Endings, Happy or Otherwise

Why do we dislike happy endings?  More importantly, why do we equate them with shallowness or fluff?  It’s an important question.

For the record, I like happy endings.  I don’t always need them.  Nor do I think they are always dramatically appropriate.  Some stories are bound to have sad or ambiguous endings, and that’s just fine with me.  I don’t always need the hero to find love, the bad guy to get his comeuppance, and everybody getting a free puppy by the end.  But I do like it when it works and when it is justified within the story itself.

Happy endings will always be seen as “safer” and “less bold” (as a recent review for Divine Misfortune I stumbled across put it) by a lot of people.  There’s not much a writer can do to get around that.  It’s largely a matter of preference, and that’s often the way it works.  We all have our pet peeves, our hot buttons, our preferred likes.  Nothing wrong with that.  I happen to prefer stories where, even if the good guys don’t win, there’s some element of hope for tomorrow.  It’s a preference.  I get that.

But too often, it seems as if we reflexively find happy endings to be a less interesting, less dramatic choice.  There’s some logic to that.  A happy ending can often seem like a copout.  Life is messy and complicated, and an unapologetic happy ending tends to ring untrue to us.  It probably stems from the fairy tales we are told as children.  “And they lived happily ever after . . . ” is probably the biggest lie in fiction.  But it’s not a lie because the characters end up happy.  It’s a lie because it implies that their lives are over and nothing else interesting ever happens to them again.

Maybe that’s why we dislike them as well.  We all know life goes on, that it is full of ups and downs, and that happiness is a fragile state of being.  We all learn that there is no promise of happiness tomorrow and that things are far more likely to go wrong than right in the long run.  And if you don’t know that, congratulations, you are either living a charmed life or completely oblivious.  Either way, you might be considered one of the lucky ones.

I think happy endings get a bad rap because of that word ENDINGS.  It implies that since the story is over, there is nothing more on the horizon for the characters.  They all get together for the after party, shake hands, and disappear into the ether.  It’s hard not to see that when so many characters seem like they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves once the story ends.  Fairy tale characters are most prone to this.  Prince Charming is designed to fight dragons, kiss the princess, be a dreamboat, and little else.  Cinderella is made to be downtrodden and then whisked away to the palace.  The villains are made to be villains.  The extras exist only to play their part and gracefully depart the stage.  Once the story is over, these characters have no reason to keep going.

Perhaps this is why so many writers and readers of late have taken to expanding on these characters.  It’s an interesting idea, to question what happens to Snow White after the wicked queen is dead or why the evil sorceress bothered to curse anyone in the first place.  It rarely ends up appealing to me.  Maybe because I find these characters don’t have enough going on to really justify it in the end.  I know a lot of writers earn plenty of praise and commercial success by tapping into this zeitgeist, and good for them.  Sometimes, they’re interesting (ala the critically acclaimed Fables comic title).  And sometimes, they seem like so much bad fanfiction (ala Once Upon a Time . . .).  But either way, they tend not to be able to hold my interest.

(Also, notice I said BAD fanfiction.  I have nothing against fanfiction, and while the majority of it isn’t very good, that’s no different than most fiction.)

I usually have happy endings in my stories, but I’ve always thought it was obvious too that life would continue for these characters.  They aren’t on a permanent upswing with nothing but sunshine and rainbows in their future.  There will be further trials and tribulations.  There always are.  I’d like to think I imbue my characters with enough life and personality that they don’t seem to stop existing on the last page.  But I can’t blame some folks for feeling as if it isn’t as sophisticated as an author who might spell that out.

Another part of it though is that we’re so accustomed to being fed (and sometimes, force fed) characters that it can seem wrong to leave them behind.  Everybody seems to want to know the origin of their favorite characters, and they usually want to know how that character meets their end.  Comic book superheroes, for instance, love rebooting characters every now and then so that they can retell the origin of when Batman first met Superman or create a new version of Spider-Man’s origin.  They also love telling possible final stories for the characters, where Superman finally dies or Wonder Woman’s final battle against evil.  It’s only when the character is dead and buried that we safely feel like labeling their story over.

Perhaps my favorite example of Tragedy and Death trumping Comedy and Life is found in Up.  The movie begins with a touching montage of the lives of a couple, from childhood to the death of one of them.  It is, indeed, a beautiful piece of storytelling, and it ends on a sad (but inevitable) note.  The rest of the story is about Carl dealing with his grief and loneliness.  It’s about his obsession with the past and regrets he carries.  And, then, near the end, the true theme of the story shows itself.  Life is grand.  It’s full of joy and pain.  It isn’t what you want it to be, and it rarely will be.  The tragedy of Carl’s character at this point isn’t that he misses his wife.  It’s that he’s letting that pain keep him from living onward.  That moment in the film, when his wife reaches out from beyond with a message scrawled in a book that makes him realize this, is so very powerful to me that I still tear up a bit just writing about it.  But for most people, it seems it will never be as powerful as the opening montage, which is there deliberately to play upon our perceptions and to lure us into Carl’s point of view so that when the revelation comes later, we’ll be just as surprised and emotionally invigorated as Carl.

Up is a movie that’s all about life’s ups and downs, and that’s it’s most powerful message.  Yet when we talk about its sophisticated elements, we don’t often talk about the joyful ones, the hopeful ones.  The ending, as Carl, Russell, and Dug sit on the curb, counting cars, having a genuine good moment that each of them so desperately have been missing from their lives, doesn’t say there will be no more pain in the future.  It’s the end of this story, and it’s a happy one.  But it’s not THE END.

Happily ever after doesn’t exist.  But happy endings do because most stories have to end at some point.  If the writer happens to choose to leave when things are looking rosy, it isn’t always a copout.  Sometimes, it’s exactly the right place to leave.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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11 Comments

  1. Posted February 19, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I prefer bittersweet endings; they’re more realistic. It’s why I like Empire Strikes Back more than Return of the Jedi. Jedi it’s all dancing and singing and fireworks going off. Even Vader dying is OK because now he’s a ghost–and thanks to the Special Special Edition he’s even younger than his son! Whereas Empire it’s Luke and Leia staring out the window of the frigate while Lando and Chewie go off on an uncertain mission. Luke’s lost his hand and found out Vader is his father and Han is going to Jabba the Hutt but Luke, Leia, and Chewie didn’t get captured by the Empire and the Rebel fleet is still out there. You win some, you lose some–that’s real life.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted February 19, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      That’s my point though. The ending for Return of the Jedi might not be as obviously bittersweet, but it’s still only a moment in time. There’s no indication that there won’t be more struggles to come along.

      Every ending is bittersweet once you understand that.

      • Posted February 20, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

        Yes if you want to get all Buddhist about it all things are impermanent–until the sun expands and swallows the Earth and then everything will be gone forever.

        There might be no indication there won’t be struggles ahead but there’s also no indication there will be struggles ahead. As I said it’s all singing and dancing and fireworks going off. Then the music comes up and the credits roll and those of us who aren’t into navel gazing go home with a warm fuzzy that the scrappy Rebels defeated the evil Empire despite that there was a whole Imperial fleet still out there and hundreds of planets still occupied by Imperial troops. No one cares about that.

        There’s the problem with overly happy endings; they encourage you to just shut your brain down because everything seemed to work out fine, so why worry? A bittersweet ending causes you to contemplate more because everything didn’t work out so neatly.

  2. G Lowry
    Posted February 19, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    In books with good characters, endings, as you said, should be a point that an author has decided to momentarily stop writing about his characters. They should be transition between what has just happened and what will happen, even if what will happen is never written.

    As far as happy versus unhappy endings, I think the difference in ending preference is also a difference in outlook. Some people seem to think that there is inherent nobility in pain and suffering or that a person’s true potential can only be reached through some horrible experience. I happen to disagree–I think a person’s reaction to pain and suffering can demonstrate nobility, but not the pain and suffering itself, and that experience of any kind can help a person reach his potential. This difference of opinion heavily weights the opinions of those who prefer happy or unhappy endings.

    Also, the differences between happy endings and sad endings are less about the actual situations and more about the characters’ and readers’ reactions to the situations at that time. Most times, the exact same situation can have both happy and sad versions. If the characters dwell on their losses and how hopeless things seem, it tends to be an unhappy ending; if the characters use their losses to motivate themselves, learn, grow, and look to the future with hope, it tends to be a happy, if sometimes poignant, ending. Of course, authors can manipulate their readers’ emotional states independently from their characters states, too, and some situations are so bad that a believable character may not be able to find hope, but I think those situations are the exception in life as well as fiction.

    A preference for happy or unhappy endings says a lot about a person. I happen to like what my love of happy endings says about me, no matter what more serious people think.

    By the way, I stumbled across your blog recently and have greatly enjoyed your posts as well as your books (I believe I have read, and have purchased copies of them all, including your recent short stories). I look forward to finding new A. Lee Martinez books every time I visit the book store, even though I know I’m doomed to disappointment most of the time. Please keep writing!

    *Of course, all this is my own opinion (you should listen though; it’s supported by tons of anecdotal evidence and hearsay and things I’ve read off the internet).

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted February 19, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      Great comment. Thanks.

      I agree that perception is such an important factor. My third novel, A NAMELESS WITCH, gets consistently mixed reactions from readers, and it seems to depend entirely on how the reader approaches the story.

  3. Charles Harrington
    Posted February 19, 2014 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I think you did rather well with A Nameless Witch. It wasn’t the ending that I wanted for her, but it was the ending that was right for the story. Someone who wins the day because they have the ability to see and appreciate things as they truly are (my interpretation)… and also happens to be a cannibal… probably doesn’t get a nice stroll in the sunset with the Knight. Conversely, I had a hard time accepting Troy and Helen’s romantic ending because I didn’t believe the perfect, attractive guy dates a half cow. It took me a while to come around to the fact that yes, in this world, this pretty much perfect guy would be able to look past that.

    To the earlier commenter: I personally prefer Return of the Jedi and I would say it has a tremendously bittersweet ending (what with a major death and a funeral pyre).

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted February 19, 2014 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      Helen and Troy plays with some commonly accepted conventions. The story of beauty and the beast told with flipped gender roles (and no magical transformation into a more acceptable form) is pretty rare in fiction. That’s one of the big reasons I wrote that story.

    • Posted February 20, 2014 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      “To the earlier commenter: I personally prefer Return of the Jedi and I would say it has a tremendously bittersweet ending (what with a major death and a funeral pyre).”

      And as I said in my comment even that moment of sadness is overwritten because Vader gets to come back as a young ghost.

  4. Mark
    Posted February 21, 2014 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    If you guys are going to have the argument about Empire versus Jedi, it’s important to remember the thousands of independent contractors that were killed when the uncompleted second Death Star was destroyed. There’s your bittersweet ending.

  5. Mark
    Posted February 21, 2014 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    I think it’s bizarre that anyone would critique the ending of Divine Misfortune. It’s the single best use of a Deux Ex Machina I have ever encountered, and perfectly illustrated Aristotle’s principle of “surprising yet inevitable,” which should be the goal of very ending. It’s easy to make any ending sad, since you just have to kill somebody off, or have things not work out for the main characters. As was alluded to in an earlier comment, all stories ultimately end in death. Being a writer is about making choices, and one of the most important choices is when to end the story. If the events of the story can only lead to tragedy, you end with death. If the story is about two people falling in love, you end with them being in love. If the story is about asking questions more than answering them, an ambiguous ending is usually the way to go. I suppose I prefer happy endings, but mostly I just want ones that feel true to the story.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted February 21, 2014 at 1:36 am | Permalink

      I’m obviously on the same page since I wrote the book.

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