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Good Story Endings: Happy or Sad, or Something Else?

I was recently discussing a novel’s ending with a writer friend. We agreed that, while not perfect, the author had pretty much nailed the ending. We felt satisfied. Its character arcs felt complete. We both found the ending moving and multidimensional, and it obviously left us thinking, hence the conversation. (If you’re curious, the book is Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid [1].)

During our conversation, I was seeking to refresh my memory about an element of the book and I stumbled on a review of it. A scathing review. From a reviewer who really seemed to hate the ending.

A few days prior to the Daisy Jones discussion, I’d seen an interview with the Russo Brothers [2]—Joe and Anthony, who produced and directed Avengers: Endgame [3], along with a half-dozen other Marvel movies. The interview was hosted by Twitter, and as the brothers settled into their seats and the crowd applauded, Joe jokingly said, “Oh good. These are the nice people on Twitter.”

Russo’s joke was funny because a lot of fans on Twitter really seem to hate Endgame’s ending. A lot.

The two incidents got me thinking about endings. Of course they reminded me just how subjective and varied reactions to storytelling are bound to be. But they also caused me to examine what makes an ending satisfying to me. And how my taste and preferences inform my own endings. And beyond that, what we, as fiction writers, owe to readers (if anything).

No Real Ending

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop telling the story.”—Frank Herbert

I’m not sure if it’s a series thing, and that I’m a series guy, but Herbert’s quote really resonates for me. I’m currently considering a change to where book one of my trilogy-in-progress ends. It wouldn’t change the events in the continuum of the story. But it very well could determine whether or not a future reader continues on to book two.

The fact that this trilogy is a prequel to my first trilogy makes Herbert’s quote all the clearer to me. Although both trilogies are centered around the lives of my protagonists, there are a million things I’d love to include outside of that focus in order to set up the ongoing tale of my story-world.

But I can see how this is true for stand-alone books as well. Whether an ending is happy or sad or something in between, stuff is going to happen after “The End.” The couple who finds love in an HEA romance is eventually going to face some strife.  Characters who are devastated by the death of a protagonist are going to move beyond mourning and begin again without them. And so on.

“Since when,” he asked,

“Are the first line and the last line of any poem

Where the poem begins and ends.”

–Seamus Heaney

The concept of no real ending helps me to better understand my likes and dislikes. If story is not defined by the events of the plot, but by the changes that occur in the characters, I want endings to not just reveal but to illuminate those changes. I like to think of my endings as sort of a mirror-flip of the opening. There is an aspect (or several) to every story’s opening that draws me in as a reader. I want storytellers to select the moment that spotlights how those same aspects have been forever altered for the characters by what they’ve endured.

The concept also reminds me that I don’t like endings that are just too darn tidy. It’s okay to leave me wondering, at least about some things. In fact, I want to wonder. Life is full of unsolvable mysteries. And it’s just a snapshot in the continuum, after all.

And with that mirror-flip concept in mind, I can see that I don’t like unearned happy endings. If the change we see in the character(s) feels at all arbitrary, or like nothing was sacrificed but much was gained, I’m left dissatisfied.

Putting all of that together makes me sound like a pretty tough customer when it comes to endings. But I actually consider myself pretty open to the possibilities and fairly easy to please.

You-Know-What and Taxes

When it comes to my own endings, I’ve discovered I’m a little less open to possibilities. Which makes me worry. My endings tend to feature death. And, let’s face it, even though death is one of Franklin’s two unavoidable aspects of life, not everyone likes it when characters die.

I didn’t always worry. Believe it or not, during my first draft of my first trilogy I gave little thought to how readers might react to the deaths I was writing. They just seemed so natural, so unavoidable. I’ll never forget something my very first hired editor—WU’s own Cathy Yardley—said to me at the front end of our phone conference after she finished reading book three of my first trilogy. “Wow, you’re brave, killing off all of these characters.” She went on to ask if I’d considered how many readers would be upset by it. I hadn’t, really.

And so now, I worry. Worrying is particularly silly for me. Because I have come to the conclusion that the deaths I’ve written are as unavoidable as yours and mine. And taxes.

Since Cathy’s warning I’ve been paying a little more attention. Turns out she’s right (as usual): a LOT of folks really hate it when characters die. Which is why the Russo Brothers interview I mention at the top really grabbed my attention. Joe addresses the issue fairly early on, when he says:

“We believe that the essential nature of being a hero is sacrifice. Not everyone loves to see their favorite characters go away. But for us, it’s a teachable moment, about what it costs to be a hero—what it means to be willing to fight for what you believe in. There can still be happy endings, even through loss.”

Bad Things Happen, But…

“Hey, bad things happen, right? Otherwise there wouldn’t be a story.”—Joe Russo

I guess I’ve always been a “bad things happen” sort of writer. I don’t think it’s so much that I’m drawn to tragedy. But as I say, my endings have always included sad aspects. Mostly death, but also separations, unfulfilled potential, and the realization of lost opportunities and of tarnished dreams.

I know. Some of you are thinking, “I’ll bet he’s a hoot at parties, too.”

“I have an instinctual distrust of conventional happy endings.”—George R.R. Martin

Seriously, in the examination of my preferences and my own endings, I can see that it’s not about whether they’re happy or sad. Unlike George, I don’t distrust, nor even dislike, happy endings.

In fact, I honestly think my favorite endings are a mixture of both. A lot of you probably know I like a good cathartic cry (wrote about it here [4]). But I also love laughter. My heart glows in found love, in renewed friendship, in earned resolve. And in the promise of hope offered. God, yes to that.

In other words, I want it all, darn it. For me, the best endings are a weave of happiness and sadness.

In my endings, I aspire to provide the renewal of hope through redemption; the restoration of honor through sacrifice; the bolstering of friendship and altruism through earned humility. Along with the deep understanding that poignant losses help to shape who we are as we move forward carrying them.

I want my endings to speak to the immortal nature of kindness—to attest to the lasting impact each of us can have on others, and thereby on the world.

I want my endings to feel meaningful and inevitable—even the character deaths.

Through my endings I aspire to affirm faith–my own and my readers’–that love is indeed the true essence of humanity; that once it’s truly and unselfishly given it can never really be lost, even in death.

Is that so much to ask?

Do you prefer happy or sad endings? Is there something in between? What do you hope to achieve with your endings? It’s a helluva question to end on, isn’t it?

[Image is: The End of Salton City, by Matthew Dillon @ Flickr]

About Vaughn Roycroft [5]

Vaughn Roycroft's (he/him) teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit in the 6th grade, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.