photo by Hamed Saber

Today I want to talk about endings– or more specifically, an odd phenomenon about novel endings that I’ve noticed. At least, I think it’s odd. Generally speaking– and I’m sure authors of category romance books could probably speak to this issue even more than I can– there seems to be a widely-held view that happy endings are somehow inherently less ‘meaningful’ or ‘literary’ than sad ones. I remember once reading an interview with Sue Monk Kidd about her breakout debut The Secret Life of Bees in which she described struggling with the novel’s ending. Her gut as an author was pulling for a happy ending, but she felt an external pressure to make it end badly– as she put it, “I was influenced, too, by my impression (right or wrong) that “happy endings” in literary novels were often sneered at.”

Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that sad endings are not meaningful or literary or worthwhile to write and to read. Good grief no. If this past year has taught me anything, it’s that all the ‘happiness is a choice’ stuff is sometimes a big fat lie. Sure, happiness is often a choice we can make– I would even say more often than we think. But there are also times when happiness is simply not a possible option . . . times when all you can do is sit with the sad, accept that it has something important to tell you, if you have the courage to hear. It’s just this odd (to me, anyway) notion that happy endings are by nature less worthy of literary respect that I wanted to question.

One viewpoint I’ve heard sometimes is that happy endings are less ‘realistic’ than sad ones. Which honestly strikes me as doubly odd– because no ending is especially realistic, really. One of the first things you notice about life is that– except for, you know, death– it doesn’t actually contain endings at all, whether happy or sad. No one gets convenient freeze-frame and fade-to-black at an especially profound high point or a low point. The words ‘The End’ don’t magically appear in swirly fonts in the air above our heads. Even the major milestones of being done with one phase– graduation, marriage, birth– really only mean that a new phase has begun. If we’re talking realistic– if books were real life– the couple that falls into each others arms at the end of a romance could be headed for divorce within the year. The tragic hero who ends his story in a cloud of existential sorrow could wake up the next morning, win the lottery . . . meet his soulmate . . . joint the Peace Corps and decide to change the world . . .

Life is terrifying, sometimes, because it’s so utterly unpredictable. We get twists and turns and bumps in the road, and we look back and think, If only I had known . . . But of course we couldn’t have known. No one does– no one can.

Last winter, I wrote by far my most personal Writer Unboxed post ever, about losing our third baby during pregnancy– and received the most amazing outpouring of love and support from all of you. Never ever have I been more grateful to be part of the WU community. That’s why I wanted today to share our wonderful news: three weeks ago, we welcomed our gorgeous new baby boy to the family. Here he is, getting love from his big sisters just minutes after he was born.

Now, any parent will pretty much roar with laughter at the notion of birth being the start of some sort of fairy-tale happily-ever-after. (Although I have to say with of course a total lack of bias that so far our new little man is coming about as close as a human baby possibly can). As Jill Smokler said, “Being a parent is dirty and scary and beautiful and hard and miraculous and exhausting and thankless and joyful and frustrating all at once. It’s everything.” And I promise I have zero plans to write anything remotely resembling a novel based on my own life. But all the same, if I were going to frame this last year of my life as a novel? I would end it right there, with this picture, this moment.
For me, happy endings don’t take away the sad times or make them any less real. And they’re not a promise, either, that sad times or hard times or frustrating times won’t come again, because they surely will. What happy endings are for me is a reminder– a reminder that the very unpredictability of life can be a promise, as well: even in our saddest hours, pure joy may be waiting for us, somewhere up ahead, just around another bend or bump in life’s road.

What do you think about endings, happy, sad, or otherwise? What makes for the most satisfying end to a story?

About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.