“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?