, which I would gather isn’t the norm. They’re almost always three or more.

  10. This is quite a lovely “coincidence” you writing about this.

    First, I loved Calvin and Hobbes as a kid. Still do. I still have a few of the Collections books stored away in a closet…somewhere.

    Anyway, the coincidence. Earlier this afternoon I was watching old Seinfeld clips and such and I remembered how it all went down. Well, as a matter of fact, it never really did. See, for those not aware, the sitcom never dropped in viewership, ratings were the highest ever and 75 million people saw the finale. What am I saying?
    First, Becky is on the money with her point on the “sitcom syndrome”.
    Secondly, Jerry Seinfeld was brilliant in deciding to end on a high note. Brilliant.
    That’s my model, if you will.
    How long can I create new and exciting things in this particular series? Where to go after I went there?
    I, too, have <I<just started but it is an important thing to keep in the back of my head.

    Great job, Becky.

  11. Ahem. I can’t believe no one mentioned Scrappy Doo. Or Scooby Dumb, which I failed to watch. Interesting that the Scooby Doo movie slammed Scrappy Doo, which I lovewd, a movie poking fun at itself.

  12. My Dearest Becky,

    It is an art to know when to quit but, you still have quite a ways to go. Don’t let that old defeatism get a hold on you.

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