Wednesday, July 26, 2017


By David E. Sharp

Are you a happy-ending writer, or a tragic-ending writer?

And you don't get to say, "I'm not a writer at all. I'm a girl from Kansas." Especially if you are a girl from Kansas. As writers, and by extension readers, we've seen endings of all kinds. Sometimes, everybody gets married. Sometimes, everybody dies. But what kind of endings are you about?

Me, I'm a sap for happy endings. Whether I'm reading for escape or to wrestle with heavy literary topics, I like to see that hope has not been misplaced, that the characters I care for are rewarded for their virtues and overcome their flaws. I like to see people who are victorious in the face of unimaginable odds.

Cue the standing ovation, please.

Buuuuut, if all endings were happy, they'd be predictable. That surge of joy only seems to come when I didn't know whether the characters were going to make it or not.

If I know everything's going to turn out well, I don't worry. I don't have any pressure to finish the book. And often, I don’t. I'll drop that book in favor of one by an author who I don't quite trust –who's maybe a little bit unhinged— because I just got to know if my favorite characters are going to be okay. 

I suspect that's a big reason people get so deep into the likes of Game of Thrones. If I don't read on, who will protect these beloved characters from George R. R. Martin? Of course, I discover again and again that you can't. And still, I read on.

...And they all lived happily ever after.

Buuuuut if all endings were devastating, they wouldn't give us much inclination to read either. We'd already know there's no hope. So, why bother?

Then there are bittersweet endings. These are the endings where hope was not misplaced, but that it came at a cost that readers are embittered to pay. These endings can be powerful. They often mirror life. 

They don't give us the misconception that we're going to see some kind of happy-ever-after in which we'll never have troubles again. Neither do they leave us with and that's why if you're not in total despair, you should be. There's a balance, and that seems fair.

...And then they enjoyed the illusion of freedom to the end of their days.

Buuuuut the books with the most broken spines on my bookshelf are not the ones with the bittersweet endings. Because who wants to live that over and over? So, maybe they shouldn't all be bittersweet either.

In any of the workshops I've attended, I've never heard a presenter favor one kind of ending over another. I have only heard that a satisfying ending should be both inevitable and unpredictable. 

Sounds easy, right? Why don't we invent some ice cream that reverses diabetes while we're at it? The point is, any kind of ending can be satisfying if it's well executed. I've enjoyed all three.

...And then the world a-sploded.
Nobody predicted it, but I guess it was inevitable.

What I don't enjoy is endings that feel manufactured. Sad endings are okay only so long as I don't feel like some author is trying to make me sad. Taking pathos too far breaks the effect. Kind of like seeing how a magic trick works. 

I've been known to shout at Lifetime movies, "That was totally deliberate! You jerks! Well I'm happy she died at the very moment she realized she loved him all along! You hear me? Happy!!!"

Happy endings are great unless the happiness gets cheesy. It makes my cheeks hurt to see that much smiling. Or, you know, read about that much smiling. It could be that I'm jealous. Not that I'm admitting that. 

"I'm so glad you’ve found each other and the birds are draping you in garlands before you go to his castle with chambers full of gold collected from the kingdom's laboring class. Sounds great for you. Meanwhile, I've got bills to pay."

Bittersweet endings are a crap shoot. Losing a good character to save a bunch of whiney ones may be noble, but it doesn't make me a happy reader. Often, I will amend these endings with a simple sentence I can't believe the author didn't think to include. "And then he was just kidding, and they all lived reasonably happy lives with only manageable troubles from that point on, except for the Nazis. The Nazis died." No brainer, right?

Perhaps the best thing about a great ending,
is it makes the journey getting there so much sweeter.
As writers, we all contribute to the ratio of endings out there in the world. Some of us love to bring laughter and joy, while others of us make sure that laughter and joy don't get out of hand. Still others like to make things almost joyful before they slap you with the misery stick. What kind of endings do you write? What kind of endings do you read? How many people have you slapped with a misery stick? Let us know in the comments.

Or check out some of these thoughts on the writer's endgame.


shenke said...

I'm big on redemptive endings- wouldn't call them happy or sad perse, only that there is something noble tucked in at the end that leaves reader me standing a little taller with the character- he or she who just went through the wringer for me and came out okay, but satisfyingly transformed.

David Sharp said...

Redemptive endings are some of the best! I think they're pretty flexible with regard to being happy endings or tragic endings. For instance, Hamlet was redemptive, but it's also tragic in the most literal sense. The Grinch finds redemption too, but things turn out considerably better for him. So, I'd say stories of redemption exist on a different plane than I've laid out here, but they blend well with endings of every kind. We all love to see redemption, probably because we've all screwed up enough to need some kind of redemption, and we can identify with that journey.

Great comments, and it's worth noting there are lots of angles to define an ending.

Thanks for sharing!

Patricia Stoltey said...

I write crime fiction, so my endings tend to show the bad guy getting what he has coming to him. With the rest of the characters in my books, anything can happen. I don't think I'd kill off the protagonist though...unless it was something like On the Beach where the end of the story is the end of the world.

David Sharp said...

I do like to see the bad guys getting their comeuppance. Actually, I'm pretty fond of just saying the word "comeuppance." It doesn't lend itself to everyday conversation, though. In a work of crime fiction, I'm pretty sure your readers wouldn't be very satisfied to see the villain get away. That happens enough in real life, it seems. I guess you always know the bad guy's going to get caught, but the fun is finding out who it was and how and why. And those can get pretty crazy.

A story about the end of the world would make it tricky to keep a protagonist alive. Not impossible, though! Douglas Adams did it in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Thanks for commenting, Patricia.

Abbie Taylor said...

I prefer reading happy endings, but some of the short stories I write don't have such endings, mainly because stories where everything's resolved to everyone's satisfaction don't necessarily sell these days, unfortunately.

Deborah Nielsen said...

I don't really care if it's a happy ending, or a sad ending, or bittersweet; just don't leave me hanging. Wrap it up, resolve it. Don't let the ending trail off or go limp. As a reader, I don't want to have to be the one to resolve the story. That's the writer's job. I want to be satisfied as a reader and giving me an ending that's an ending is very satisfying. Even a book in a series should have a real ending for that particular story.

David Sharp said...

Abbie: That's an interesting dilemma. I tend to enjoy happy endings too, but don't always write them. Especially in short stories. I like short stories that end with a twist. Still, I suspect you're not alone in wanting a story to end well. Do you suppose that a happy ending is stronger if it is somehow unexpected? If things turn out okay, but not in the way a reader thought they would, I wonder if they would be better welcomed by the market.

Deborah: Absolutely. We need resolution of some kind or another. After reading an entire book to get it, I feel cheated if an author leaves me hanging.

Thanks for commenting, both of you.

Laura Mahal said...

David, your posts unfailingly make me laugh. People who write unsatisfying conclusions probably deserve to be slapped with a misery stick, or to receive some type of comeuppance.

I suppose I've written both redemptive and hopeful endings. Since I tend toward a literary style, I'm not likely to resort to a fairy tale conclusion. Life is too complicated for HEA, in most cases ranging from YA through adult. If I were to dabble in middle grade or children's literature, then I'd surely change my tune.

I agree that short stories and flash fiction have their own inner life. NYC Midnight taught me that a mother of ten children could be the "victim of a bad investment" and still emerge as the real winner. Judges said [this] "dealt with the true value of human beings," and I guess that left me feeling pretty good.

David Sharp said...

Laura: Getting feedback like that should make you feel good. Congratulations! Literary books do have a habit of twisting the knife on their readers. Maybe that's because the world is never short on trials and troubles. And happily-ever-afters do seem to oversimplify things.

Nevertheless, children's books can be pretty literary, themselves. You might enjoy The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers. He's one of my favorite picture book authors, and this is only one of his amazing titles.

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