Happily ever after

“And they all lived happily ever after except for Freddy, who was miserable and stuck pins into the effigy of his mother-in-law. It didn’t seem to help.”

It’s a question every young (and even those of us who are quite doddery and senile, like moi) asks themselves. “Does a book need a happy ending?

It’s one of those questions that deserves more than a cursory answer, because that answer is of course, on the balance of evidence, no.  There are countless award-winning novels which lack any sort of resoltion entirely, let alone a happy one. They are successful, at least in that some editor bought them, and they were deemed fit to give prizes to.  There are even some which gained that greater mark of success of having done this and sold a lot of copies. And a few of these are are much loved too. 

The real answer of course is ‘that’s the wrong question’.  The right question is does MY book need a happy ending?  And the answer here is ‘that must depend on the book, and what I want to do with it. And… um, how much skill do I think I have?’

Now there is money, still, in convincing editors that you’re Dawkins’s own gift to literature. And given that most editors need a hook based on a movie, and that a bit of schmaltzy arts double-speak is indistinguishable to most laymen from real knowledge. (trust me on this. It works in science too. I’ve seen it done, might even have a clue how to do it myself, sometimes).  But it is, unless tied with a rare and incredible amount of talent, a route at best to awards and not to many readers. To get both, you need to be exceptional. It happens, and if you have that level of talent, perhaps it might be you.

And while miserable endings are just about de riguer for this sort of thing, to have lots and lots of readers and miserable ending,  you need to be extra-specially exceptional.

Some writers are. Maybe you are the next one.

I am glad you have such confidence. Good luck. Don’t bother to read any further. Nothing to see here.

On the other hand, if , like me you’ve ever looked at your own writing in despair and wondered how you could possibly ever be good enough to show your book to anyone, let alone get published. a)You’re possibly better than mr self-confidence — because at least you can learn,  if,  like me again, you’ve got a lot that you need to learn. b)You may as well accept that, while, the story dictates the ending, most (like 90%) can only manage lots of readers (for the next book, and to recommend this one to their friends) if the ending provides some satisfaction to the reader. And for a lot of readers and a lot of stories, that is ‘a happy ending’.  

Of course the fairytale ending (except for Freddy) isn’t plausible in most stories. We realise, outside of 1960 Thrills&Swoon novels,  getting married is maybe a good… start.  But most audiences will I believe give you the credit of ‘happy ending’  if you  lead your characters to some sort of promising resolution.  I’ve done bitter-sweet in a novel. It was my 10th I think, and I was very scared of what it would do to readers, and still wonder if it was a good idea. But there was… hope.

And that is my thesis for this post. The start of a novel is all about first impressions. The end of a novel is about leaving a lingering flavor. A flavour that will make firstly your reader remember it (and that could be sad), and secondly your reader tell their friends what a great book it was (so if it was a bleak ending, the middle better be worth it!) and thirdly, buy the next one. The flavor of happiness or satisfaction are widely liked. It’s of course tricky to get points 1,2 and 3 if it’s merely the same as all the other good ending reads this week/month. Personally, I try to inject a bit of hope too. Because it leaves a feelgood that goes a little beyond just happy.

So: what have you read that left you feeling better, and that you could take on the world a little easier tomorrow?

24 comments

  1. Personally, the endings that work best with me are the bittersweet ones. The parting of the company once the quest has ended, the candle in the window for the lost, the death of the hero who survives just long enough to announce evil’s vanquish.

    Whether it is Frodo leaving the Shire and Sam at the end of LotR, Arthur’s death at the Battle of Camlann, or Boori joining DIngo at his campfire in the heavens after saving the Land from the evil that invaded it.

    How can we feel how important and meaningful the victory is, if we don’t see a price paid to achieve it?

    1. Good point, Brendan. It’s why Disney would make you laugh, then tug at your heartstrings.

      Actions must have consequences.

    2. “How can we feel how important and meaningful the victory is, if we don’t see a price paid to achieve it?”

      Doesn’t this depend on the story?

  2. I’ve settled on the descriptor “appropriate” when it comes to approving or disapproving of endings.
    All stories have an infinite number of plausible endings, good, bad, indifferent, even “WTF?” What makes an ending good or not is the same thing that makes the story good or not: does it unduly jar the experience? If an ending “fits” and the reader, whether they’re happy per se with that _particular_ turn of events, can see how it happened and that it resolves the narrative, then it’s a good ending. This is entirely outside of the question of whether the ending is “happy” or “sad” or “bittersweet”.

    1. This is true. With two caveats: 1)IS the ending appropriate and 2) will it bring the reader back? If it doesn’t satisfy 1 AND 2… well, hmm. For example one of Dave Drake’s stories was so ‘right’ for me, that it made it hard to face of his other books.

  3. I like happy endings. I read fiction to be happy, if I wanted to be miserable I’d read the news.

    I didn’t enjoy the end of Dragon’s Ring. It didn’t make sense that, when you open up to the rest of the universe, you have to remove foreign influences. I was only OK with it because I expected you’d write a sequel.

    1. ‘I like happy endings. I read fiction to be happy, if I wanted to be miserable I’d read the news.’

      Ori,I stopped watching the news for just this reason.

    2. I was worried about the end of Dragon’s Ring for that reason. It does of course resolve, but I had to leave the reader with the hope it would, without knowing if i could ever sell the book.

      For many of us – a book is escapism. That’s why we buy it. I know I write escapism which I hope, generally leaves the reader feeling better about the world afterwards.

      Actually I have a theory that misery is escapism too, for those whose lives are fairly bland. If you’ve lost a child through cancer, or been an army medic, where you saw things you’d rather forget but can’t, then really books which dwell on these things will 1)probably irritate because they got it wrong, 2)if not, stir up things that you don’t need stirred. Like a terrible car-crash – Very entertaining for the gawpers at the road-smash, not much fun for the people it transports back there. Very rarely a book about these things will allow you some healing and closure — but in general those books aren’t popular with ‘escapists’ who want the vicarious thrill of the misery. It does happen that a book does work for those who’ve been there and outsiders, but not often.

      1. I’ve often thought the reason we have book after book of dispairing grundgy future or urban gritty fantasy are at least two generations of people who never ate out of an unsterilized spoon. I bet you it would track well with the publishers stopping slush piles and farming it to agents and to “meet someone at a convention or workshop” which cuts out the working class, people with jobs and lives and just about anyone who isn’t so sure they’re the answer to Steven King that they’re willing to spend thousands of dollars a year on the chance they’ll sell.

  4. I like the idea of risking all to “save the world” or whatever the goal, but I prefer to see the clever characters work, fight and think their way to a victory. I don’t think you have to lose something to gain something. Making the risk _clear_ enough, or perhaps _scary_ enough can be difficult. But I really hate the sort of book where you can figure any cute kid or pet is probably toast.

    The old Mission Impossible TV series is a good example of what I really enjoy, and probably unknown to half the readers here.

    1. I do so detest ‘obligatory red shirt characters’ that are visible a hundred yards off. And yes, if you do it right, the sheer ingenuity can be adequate.

  5. You know, most regencies these days make SO sure of the happilly ever after, that a post-logue some years in the future saying something like “And they had ten thousand children and loved each other deliriously and all their friends were happillly married too” seems to be de rigeur. The best regencies show it instead of telling it.
    As for what has made me feel better lately, I’ve been binging on Heinlein juveniles. Simak is probably next up.

      1. I might segway into that after Heinlein juveniles… I seem to be taking a detour through Christie, which is kind of like sitting in grandma’s kitchen and having tea from the chipped mug. There’s not surprises, it’s so familiar that it’s like a part of you, but it’s awfully relaxing, and you can tell grandma anything.

  6. I’m with Darwin here. The best endings fit the story. Sometimes that means an unhappy ending.

    Possibly the best example of a well-done unhappy ending I can think of comes from the world of the movies: the ending of Gallipoli. (for the non-Aussies – some more info from Wikipedia. Every aspect of the movie led towards tragedy – all the foreshadowing, the music choices, the mantra used by the main character to psych himself into action (subsuming self into his goal), and the sequence leading to the final scene. It was immensely powerful – when the movie finished, there was one of those long, awed hushes which seemed to go on forever.

    Offhand I can’t think of any books that managed that level of impact for an unhappy ending, although I’m quite certain I’ve read them. It’s just that the memory is rather like a stainless steel lint trap. Quite simply, the perfect ending is the one where you can’t imagine the story ending any other way without fundamentally breaking something important to the whole.

    1. Kate, not an entire book, just a passage: “Of Turin Turambar”, from The Silmarillion. The most powerful piece of prose I have yet encountered, with an ending that rips your heart out and steps on it — but it’s perfect to the story. I don’t let myself re-read it more than every other year of so, because I don’t want to wear away the power through over-familiarity. (Also, I can’t read *anything* for a couple days after that, and the should-have-already-finished stack keeps growing …)

      1. Dave,

        They’re rare – they stick with you because they’re so rare. Like I said, I can’t recall any books that did it, although at a guess there’s one or two in my collection at the moment.

        It’s bloody difficult to write a rip-your-heart-out ending unless the main character is a zombie who’s about to eat it.

        Memorable endings that leave me feeling uplifted… there are a few more of those, but again, not that common. Dragon’s Ring is one of them. The best Pratchetts. Some of Sarah’s books.

        Most of the books I own have what might be called the expected ending where everything ends up the way you’d expect given the expectations that were set up in the story. Some I could predict four books before the series finished.

      2. Um, two I think. 1984 and The Sheep Look Up.

        Interestingly, I think, though that both books have the most memorable closing lines of anything I have read.

  7. I like the characters to linger in the mind afterwards. I don’t know if that means the ending must be happy, only that the characters need to be powerful and well realized.

  8. I find that, by and large, the books I cherish most *don’t* tend to have happy endings. Brendan already mentioned Frodo leaving the Shire. General Manuel Garcia O’Kelly Davis has to find some way to run his newly-independent country with both Prof and Mike dead. Gunga Din dies carrying the narrator into the medic’s tent. The Count of Monte Cristo doesn’t get the girl.

    There has to be a sense that the journey led somewhere. And that the people involved changed along the way, I think. If yours is a story whose changes lead your Characters to the Ewok celebration, then the happy ending is right for that story.

    1. Well, I think this may dpend on your definition of ‘happy’. If the ending is satisfactory in that the people you cared about did win/succeed (even in losing their lives to do so) it still is a ‘happy’ end

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