The School of Happy Endings

 

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?

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    Oh, this is a wonderful post about endings and so important, Anna. I love how you captured the struggle of writing endings. I agree that we need to attempt to see endings as a resonance of the story. What concludes at the end doesn’t have to be happy or sad, but it does have to be fulfilling. I find rereading the story again and again and again helps me to discover the underbelly of the ending. And then artfully suggesting that reflection at the denouement is always a challenge that I struggle to achieve for just the right balance, but it can be an exciting one.

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    • says

      Paula has it. The ending has to be fulfilling, and I would add natural. The conclusion should fit the story that preceded it. I believe it was Stephen King who once suggested that by the final chapter a reader should be able to conclude the book themselves should they come to discover the final pages are missing.

      While that may be an exaggeration, it does illustrate a valid point.

      Orson Welles also has something to add about endings, an observation that never fails to make me smile – “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

      Congratulations, Anna. What wonderful news!

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  2. says

    This is a great post. I have had this conversation over and over, with people on both sides of the fence. But you are right – the ending isn’t the ending, it’s a resolution for what we have been through with the characters.

    Also, congrats on the baby! Probably time to update the bio :)

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  3. Densie says

    Lovely, lovely, thought-provoking post. Both on a personal and professional level. You’ve put into words what I’ve been subconsciously processing, i.e., that happy endings = fluff and tragic endings = literature. In my just-finished novel, I tried to mix it up at the end—a basically happy ending with a shadow of a sad event. Maybe the best of both worlds? Who knows. But thanks again for putting my thoughts into words. And congratulations…let the baby games begin!

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  4. says

    Great thoughts, Anna, not just about writing but more about life itself. I’m going to send this to my daughter with four kids and five cats stuck indoors in the frigid Midwest today. Your words will touch her, too, I’m sure.

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    • says

      Oh my– 4 kids and 5 cats! I don’t have cats but I do sympathize with being stuck indoors with little ones. :) Best wishes to you and your daughter and I’m honored you wanted to share the post with her!

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  5. Carmel says

    So happy to hear your good news and see such a lovely picture of you and your family!

    As in your personal story, I like an ending that surprises and pleases but most of all is hopeful. As writers, why would we ever want to take away hope?

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  6. says

    Congratulations, Anna, on the birth of you child. And thanks for sharing your photo with the WU community. You raise an excellent question. I am a big fan of ambiguous endings because life is like that. What I strive for, rather than a choice between happy and sad, is an ending that brings resolution to the story. The ending must answer the major questions and validate the theme of the story. I think the problem some writers, including me, have with happy endings (especially in movies) is that they are manufactured in service of the mistaken belief that one must leave the audience happy. If a happy ending grows organically out of the story I am fine with that. It is an interesting question and I am sure opinions abound on the subject.

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    • says

      I definitely agree, CG– I do enjoy happy endings myself, and yet I’ve seen movies where a happy ending felt utterly unsatisfying, because it was far too easy and unrealistic resolution of the characters’ struggles.

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  7. says

    First, let me congratulate you and your family on your wonderful new addition! Here’s a secret that mothers of boys know: little boys love their mommies to pieces!

    As for your article, I love that you are addressing an issue that has perplexed me as well. I lose patience with the idea that for a novel to achieve greatness the characters must suffer terribly and end tragically. A story’s resolution should be the one that best fits the plot, be it sad, happy, or bittersweet. I suspect for most of us it is the bittersweet comes closest to our own realities.

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    • says

      Thanks so much, Linda. So far he’s a mommy’s boy– though of course that may also be because I’m the food source. :)

      That is my feeling, too– great novels end in a way that best fits the plot and is true to the characters’ journey. Happy endings and sad endings can both feel unsatisfying if that’s not the case.

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  8. says

    Endings are very hard to write and you’ve captured just one of the many reasons why. I like the bittersweet. Not blissful perfection, not utter degradation, but happiness despite loss. Those, I think, are the most true to life. Congratulations on your new little boy. :)

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  9. says

    First, congratulations on your healthy and happy new baby! So cool. Second, your line ” 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.”
    That is what I think is important to remember – there will of course be sad times in everyone’s life, no doubt. But that doesn’t mean they will continue forever nor that the happy times will continue endlessly either. It will be a mixture. That’s just life. We have to make it “real”. Just because a book has a happy ending doesn’t necessarily imply the rest of the character’s life will be bells and butterflies.
    Thanks so much for a great post.
    Patti

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  10. says

    Happy ending or sad, it’s a question that will endlessly bedevil writers. My take is to avoid going for the “easy” ending, go for the surprising, unexpected twist that will leave readers exclaiming “Wow!”. Whether it’s happy or sad is less important, just give the reader an ending for them to remember you by.

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    • says

      That’s a good way of putting it, Tony– I think the ‘easy’ answer in any aspect of storytelling, endings or anything else, is rarely the most powerful one.

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  11. says

    I am a sucker for happy endings, but even the saddest ending is tolerable if there is hope. I’ve struggled with the ending with my historical because I thought I left my characters in a place of hope, but knowing history, it is a certain death for them (several years later) if they remain there. I don’t intend for them to stay there, but it’s not part of *this* story. A couple of readers were so upset, I have to re-evaluate moving them.

    Congratulations on your new baby boy!!!

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    • says

      Historical novels are truly challenging that way. And it can be a tricky balance, being true to your story while also understanding of readers’ wishes. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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  12. says

    Anna, I am so glad you tackled this subject. I’ve been a fan of Romance novels for years and get really tired of hearing people tell me it is not “real” literature. Some very profound stuff has been written in the Romance genre. These days I write Western Romance and I love finding ways to take dire situations and turn them into meaningful life lessons that end, if not happily ever after, at least positively.

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    • says

      “Some very profound stuff has been written in the Romance genre.” Absolutely couldn’t agree more, Christine! I don’t write in the romance genre myself, but I truly think it’s a genre that by and large deserves more respect than it often gets.

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  13. says

    Congratulations, Anna! That picture is adorable.

    If you were to freeze life at this moment of happiness, think of all the future moments of joy you would miss. A happy ending can be followed by even greater happiness, no?

    Here’s something about happiness that has always struck me: It brings with it sadness. I call it The Wedding Effect. Why on the happiest of days do we cry? Why light memory candles? It’s because happiness makes room and releases long-suppressed sorrow.

    That, in a way, is why happy endings can be as powerful as sad ones…and why sad ones can sometimes seem no more than a device. When a happy ending arrives, it can (paradoxically) provoke tears. Now that’s an ending!

    For me, then, the question is how to produce that effect. Long struggle, palpable need and losses along the way are part of it. Another is finally evoking the most powerful emotions of our human experience: forgiveness, farewell and welcome home.

    To your son, welcome kid. Some day you will also feel the joy of a heartfelt welcome home. Your mama will be there waiting for you.

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    • says

      Thank you, Don! So many profound thoughts as always. Of course I would never wish to freeze life here– only keep the moment in my memory, like a favorite scene in a much-loved book. :)

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  14. says

    Congratulations on the birth of your third child! I think I understand exactly what you mean when you say that you’d end the novel of your current journey with that birth. Obviously stories must end and the birth of your third does provide a moving tribute to the loss of your other child. You didn’t let that loss stop you from trying again. You didn’t let the grief overwhelm you. It’s a powerful tribute to the human spirit. And, with the start of a new life, you’re ready to begin collecting material for the sequel!

    Enjoy these precious times!

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    • says

      Thank you so much, Kim. That’s a really lovely way of putting it– we’re all moving forward into the ‘sequel’, which I’m sure will be happy times and hard times, just as life always is. But always lots of hope and love.

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  15. says

    What a great post. Totally agree with you. Happy endings are just where the story happened to stop at the moment.

    No one should ever feel shame or conflict over ending a book at a point when characters are happy. It is no less literary and no less meaningful if the people are happy. Thanks for trying to dispel this notion that literary means gravitas and sadness. The truth is, it doesn’t have to end unhappily to be literary.

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  16. says

    I appreciated your blog to HEA or not.

    Over the holidays I watched Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Fran Lebowitz. Here is her take on ‘happiness’.

    “We live in a world where people think happiness is a condition, but it’s not; it’s a sensation. It’s momentary. So do I have little moments of happiness? Yes. Is that my general condition? No. Is that anyone’s general condition? I can’t believe that’s the case. Are there people that are generally more buoyant than I am? Yes, most people. I don’t think of myself as being unhappy, I think of myself as being morose, but it’s just natural, it’s not my circumstances so much. I can be in bad circumstances like anyone else, or I can be in good circumstances, but in general, if you broke into my apartment and I didn’t know you were there, you would not see me whistling around the house.”

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  17. says

    Anna, your son has the added gift of two adoring older sisters. Much happiness to all of you.

    Stories. I want a happy ending but only if it’s believable. For me to believe, I need to see the character, or in a romance the couple, tested by fire. I want to see them develop the tools needed to build their own happy ending. I must have proof that they can use those tools effectively so let me see how they cope when life brings destruction. If they rise to the challenge, I feel confident that they can handle whatever obstacles lurk in their future.

    Same holds true for a story with a single protagonist. Does anyone remember how the old Mary Tyler Moore television show opened? The spunky, inexperienced girl from the Midwest stands in the middle of NYC traffic and confidently tosses her hat in the air while music plays and the lyrics remind us of the theme of the whole series: You’re gonna make it after all.

    In addition to being a romance novelist, I’m also a wedding officiant. I bring Happily Ever After to life. In getting to know my couples, I get a sense of the coping tools each has developed and a sense of the emotional conflict likely to cause them friction. These are real people. Of course I want their story to end happily. I’m not naïve. I know that won’t always be the case. But, by weaving their love story into the ceremony – obstacles and failures included – the married guests remember the power that comes from believing that all things are possible. The unmarried guests who would like to change that status listen to the story as a how-to. There is power in a happy ending, in a believable happy ending.

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  18. says

    What a lovely post – and so true as well! As much as I appreciate a good, sad ending, I love the fuzzy feeling of a happy one very much. Even though my first book has a sequel, I could not resist making the ending sweet and happy. At least, mostly.

    Congratulations on your new little man, he is so cute, and he will be such a blessing to your family, I’m sure. God bless you!!

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  19. says

    First of all, congratulations on your new blessing. You’re right, they’re worth every agrivation. After all, that’s why God made therapy. As for the happy vs. sad ending, here’s where I stand. A happy ending is simply a matter of closing a story. Nothing else to think about. Until the sequal.

    As for sad endings, they do replicate life more accurately. Our lives, after all, are marked by milestones of sadness and happiness both, but it’s the sad moments that seem to stand out. Why? Because it’s the sad moments that bring about the most change. That’s when we grow. We didn’t experience growth when we got that first job. But we grew like hell when we got fired.

    Sad endings invite the reader to experience the character’s growing moment. Yes, we are sad. Someone died. A home is lost. A planet destroyed. But we must be left with the sense that our hero is not destroyed as well in the process. She will move on after the tragedy. If the book is well-written, she’s changed throughout. And somehow, the person she is at the tragic ending is better than the person she was when all was happiness and sunshine.

    Good example. I just finished Ender’s Game (I’m a bit behind with the new releases). One could argue that Ender experienced a sad ending. He’d killed billions of intelligent life forms. But he grew. The writing at the end of the book is spectacular in the way the author gets inside Ender’s head. He’s less happy than at any other point in the book. But he’s grown. He understands more. And even if Card hadn’t slipped in the new “queen,” I would have been satisfied with Ender’s revelation, even if it were a personal tragedy for him.

    Thank you for unlimited word counts in these replies. Enjoy the baby while he still can’t correct you.

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    • says

      Thanks, Ron!

      “it’s the sad moments that bring about the most change. That’s when we grow. ” I do agree with that, completely. Not sure I would say that for me that equates to sad moments standing out more than happy ones–I’d say that for me they’re about equal. But I’m sure everyone is different, that’s what makes life interesting!

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  20. Kate Klein says

    Great topic, Anna. A writing teacher of mine once pointed out that endings–happy or sad–pull more weight in a short story, whereas a novel can be more open-ended. Some of the best-loved novels out there–and this teacher pointed out the Brothers Karamazov–don’t even have a distinctly happy or sad ending but rather let the main characters float out into the next phase of their lives, which the narrative doesn’t show. Still, it’s completely satisfying, as if reading a literary novel is like walking along with another person for a while, experiencing her life, then parting at a crossroads.

    Congratulations on the new storyline that’s entered your own personal novel.

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  21. Linda Mae Wolter Carlson says

    I loved this post & that you started with a sad beginning & then a happy middle, (congratulations) and a satisfying ending! All the elements of a good story. You also made me think of our own sad beginning to 2013: our 3rd son, of 4 passed away! But the story doesn’t end there because life goes on and so we must also. I hope the rest of the story is wonderful…somehow! Much love <3

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  22. says

    Hi Anna,

    I find an ending satisfied when I feel like a character (or characters) has undergone transformation, be that good or bad. If the story is about someone driven to the brink of murder and I meet them as a loving, church-going mother who helps the poor, then that’s a satisfying ending (though an author who writes such a tale would have one heck of a middle to write).

    I also don’t need endings that are actually “the end”, because I like fiction that models life: zooming in on a significant segment of someone’s life to share something universal and worthwhile. An ending that could itself be a beginning is satisfying because, to me, that’s exactly how life is.

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  23. says

    Anna, thank you for sharing your wonderful news (congratulations) and for analyzing the merit of happy endings.

    I think that life is hard enough with the amount of sadness, failure, heartbreak and general personal setbacks we have to endure either on a daily, monthly or yearly basis. I enjoy writing that doesn’t necessarily pander to my need for a happy ending, but chooses one that fits the arc of the characters.

    I’ve noticed also the trend toward killing off lovable main characters and I wish that I could stay longer in their voice and find out what would happen if the author hadn’t killed them off in favor of letting a more villainous person live.

    This inspires me to reach for a more positive space, when and if the character journeys ask for it.

    There isn’t anything uncool about allowing for a positive outcome, even if it isn’t “realistic” or what life gives us most of the time.

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    • says

      “There isn’t anything uncool about allowing for a positive outcome, even if it isn’t “realistic” or what life gives us most of the time.”

      That’s a good point, and I completely agree– stories have a huge power to cheer and uplift, and that can be just as valuable as strict realism.

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  24. says

    There is nothing worse then a bad ending. I have read some really good books but then I end up being totally disappointed with the ending. Just like a movie, I wont want to watch or read something again unless it really ended well.

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    • says

      Tanya, I’ve read those books, too, where the ending leaves me completely unsatisfied, and I agree–they can turn a great book into one I don’t really want to pick up again.

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    • says

      Thank you, Therese! I would say that neat and tidy endings really are ‘unrealistic’ since life so seldom is either tidy or neat– even at its happiest moments. At least, that’s true of my life. :)

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  25. Kathy Daché says

    Anna
    This is such a lovely and fitting post for the New Year. Maybe I am sentimental, but I always love to hear about happy endings. They satisfy a childish longing that I have that good should ultimately prevail. I remember your post from last year. Has an entire year really passed since then? It is a victory to everyone who grieved with you to see that photograph of your two little girls with their new baby brother. Happiness, even though fleeting, riddled with imperfections, tumbled with new worries, is a triumph. It is delicate, fragile, and it trumps sadness every time.
    Blessings on your family during this messy, happy season.
    KDache’

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  26. says

    Congrats on your new baby boy! :D

    I really don’t like the idea that “happy endings are somehow inherently less ‘meaningful’ or ‘literary’ than sad ones”. And it ties into the entire idea of serious/depressing/sad stories in general being thought of as more important. Happiness has it’s place, too, and sometimes readers need to be uplifted.

    The quality of the ending is really dependent on the plot and tone of the book. Whether the ending should be happy, miserable, hopeful, sad, or ambiguous really depends on the story, and I think it’s important for authors to trust their gut on what works best and not be pressured into any ending that doesn’t suite.

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  27. says

    Congratulations to you and your family on this wonderful baby boy! No doubt he will grow up thinking he has three mothers, which isn’t a bad thing. :)

    As for endings, I’m not inclined to be decisive about which I like more or less. As a writer and book reviewer, I find myself often pulling for a hopeful and happy ending all the while knowing that isn’t where the writer is taking me. I believe strongly that the story writes itself as we move through the lives of our characters. The ending is theirs to write, and usually we lose our control as writers near the ending. Pressure should never play a role in how we end our stories.

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    • says

      Yes, that was one of the first things my husband and I said: this little guy is going to have 3 mommies! :)

      That’s a very interesting perspective of losing our control as writers once we get to the end–lines up with the Stephen King quote mentioned above, about how the reader should be able to fill in the ending, even if the final pages of a book are missing.

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  28. says

    I’ve written both happy and less happy endings, but they always come with a sense of hope. I like the hope, as one of the other commenters said. Then again, fulfilling endings are all that I require in the books I read. :) Congratulations on your growing family and opening a discussion that matters. Thanks. :)

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  29. says

    Congratulations, Anna, on the birth of your son. How lucky he is to be born into such a loving family.

    Your post is very accurate and highlights what a lot of writers agonise over.

    Best wishes
    Sandy

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  30. says

    The ending can be happy, sad, or neither. Don’t make the ending sad because you’re tired of happy endings, and don’t suck-up to the happy ending readers either. Find the best fit for the journey. As a reader, I normally look for some type of resolve to a story. That’s more important then happy vs. sad endings. Sometimes the price to resolve the crisis is great. A sad ending will probably be fitting. Let the ending fit the resolve. I love happy endings when they’re appropriate. I hate sad ending stories, but some of them are truly priceless.

    I still wanna headbutt Jodi Picoult for writing a beautiful story with a sad ending.

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    • says

      “Sometimes the price to resolve the crisis is great.” That’s a very good point, Brian, and I think a key ingredient in all types of endings. Especially sad ones, but I think even a satisfying happy ending should acknowledge that often resolutions have to come with a price.

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  31. Sarah McGuire says

    I loved this post. Happy endings can be trite, but they can also be beautiful and powerful.

    On of my favorite quotes from Tolkien is about the happy endings in (non-Disney) fairy tales: “It is a sudden and miraculous grace… it does not deny sorrow and failure. It denies universal final defeat … giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief.”

    Congratulations on your own taste joy these past few weeks!

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  32. says

    Congratulations, Anne! What a beautiful family!

    Endings are hard – just as hard as beginnings! But despite the pain and tragedy and angst that can happen in a novel (I write MG and YA) I have left some things in my own books a bit up in the air, resolving some, but always leaving with a feeling of HOPE. As well as the satisfaction/fulfillment that the characters have grown and learned and changed in some way.

    My book THE HEALING SPELL gets the most letters from fans/kids/readers who want to KNOW FOR SURE what happens to the characters. They tell me they want another book and they often give me their ideas about what they want to happen next! Their letters are a thrill and a joy, and often bring me tears. Yes, I think kids want everything resolved and I don’t intentionally leave them hanging and upset when they read the last pages, but I do leave them with hope and faith for a better future.

    All my best to you, new Mommy! :-)

    ~Kimberley

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    • says

      Thank you, Kimberley! Even though your fans/kids/readers may want to know ‘for sure’ what happens to the characters, I think you’ve given them a gift by letting them imagine it for themselves. Firing the readers’ imaginations is one of the marks of a great book!

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  33. says

    Great post, Anna!

    This is something I struggle with when writing endings–what is the most satisfying way to wrap this up? And if there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that there are infinite ideas and expectations among readers as to how a story should end. So in the end, (pun intended) I write them for myself.

    The expression “the story is the boss” couldn’t be more true, and that’s what guides me as I write. (and read) It’s always telling when a writer has tried to shoehorn an expected ending (happy or sad) into an otherwise great story, and that’s something I try to avoid.

    As you and others have already said so well, endings don’t have to be happy, sad or even an “ending.” So many great stories “end” with unresolved issues, but that’s life. “No Country for Old Men” comes to mind. And I hate to use this old cliché, as it’s one of my pet peeves, but if the ending is true to the story, “it is what it is.” [cringes]

    Congratulations on your new arrival, and best to you and your family!

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  34. says

    Those who know me would be surprised that I’m saying this, but there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending–and often there is something wrong with a negative one. The movies The Mist and Seven Monkeys come to mind. Right when there could have been a happy (or, at least, happier) ending amidst all the incredible awfulness and suffering already, they hit us with an ending that steals the hard-won joy and force-feeds us the suffering we all knew was going to come. The problem with that ending is that it wasn’t a surprise–and I felt cheated out of my eleven bucks. A better ending would have been some sort of positive outcome–even if it was at the cost of the main character’s life (a la The Shining–the book, anyway). But the ending of The Mist was like reading Job and like hearing the saddest story of someone you already know. The ending of Seven Monkeys is that the world sucks and that killer viruses and people are out there to get us–stuff that we already know. Better endings would be a little more of a surprise because the movie has led us to expect the worst–so surprise us (and please us and satiate us) with something better, and make us feel happier, especially about spending that eleven bucks.

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  35. Julie Knowles says

    Congratulations. That’s wonderful news.

    There is always one novel that comes to mind when I think of endings and the need for them to be satisfying, whatever the emotion. It has to pay-off the set up, especially where characters’ capabilities are concerned.

    If a character has demonstrated certain abilities, beliefs and traits over an entire novel, they have to be true to those in the end. Isn’t that the point of the ending?

    The novel I felt let readers down in its ending was The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which I read years ago and still haven’t forgotten as a lesson in how to not fulfil reader expectations. It was sad, fine, but it wasn’t fulfilling. The characters had demonstrated capabilities that, suddenly, they didn’t act on. I was so upset by the ending. I re-read it three times. I then googled to see what otehrs were saying and discovered it was an issue.

    I also read somewhere that the author himself explained the ending by saying that life isn’t always about happy endings, or life is a bit awful or something to that effect, so you shouldn’t expect a happy ending in a novel. He has a point, but in fiction (as opposed to life) you have a choice about the ending and it must be satisfying.

    I also read an interview with Stephen King about the ending of 11 22 63. Initially he had an ending where (spoilers) the two leads don’t meet again. His son told him it was terrible and wouldn’t give closure to the readers. So he changed the ending to be slightly happier. Not totally happy (I was going for way happier), but satisfying enough. It was at least true to the characters.

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  36. says

    Congratulations on the baby!

    I agree with what a lot of the comments before mine have said: the ending should fit the story. I like both sad and happy endings, to be honest, but it bothers me when a novel that was sad or tragic suddenly has an everything-works-out, fairy-tale ending. There needs to at least be a hopeful note throughout the plot in order for an ending like that to fit that type of story.

    But, at the same time, I don’t like reading a novel that has a hopeful, happy tone throughout and then ends with an overly tragic event – unless that novel is to be followed up by a sequel. I’m willing to make an exception in that case, because the sequel will either give me the type of ending I was originally expecting, or it will better explain why the first novel had to end the way that it did.

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  37. says

    A belated note of congratulation, Anna! Your kids are so beautiful.

    You don’t need to sell me on the need for books which provide valid and earned happy endings. (Not all, of course.) I’m coping with my usual case of Seasonal Affective Disorder right now–quite manageable with exercise and the lamp, etc. Nevertheless, if all I could read or watch was stories with deep and sad conclusions, my family would suffer.

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  38. says

    so glad i saved the email for this post and finally got to it –

    so beautifully experienced and expressed, and what great congratulations on ya’ll’s new boy! your girls looked very pleased too :-)

    and your post is so meaningful also for bringing up the whole question of happy endings

    it seems in fiction at least, there has to be some sort of resting point to end on; even in existential lit & plays the world ends on a resting point of believing there’s no final point – the belief being its own stop point

    i’m more as you say near the end, happy moments, and happy endings in fiction poetry film etc are reminders that those moments exist

    for that, thank you so much, all the best for your growing family :-)

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  39. says

    I prefer happy endings, but I’ll accept near happy and even one with only one thing left unanswered. I don’t remember the name of the book I read so long ago, but I’ll never forget that it stopped, not what I would call ended. It was like the author was leaving the ending up to you. It was terrible. I could think of six ways to go.
    Maybe the author was trying to be creative with that “ending”, but I thought it ruined the whole book.

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