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.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,