10.17.2017

Happy Ending

The idea of ending a novel happily displeases many writers. The entire book has been filled with struggles, goes one argument, so why do the heroes get to ride off into the sunset? Others point out that life seldom provides happy endings, so why should a narrative that is trying to mirror life? It may be that you think such an ending is not worthy of your endeavor.

The reason for all the carping is, of course, that readers overwhelmingly favor a happy ending. A novel is meant to affirm life, in this view. If I close the book wanting to kill myself, what good does that do? I already know life sucks. Plus, many readers feel that the heroes deserve a reward after all their trials. If you are employed by a publishing house, your view may be more mercenary. You know that happy endings sell.

For that very reason, I advise most writers to consider a happy ending. Yet I also enjoy novels that are dark, that don’t end well or have endings that are ambiguous at best. It depends on the book.

The true question is: have you been honest enough with your characters that you feel a bleak ending is justified? If you have spent the entire book creating vivid action scenes in which the protagonist is wielding a modern version of the sword Excalibur, you are already committed to flights of fantasy. If you love escapism and entertainment, that’s fine. Just don’t pretend that the novel will somehow become more true to life by tacking on a sad ending.

On the other hand, in Under the Volcano Malcolm Lowry spends the entire book exploring the Consul’s terrible alcoholic journey. A happy ending for that book would be weird. That guy will not be frolicking in the sands of Cancun any time soon. The ending is sad because, the way the story is heading, the Consul has no other way out but death. The power of the novel comes not from its ending, but from everything that has propelled him forward all the way through.

Exercise: If you flinch at happy endings no matter what type of book, you might want to consider writing alternate endings. Writers do that all the time. Using the threads that constitute the core of the novel, run them through happy and sad scenarios. It may be that you end up in the middle, with an ending that is ambiguous. Just be aware that you may, in effect, be shrugging off any moral implications of what the characters did during the book.

“To move the world, we must first move ourselves.”
—Socrates

 Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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