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Happy Endings?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Hypervorean, Oct 24, 2012.

  1. Hypervorean

    Hypervorean Scribe

    So, I have been thinking about this alot lately, and, call me a pessimist, have come to the conclusion that in life there is no such thing as a happy ending. So why should books have happy endings?

    I, for one, don't seem to have the heart to write a happy ending. I find that happy endings have actually begun to really annoy me; that I tend to take books with happy endings less seriously. I am not exactly sure why that is, though.

    I realize that most people probably prefer happy endings (or not? I don't actually know), so I simply want to ask: why? What is it about happy endings that constitutes a nice conclusion to a good book? What are your thoughts on the subject?
  2. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    A couple of reasons:

    1. A lot of people read for escapism. The more miserable their life, the more they want to find happiness in their leisure pursuits. They do not want an accurate reflection of life.
    2. A lot of people would rather be happy than sad. A good author has the ability to create an emotional response in their reader. A happy ending tends to leave the reader feeling happy.
  3. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

    Books have happy endings because, if the writer is good enough, that's what the readers want for the characters. If the characters are interesting and relatable and the reader roots for them, then the reader wants them to succeed, thus happy ending. There is a certain satisfaction in terms of storytelling when a character achieves something they set out to do. Failure to do so creates a sense of lack of closure if handled badly.

    Having said that I agree that sometimes books have a happy ending for the sake of having a happy ending and because it's what is expected. I wouldn't mind seeing a few tragic endings if they are set up well - it is a character's flaws which drive the story and which mean that tragedy is practically inevitable.
  4. Rubbish. Life is full of happy endings, you just need to look for them.

    The problem is that, these being cynical times, bad news happens to sell better than good news on average.

    It probably means that your sense of pathos is overly skewed towards tragedy, making you incapable of appreciating comedy. This is not a good thing - it indicates that your understanding of basic drama is kinda stuck halfway. Even if you have a definite preference, you should ideally be able to appreciate both.

    It basically comes down to what you have already promised your readers. Happy endings and sad endings aren't mutually interchangeable, or at least you need to be very skilled to pull off a story that can end either way.

    People often get this wrong. A good tragedy is a tragedy from start to finish, because tragic protagonists always have at least one fatal flaw that inevitably ends up destroying them. Romeo and Juliet couldn't have survived and lived happily ever after, because it's a story about two impulsive teenagers who's passion drives them to suicide. Othello couldn't have not killed his wife in a jealous range, because that was sort of the whole point of the story. Oidepus was told multiple times to stop digging in his own past because he really wouldn't like what he'd find, but he kept going and turns out he didn't like what he found, etc. There's an inevitability to it: You promise the readers that "This will not end well."

    The same thing applies to happy endings, though, only in reverse. You give the hero some titanic opposition to overcome, and even when it looks like he will fail, he will have some kind of strength or quality that lets him persevere and carry on. In short, there will be an element of hope. So even when all seems lost, the readers will believe in that hope; they will expect the hero to find a way even if they can't see a way themselves. If you can deliver that, it's very rewarding.

    On the other hand, when people get this wrong, it's extremely jarring: If you set a tragic character on the path of utter ruin, and then throw in a surprise happy ending in the last minute, the readers will find it unrealistic. Likewie, if you put your hero through a struggle where he falters but never falls, and keeps his hope even when all hope seems lost, you can't just have him fail anyway. That would be anticlimatic.

    You can't just pick and choose a sad ending over a happy one or vice versa, is what I'm saying. You have to keep your promises.
    Last edited: Oct 24, 2012
    Kaellpae, Sparkie, Ghost and 4 others like this.
  5. Graylorne

    Graylorne Archmage

    And remember that happy endings are also momentary. As long as you don't write 'and they lived happily ever after', for that is probably rubbish. After that temporary happy ending your mc's have a lot more living to do with ups and downs and whatever. Only you don't write about it any further.
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    Exactly right. Sometimes you don't even have to go looking :)
  7. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    I don't really care if an ending is happy, tragic, or somewhere in between as long as it fits the story well. A forced happy ending is just as miserable as an unlikely happy ending for the sake of itself alone.

    My preference, however, would lie somewhere along the lines of characters achieving happy endings at a cost. At least that is logical and offers a touch of realism.
  8. Well, yeah, I guess. Though, you can still write epilogues where you give the readers a glimpse of the hero's life after the story, just as a way of saying: "He turned out okay." I'm all for that - just because you've beaten Lord Doomdark, it doesn't mean things will just go downhill from there. He'll be unhappy on occasion, but that's hardly a tragedy.

    Anyway, happy endings aren't about making the hero eternally happy, or even letting him live a happy life on average. You can certainly do that, but it's not quite the point. Rather, happy endings are about giving the readers closure. To let them close the book without regrets and say: "That story ended well."
    Last edited: Oct 24, 2012
  9. Graylorne

    Graylorne Archmage

    I know (sigh). It's the only main point for my final Revenaunt book I haven't yet decided on: will my mc survive or not? And in both cases it won't be a truly happy ending. He has lost his brother, his wife, his health, so it can only be an ending with sadness. Happiness at a cost, as T.Allen.Smith said. And if he dies, there are his twin babies to take over, I hope, for if they die with their mother, the succession is a mess. Not very happy either.

    When I began book 1, I had written happy endings. But in the discussions with my editor and the publisher, the story went down a harder road. Ah well, you can't fight a lot of battles and not get hurt in some way.
  10. MystiqueRain

    MystiqueRain Troubadour


    I think endings can be happy or sad, depending on what the plot is about. However, what happy endings should definitely avoid is the whole "and they lived happily ever after" because seriously, I don't think that needs much explanation to why it should be avoided.

    Another option, which I favor in my story, is a bittersweet ending, a balance between happy and sad. This goes to the happiness with a cost sort of thing, so there's still a sense of loss but not a "oh look, everyone died and everyone else is depressed". Characters (and readers hopefully) would find something to be happy about at the end of the story, but that doesn't mean any of the struggles they went through is disregarded. I find that you can also gain quite some depth with a bittersweet ending if pulled off correctly.
  11. FireBird

    FireBird Troubadour

    I'm a big fan of bittersweet endings. I want that happy ending to have a big cost, or that tragic ending to have a little bit of sunshine in it.
  12. Sheriff Woody

    Sheriff Woody Troubadour

    This is one of those 'how long is a piece of string?' questions.

    The better ending is the one that best fits the story. Not all stories should end happily.
  13. dangit

    dangit Scribe

    This I agree with.
  14. JBryden88

    JBryden88 Troubadour

    I think the concept of happy endings is a misnomer.

    I think a happy ending can be tragic, pending the circumstances. Right now, the project I'm working on? Assuming I stick with it, assuming I get as far as I like, it won't have "happily ever after" and may even have a "grimdark" ending in some peoples' eyes. But ultimately, there's triumph, there's hope, and there's a sense that none of it was in vain. That to me is a perfectly legit happy ending!
  15. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    Okay. You guys seem really smart. I need help ending things. I have several novels that ended with a sort of half-thought tacked on the end because I thought it was the thing to do, but now I'm concerned about what message I've sent a reader throughout the book, and whether I fulfilled their expectations.

    Just out of curiosity, if I write a short last chapter that shows the characters situated in a new life, does that constitute a "happily ever after" sort of thing? I mean, does it make you gag? Or is that exactly what you all are saying to avoid?

    I'm just not good at wrapping things up. I get 95% of the way through a novel, and I just can't do it. I mean, I've got the gun in my hand, trained right between the eyes, and I still can't mercy kill my novel. I just can't write that last chapter, because all the ones I've done end with a marriage, person returning home, etc... a happy ending. What do you guys think?
  16. MadMadys

    MadMadys Troubadour

    An ending should serve the story it concludes. If it ends with a marriage or a return home, and that's where the story led, then be satisfied with that. Most importantly, is that the where the character's journey ends? Whatever they set out to do or overcome, have they done that? If so, how has it changed them? Are they in a better place then where they started? Since your endings are happy- by your admission- then I assume yes.

    If I was reading a story and after the main action concluded and what followed was a 2-5 paragraph "and this character is doing this and everything is great" it doesn't leave a bad taste in my mouth in particular but it does seem like the author wasn't sure about their ending. It should end like any decent song; on a note that may not seem like it should be the last thing you hear but after multiple hearings you can't picture it ending it any other way.

    For an experiment, try cutting out the 'ending' of your story a little short. Leave the marriage or happiness at home as just something the reader can picture as a natural ending in their own head. Another thing you could to mix it up is try adding a more ambiguous ending that leaves things in a certain shroud of doubt. Things may have gone well but you never know. Just play around with it and see what you like.
  17. Clarence Matthews

    Clarence Matthews Dreamer

    A happy ending, yes if the book makes me feel it's believable. I don't on the other hand overly enjoy what I would call 'disney' endings.
  18. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    I like a happy ending, in that, I like the characters to achieve their goals in the book, and end on another beginning, where the reader might have to fill in the blanks. I guess the novel I was thinking of, was one where the final scene was a young man admitting to his sister that he WOULD marry this woman he said he wouldn't, before. I never actually showed the marriage, but alluded to it, because in his coming to grips with his feelings for her, it seemed a logical place to end it. I, too, hate the Disney ending. I hated the last scene in Harry Potter, and think it would have been loads better without even mentioning the future.

    I was mainly concerned because it appears a lot of people feel strongly about a different sort of ending, and that's honestly something I never considered. I have never done a truly tragic ending, but in one novel (a stand alone romantic fantasy) I have a tragic ending planned. Sacrifice was a big theme of the novel, and I feel a reader might not be satisfied if I don't do something bittersweet, where some of the characters meet their goals, but it's at the cost of one of their lives, and though the MCs have a happy ending, a secondary POV character suffers. I'm having a hard time with it though, because I usually torture the characters throughout the book, and give them a good ending. This will be the first time I kill someone at the end, and I personally love the guy I'm killing. I still don't know whether I can do it.

    I'm going to keep thinking about all the things you guys have said. Perhaps my desire for a happy ending doesn't reflect what a reader wants, and my eyes have been opened to that as a possibility now.
  19. Chime85

    Chime85 Sage

    In the end (haha!), the ending is entirely up to you. There is nothing wrong with ending your story with a peek into the lives of the characters years after. In fact, many books have done this without any negative afterthoughts or criticism. If you're stuck on and ending for your story, try writing several variations of the ending. There is a happy one, that people know and love. There is a bad one, which has been done and well recieved. Of course, there is also the bittersweet one, like Firebird, I favor this form of ending.

    Not only write about some of the characters lives, try adding a few notes on the villians (if they survived.) If there is something you have left unsaid, could that not be weighing on the characters mind?

    Imagine, your characters have slugged through their journey, beaten the odds and the bad people of your book. Beating those hardships would often come with a cost, how is that cost tainting their happy ever after?
  20. Jess A

    Jess A Archmage

    Another thing to note is that often there are several protagonists. Some might get a happy ending and some may not.

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