April 2nd, 2018

Should Your Story Have a Happy Ending?

James Preston

Once upon a time my wife and were doing our second-favorite thing, sitting up late at night reading. Suddenly she yelled something like ARRGH or UGH and threw the book across the room, where the poor thing bounced off the wall and landed on the floor. The cat wisely jumped up and took off for parts unknown, while I was thinking, “She’s between me and the kitchen where all the sharp objects are.”

“Uh, honey, is something wrong?”

“At the end, an atomic bomb went off and they all died.”

“Uh, why did the bomb go off?”

”No reason. Just because.”

She wasn’t kidding. The End. And they all died unhappily ever after.

And I know how she felt because when I was in Junior High I read a novel about hot rodders where, at the end, the hero drives off a bridge, his head collides with his girlfriend’s with a “bone-shattering crunch.” The End. I felt cheated. I went back and read the end again. Yep. Dead as can be. Let that be a lesson to you kids — no racing around in souped-up jalopies. 

Let’s talk about what most of us do, and that’s genre fiction. Let’s talk about “. . . and they all died.” Maybe indulge in a little compare and contrast between tales that do not end with everybody dying, that say, yes, Virginia, happiness is possible.

  • Popular memes about genre fiction and how to fight them

Meme Number One — grim stories about the futility of modern life are more true-to-life and realistic because the world is going to Hell in a hand basket.

Meme Number Two — stories about miserable characters trapped in meaningless lives who stay miserable and do nothing about it are somehow more important than a series of paranormal romances.

At their dark, bleeding hearts these memes would have you believe that a happy ending is easier to write, and therefore less worthy. “He stood over the heroine’s body, holding the knife, laughed maniacally and went back to the castle.” That Stephanie Plum is less valuable to readers than the woman at the heart of Gone Girl. 

Don’t you believe it.

  • The world is going to Hell In a hand basket 

If it is, people have been saying that for generations. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) starring Kevin McCarthy, the hero talks to a psychiatrist about the people in Santa Mira who believe their friends or family members have been replaced by doubles. The shrink replies, “It’s mass hysteria. Worry about what’s going on in the world, probably.” That was 1955 and we’re still here. Remember the kids driving their hot rod off a bridge? First it was juvenile delinquents, then hot rodders, followed by surfers, then hippies and later, slackers, each iteration of youth marking the end of civilization as we know it. If anything, the Jayne Ann Krentz ending, with relatively happy protagonists, is more realistic because we’re still here; Charon is still waiting to take that hand basket across the River Styx.

  • Dark and brooding is more important 

Oh, really? Okay, sales numbers do not always relate to quality — Valley of the Dolls was a huge seller — but you want meaningful numbers? Romance novels account for 29% of all titles sold.1

That’s right, almost one in three books, including e-books, has a lady with cleavage, or a guy on the cover who makes me feel inadequate. Add in thrillers and mysteries and it’s over half of everything sold. That number has held steady for years, and to me that says something. It says that a good story can end happily, and that such stories fill an important need. Note that here I am including a typical Stephen King ending where victory is obtained, but at a cost. This attitude isn’t new, either. Barbara Tuchman’s brilliant The Guns of August was praised, sort of, by scholars as “popular history.”2 It was an instant best seller and continues to sell to this day.

I believe in Story. I believe in laughter. For my money there’s not enough of either one in the world. 

First, Story, with a capital S.

The world around us is often chaotic, we humans have a hard time figuring out why things happen and often the answer is simply, “because.” The cliche of the woman holding the body of her husband and shrieking at the heavens, “Why? Why?” is constructed like a flawed pearl around a pebble of wisdom, because often the answer is — just because.

Art, Story, provides a respite from the unrelenting randomness of real life. “Just because” doesn’t work in a novel. How random is life? The chain of causality that led me to writing this essay goes like this: I was in high school, headed for UCLA with my best friend Mark. When he was killed I lost interest in UCLA, went to Cal State Long Beach instead, where I met my wife (the book-thrower) and through her the lady who invited me to contribute to WITS. But is that a story? Of course not. It’s "just because."

Our job is to layer on structure, to remove the extraneous. (And as a side note, wouldn’t that be a good topic for one of these essays? Do we as storytellers create the structure, or is it always there, waiting for us to reveal it? In a possibly apocryphal story Michelangelo once said the statue was always in the piece of marble; he just had to chip away the part that wasn’t David.) We either make or reveal the structure, and provide a tale to entertain.

Humor, happiness, is hard! You want tragedy? Just open your AP news feed.

Jerry Lewis said in the documentary “No Apologies,” “I see people all over the world desperate for laughter.”3 He was right, and I would add to that they are desperate for simple joy.

He described a plaque given to him by John F. Kennedy that reads:

There are three things which are real:
God, human folly and laughter.
The first two are beyond our comprehension
So we must do what we can with the third.

Here’s the point. It’s important how you feel about your work, and if you’re writing a series about a shape-shifting alien prince, or a detective who indulges in self-deprecating humor, you may feel a nagging sense that literary writers are somehow “better.” Fight it.

In the final analysis, what I’ve always wanted to do is what Don McLean says in, “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” — “maybe they’d be happy for a while.” What I’ve learned, no, what has been driven home to me recently, is just how important that is.

 

Do you write genre fiction? Do you feel that it gets the respect it deserves? Here’s to us ink-stained wretches. Type faster!

Sources

1           Data as of 2013. Bustle.com
2           See the Introduction to the electronic edition. 
3           Available on the Blu-ray of The Nutty Professor

*  *  *  *  *  *

About James

James PrestonJames PrestonJames R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. Last year he branched out and launched two novellas, Crashpad and Buzzkill. These short thrillers are set on a college campus in the turbulent sixties. He can be reached at www.jamesrpreston.com, on Facebook, Twitter, and at james@jamesrpreston.com. His next release will be Remains To Be Seen, the sixth Surf City Mystery.

58 responses to “Should Your Story Have a Happy Ending?”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    Yes, I write genre fiction. I read genre fiction. I like genre fiction. I write both mysteries and romantic suspense, and I want the bad guys to get what's coming to them and the good guys, too. Bad stuff can happen, but I want things to end on a promising note. Readers invest their time in the characters. Writers strive to give readers reasons to care about their characters. They deserve more than "and then they died."

    I was recently at a conference where one of the speakers talked about story and plot. "The cat sat on the mat," he said, is a story. "The cat sat on the dog's mat" is a plot.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Terry, thanks! You're right -- readers invest time in the characters and deserve a relatively upbeat ending, with at least some value to someone. SPOILER ALERT! recently watched "Chinatown." and was once again, put off by the ending. I mean, it would work, sort of, If we felt like Gittes learned something. Yet 99% of the story is great. (If there's something I'm missing I'd love to hear. it.) And I love that cat sitting on the dog's mat. You want to know what the dog did . . .
      Thanks again, Terry

  2. jrupp25 says:

    Thank you. I appreciate that you've expressed this and it's timely for me. Book sales figures offer validation about genre fiction, but I really needed to hear this from another writer.

    • jamesr403 says:

      J, I needed to write this essay, so thanks for the support. I think in the final analysis, sales numbers may or may not relate to quality. Valley of the Dolls was huge, number 1 seller in the English language -- until it was replaced by Harry Potter. The latter makes sense, the former, uh, let's say makes less sense. J, you pound those keys with whatever works for you.

  3. Laura Drake says:

    SO with you, James. Love that story, Terry!

    I envied those with an MFA, until I heard non-literary writers being berated for happy endings and anything more than 'navel-gazing'. I honestly think this division has always been there - Penny Dreadfuls in the 1900s are a good example.

    I'll admit - I'm not smart enough to write literary fiction. Which is okay, because I don't aspire to it. To each his own. And obviously, there's more of us on the non-literary side of the field.

    • Fae Rowen says:

      "not smart enough..." Oh, you sell yourself short, Laura. If you wanted to write literary fiction, you'd study and practice—and be willing to get 419 rejection letters! But that's not what you want to write. (Thank goodness for those of us who love reading your stories!)

      • jamesr403 says:

        And Fae's right again. There are plenty of angst-filled stories about the futility and misery of modern life, written fifty years ago. You both "make 'em happy, for a while." Be proud of that.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Laura, Fae's right, you sell yourself short. I think of Dickens scribbling furiously in the back of a hansom as it raced through the streets of London, trying to make the deadline for the next installment of one of his novels. The lineage of "popular" writers is long and full of quality work. In my own line of work there's John D. Macdonald, who is getting at least some of the attention he deserves. No one -- no one -- knows what will be read 100 years from now.
      Besides, I know what my navel looks like. I saw it just the other day.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I envied those MFA authors too, until I realized how much they had to pay to have people tell them that happy fiction wasn't the goal. I like happy fiction! It's what I read, and what I write. And I agree with James - it's harder to work out than "and they all died."

      • jamesr403 says:

        Thanks, Jenny. It's not easy because the protagonist has to win --at least win something -- through his or her own efforts. Anything else is not really fair. I took a writing class from one of those MFA folks and learned a lot. I also learned that it's not a degree for me! King has a great section in his novel It where Bill is in a writing class and blurts out, "Can't a story just be a story?" Amen!

      • jamesr403 says:

        Bingo, Jenny. You made me think of Janet Evanovich and the Stephanie Plum novels. They are -- being generous -- lightweight until Evanovich slips in a poignant observation about aging, and how the elderly have to live in our society. That kind of truth sets her work apart, regardless of the fact that it's packaged in a series of romantic mysteries. Well, that and the character of Stephanie and Grandma Mazur. Thanks, Jerry.

        • Jenny Hansen says:

          I adore Grandma Mazur. She's one of my favorite characters in fiction. And the way she has Stephanie's mother eyeing the cabinet where she keeps her booze when Grandma is acting up is priceless.

  4. olderwriter says:

    Your wife threw the book at the wall because of the ending. I would have done the same. I liked your JFK quote. I will think of it as I write genre fiction today.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Hey, "Older," thanks. Jerry Lewis describes that quote on the plaque in the documentary I mentioned, "No apologies." It's really worth a look, for the insights into how he works, but what got me was his opening, doing stand-up at a Vegas casino when he was 87. He talks about age with honesty and humor. There is another book SPOILER ALERT called Level 7 by a man named Roshwald, that I read in high school, where everybody, literally everybody, dies at the end, but it works because that's the point of the book.
      I did a little research on the quote, and apparently JFK really liked it because he also gave it out on mugs.

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        I am going to run a search for that documentary, James! It sounds like it is right up my alley.

        • jamesr403 says:

          I found "No Apologies" on the Blu-ray version of The Nutty Professor, as part of Special Features. Lewis also talks about working on a particular section of script, getting it perfect, and then cutting it. Very interesting comments on his part, and he's in his eighties.

  5. Yes! I love a beautiful literary work, for what I can learn about language. But I will rarely read such a work more than once. Story is what keeps me re-reading a book again and again, even when I know how it ends. It's how we make *sense* of the randomness of life's tragedies, and where we find hope to keep going despite all the negativity in the world. A book doesn't even have to have a HEA for me to enjoy it; just leave me satisfied that things will be OK, that the characters will eventually find happiness. If I'm left with a feeling of hope and optimism, your book will never take flight in my house.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Yes, Christine, good point! An ending can be satisfying without being sappy. I'm thinking of the ending to It, by King. I've felt for some time that one of the functions of art, any art, is to supply a little order into a random world. Bad things happen often for no reason. Hannibal Lecter says he "collects" church collapses, where the ceiling caves in on the congregation. He saves those news clippings. Case closed.
      Thanks for weighing in!

  6. I write genre fiction, and I CRAVE that happily ever after. I won't even read Nicholas Sparks because someone always dies in the end. My other "throw the book against the wall" moments come when an author doesn't finish the book. Like Anne Rice and the Vampire Lestat. "He climbed into the coffin and he wasn't alone." The End. Wait? What?

    • jamesr403 says:

      Spot on, Karla and thanks. I'd forgotten that ending, which may say something. I believe firmly that part of the writer's job is to decide what happens next. It's cheating to leave it open like that. And I'm a Rice fan; I think Interview With the Vampire is a brilliant book, with an ending that just rocks! "Alien" would not be anywhere near as good if Ripley and the cat didn't survive.

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Right - Ripley and the cat!! That's what got me past all the gory and the gross.

        • jamesr403 says:

          I know what you mean. I think of the "little monster jumps out of the guy's stomach." Yow! My friend Bill & I were taking care of his daughter Laura and without knowing anything about the movie, took her to it when she was about twelve. She survived, mostly unscathed. I think.

          • Jenny Hansen says:

            OMG. Well, my dad took me to Apocalypse Now when I was ten and I survived. I haven't ever watched it again though.

            • jamesr403 says:

              Ten?? Wow. I remember when I saw that, and coming out of the theater just stunned. After you recovered I'm sure it made you a better writer.

              • Jenny Hansen says:

                Yes, ten. My mother was so mad. Plus, he said, "I want you to see what Vietnam was like for me" before we went in. I remember thinking, "Someone threw your best friend's head into your lap???"

  7. Maggie Smith says:

    There is room in this world for all kinds of books-romance, detective fiction, coming-of-age stories, scary tales, and yes, literary fiction in all its shapes and sizes. I don't like it when one is denigrated (I'm looking at your November Book Review on Romance, Sunday NY Times) so I cringe just as much when genre-fiction writers "put down" literary fiction - most authors I know, including ones on the best-sellers lists, slave over their stories. Let's appreciate and applaud there is so much to choose from.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Well-said, Maggie. Storytelling is a really big tent; there's room for everybody. And thanks for bringing this to our attention. It was far from my intention to put down literary fiction, only the attitude that assigns it more value than what I write.

  8. Jeri Hoag says:

    You are right that I have been made to feel less than because my story is categorized. Thank you for posting this. I have to remember that I loved my story and I did it and got it published. So critics I don't care about. Did they write a book?

    • jamesr403 says:

      LOL, Jeri, you're right. Barbara Tuchman responded to the critics who said Guns of August was good, for popular history, and it was probably a mistake, although in the end it made no difference because the Pulitzer-prize winning book continues to find readers. I have a novella called Buzzkill out for review and I am being told, "Whatever you do, don't respond to critics." Yes, be proud of your accomplishment getting published. That's what counts.

  9. Fae Rowen says:

    James, this is a perfect post for those soul-searching times when any author gives in to the inner voice that anything about their writing is not "good enough." For years, self-pubs were made to feel "less than." The writing industry can be brutal, but it's the one we've chosen. Here's to the supportive people around us, that help us tease out our stories and the best we have to offer!

    • jamesr403 says:

      Fae, I really like the ". . . tease out our stories and the best we have to offer." I think that's what's important. The publishing world, in fact the whole world, has changed in the last few years. Publishers and writers are still adapting, but the one constant is just that -- tell the very best story you can, put it out there and see what happens. On my part, I am waiting for the next installment of P. R. I. S. M. (For those of you who might not know, that's Fae's new work.)

  10. Loved this post and totally agree with all your points. Give me a good genre novel anyday over a angsty literary work, and a happy ending over doom and gloom. The world has enough of that. And we all need a ray of hope. (Forgive the multiple cliches :-))

    • jamesr403 says:

      Becky, I'm sure there's a place for angst, I just don't know where it is. Reading a novel is a huge investment of time. I started rereading Clavell's Shogun, for the first time electronically, and was a little put off when the app told me I had 30 hours to go. Yikes! And cliches -- what cliches? LOL Thanks for contributing.

  11. I love that Story is "a respite from the randomness io life." Thank you for uplifting and validating genre fiction!

    • jamesr403 says:

      Thank you, Debbie. I feel that strongly, and it's good to know others, do, too. Thinking of Clavell (see above) I did just finish rereading Noble House and at the end, despite everything, the hero thinks it's good to be alive. Food for thought: is life random and writers build a structure, or is the pattern there all along and we just are privileged to see it? Beats me. And as a side note: philosophers are pondering that about mathematics. Does it exist independently of man and we're discovering it, or are we making it? That's a question for Fae, I think.

  12. Julie Glover says:

    When I was younger, I fell into believing that tragic endings were somehow more authentic and profound. But then I lived more of life and realized there's enough tragedy in the world without me wallowing in fictional accounts of hardship. Instead, what I wanted when I opened a book was a reminder of "the triumph of the human spirit." Thanks for your praise in favor of the earned happy ending--a wonderful feature of good genre fiction.

    • Laura Drake says:

      So much wisdom in the comments today! In romance, we have a term 'Happy for now' (HFN).

      It reminds me of the end of Gone with the Wind. It wasn't happy, but it WAS true to the story, and I love that how one thinks about what happens next to Scarlett, says a lot about the READER!

      • jamesr403 says:

        Yes, Laura, and what a great example! The ending fits. You hear Rhett's words and understand. In some ways it resembles the end The Big Chill, where the most troubled of the friends who reunite for a funeral, ends up staying in the small town to restore a house. One of the characters even says something like, "There's symmetry in that." It fits.

      • jamesr403 says:

        Oooh, Nance, good points. I think it's the struggle that counts, that separates the wanna-bes from writers. It sounds like you are still in the fight, and good for you! And it was an honor to share some thoughts with the WITS readers. It's worth the effort to write the essay just to see the comments, well worth the effort. As I say so often, type faster! And keep reading the blog.

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        I cried my eyes out at the end of Gone With the Wind, because Scarlett was never going to change. However, she had Tara, and the land and legacy were what made her truly happy. Who was I to argue with that?

        • jamesr403 says:

          "I'll never be hungry again." Yep, the end fits the story. What would the story be like if Rhett said, "Okay, it's all good. I'll move in to Tara."? Certainly different.

  13. jamesr403 says:

    That's it! Thanks, Julie, you nailed it. Yes, it's the human spirit that can triumph despite all odds that is worth celebrating. The happy ending has to be earned. The book my wife threw against the wall would be equally bad if suddenly the god had jumped out of the box and snuffed the atomic blast. The end needs to be organic, and grow out of the story and hopefully show the human spirit in all it's glory.

  14. anngmesa says:

    Shakespeare's popularity four hundred or so years after his death proves that humans don't mind tragedy, but even he has some comedies and happy endings. If there's an unhappy ending, it must make sense in the overall plot and the character's lives, and the reader must still find some satisfaction that all ends as it should. Personally, I much prefer an ending where there is hope, no matter what the characters have endured, and may still endure.

  15. jamesr403 says:

    Right. It doesn't have to be little birds singing and everyone cheering; an ending can be a good one because it's satisfying. It fits. Yes, I like stories with hope, too, because well, we need it or why would I bother writing this essay? I know kids sometimes say, "Nobody likes me, I'm going to go eat worms," but, for heaven's sake, that doesn't mean we have to celebrate it!
    Thanks, Ann.

  16. Thanks, James, for making time for us. I'm about to drag some of the best stuff I've ever struggled with out of a thirty-year-old file because not enough people like me and it's time to earn a living. My path to eating worms. And I'm going to grin a lot as I suffer the struggle, because you and the people above just helped me remember why it is I like happy endings.

  17. dholcomb1 says:

    I prefer writing romance--I love the HEA! I will read some genre fiction, but HEA is my first love. All those fairy tales I read as a kid got me hooked.

    denise

    • jamesr403 says:

      You bet, Ms Holcomb. What we read early sets the pattern for us. Believe it or not, I started with Norse mythology, Loki & all the boys, and that led directly to science fiction, Amazing magazine, then Analog, and then my first sale. Thanks, Thor! And the HEA makes a story, well, complete.

  18. Enjoyed your post. And I think that the principle difference, really, between "literary" and "genre" novels, is in the quality of the writing and the poignancy of truth being revealed. How deeply readers are able to feel the end truth, even in an otherwise lightweight piece, is what elevates it.

    • jamesr403 says:

      Hi, Jerry. Your original Reply got posted under Jenny Hanson. Here it is.
      Bingo, Jerry. You made me think of Janet Evanovich and the Stephanie Plum novels. They are — being generous — lightweight until Evanovich slips in a poignant observation about aging, and how the elderly have to live in our society. That kind of truth sets her work apart, regardless of the fact that it’s packaged in a series of romantic mysteries. Well, that and the character of Stephanie and Grandma Mazur. Thanks, Jerry.

  19. littlemissw says:

    This happened to me recently. The whole way through the book read like a historic-romance. And then the protagonist died and the male lead did a runner. Bang. All the progress the girl had made over the course of the novel amounted to nothing, because she contracted typhoid and died. Talk about feeling cheated.

  20. jamesr403 says:

    Good grief! Little Miss, that's awful! I wonder if the author just couldn't figure out how to end it, or suddenly hated her characters and decided to kill them. Was typhoid a big part of the story before the heroine got it? (You know the old saying: if you want the ship to sink in Chapter 20, you need to make clear in Chapter 3 that it has a leak. The Back To The Future movies have good examples of set-up and payoff.) Hope the next book you read ends better.

  21. Laura Drake says:

    That's not to say that you can't end a book with people dying...Stephen King did it in one of my top 5 books of all time - The Stand. He killed a bunch of major characters in a bomb blast, 2/3 of the way through the book (I'm still not over Nick), then 3 more a the very end.

    But it's a satisfying ending, and he leaves you with hope.

    It's still a good ending. *Sniff*

    • jamesr403 says:

      Oh, Laura, I know exactly what you mean about that bomb blast. (Minor Spoiler Alert. If you haven't read The Stand you should. Like right now.) And the great irony that Nick can't hear the taped message!
      More on King and Spielberg: Don't miss Ready Player One. The Shining. That's all I'm going to say.

  22. […] you want people to be so happy with it that they want to read your next book! James Preston asks if your story should have a happy ending, while Janice Hardy explores what makes a good […]

  23. Always a joy to see you here, James. Or, well, to see you pretty much anywhere. (Don't you owe me a beer? Pretty sure you owe me a beer.)

    I love happy endings. I abhor the belief that "realistic" endings are better than hopeful endings. I'm with you on the ironic ending: a win with a cost, or a loss with a reward. King's 11.22.63 is a masterwork: you know, know know, how it has to end, but you never see the price tag until he shows it to you.

    I read The Time Traveler's Wife and reacted the way I'd probably ever react if forced at gunpoint to watch Chinatown—pointlessly evil endings kill kittens and steal kids' candy.

    Some of it is personal. I've fought depression and sadness my whole life, and reading tragedy is emotionally dangerous. It hurts me, like drinking hurts an alcoholic.

    Not that you made this claim, James, but the false dichotomy of "happy endings vs. great literature" is smashed in a single work, in my opinion: Amor Towles A Gentleman in Moscow. Brilliant timeless work of poignant beauty—with an ending so perfect I kept breaking into tears telling Best Beloved about it, because it was so deeply joyous but, because of the genre and buildup, unexpected.

  24. jamesr403 says:

    Joel, thanks for the post. I have not read the Towles book; will check it out. And boy, are you right about 11.22.63! What an end! I loved it. But Chinatown? What's the point? We both may be voices crying in the wilderness, but I agree with you.
    Nope, that's the other guy who looks like me that owes you the beer. LOL.
    For those of you who don't know, Joel is the author of A Long, Hard Look, a thriller I enjoyed enormously.

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