I stumbled upon some interesting information this past weekend: The author and screenwriter of Dances with Wolves, Michael Blake, has written a follow-up novel and is currently working on a screenplay adaptation for it. The Holy Road (2004), another epic tale, picks up where John Dunbar (Dances with Wolves), Stands with a Fist, Three Bears, Wind in His Hair, Kicking Bird and Smiles A Lot left off — deep in struggles with the white man in an effort to save the Sioux way of life.
I have to admit to having mixed feelings about this development. While a part of me is seriously interested in buying this book, another part shrinks at the thought of reading the kind of novel Blake must bring to the table – one of struggle upon struggle, of terror and eventual diminishment for the Sioux. Really, do I want to sign up for such an unhappy story, regardless of how beautifully it may be written or its promise to reunite me with beloved characters? Or am I just brainwashed by the Cinderella Syndrome with its promise of happily ever after? What does an author owe readers, anyway?
When you pick up a book, you’re signing on for a particular type of read. When you pick up a romance novel, you know you’re going to get chemistry, passion, love and definitely a H.E.A. You’ll expect a journey of some sort for the main character in most children’s books, a black moment and finally a H.E.A. (forget for a sec about Lemony Snicket…). I’d argue that fantasy and science fiction novels also have a built-in expectation for a H.E.A., as the typical setup for these stories is good vs. evil, with evil generally taking the fall in the end. Women’s fiction? Woman conquers demons, moves on to live a fuller, richer life. Mystery suspense? Good guys track bad guys, bad guys are caught, good guy gets a raise or a girl or a guy or something…but it’s happy. (Shh, I haven’t read very many mystery suspense novels.) Sure, there are exceptions to these standard formulas, but this is generally the way it goes.
Which still leaves a lot of room for unhappy writings in lit fiction, historical fiction and just plain old gritty adult fiction. But even authors in these genres are likely to pull a H.E.A. out of their respective hats, because choosing otherwise usually means the protagonist fails in his/her goal – not a terribly popular formula with the masses. Then again, authors of The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough), Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck), Lord of the Flies (William Golding), Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell) and even my favorite, Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger), embraced UN-H.E.A. and in doing so created classic works of fiction. And, of course, there is Lemony Snicket.
But what reward does the UN-H.E.A. bring to the reader? If the protagonist fails at achieving his/her goal, as the Sioux must since they will find themselves defeated in the end, is there any way to leave the reader with a feeling of hope or satisfaction at having spent several hours (or days) reading your book? Chris Vogler in The Writer’s Journey offers one possibility:
Striking up a new relationship is another way to show a new beginning at the end of a story. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart makes a difficult Resurrection sacrifice, giving up the chance to be with the woman he loves. His reward, the Elixir he brings away from the experience, is his new alliance with Claude Rains. As he says, in one of the most famous tag lines in the history of the movies, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Hmm, an open window. A new goal. A better tomorrow. At least sometimes.
So what do you all think? Are you cutting the size of your potential audience by promising sadness and/or failure for your protagonist? As a reader, do you avoid books with an UN-H.E.A. or are you open to them? How would you compare your post-book experience with the traditional H.E.A. vs. the UNs? Do they make a more lasting impression? Do they make you think more? Or do they just make you want to throw the book against a wall?
Chat amongst yourselves; I have books to buy.