Happy Endings

A happy ending isn't necessarily one that makes the characters grin a lot and start crackingjokes at one another. It's not even one that promises marriage, true love, or victory to the protagonist.

In a very meaningful sense, a happy ending is one that satisfies, and that kind of happy ending, any story can have—even one that ends up with virtually everybody dead on the floor, like Hamlet.

The traits that make an ending satisfying are fittingness (the characters seem to have gotten the ending they earned by their actions during the story, for good or ill) and definiteness (the story's resolution is clear, appropriate, and decisive: it's really over).

But even though this is true, it doesn't address the issue of traditional happy or downbeat endings all writers have to confront and settle in every story they write.

Most genre fiction of all sorts tends to be upbeat, ending on what at least seems a positive note—the murderer identified and caught, the lovers reunited, the kidnaped child rescued—no matter what miseries were suffered in getting there.

In its extreme form, this can be a mindless, saccharine cheeriness that makes us want to go out and kick a small fuzzy kitty into next week.

By contrast, literary fiction tends toward the opposite extreme, as if there were something inherently suspect and superficial about happiness or contentment. If popular fiction sometimes falls off the fence on the right, with resolute, offensive uplift and fake happily-ever-afters, literary fiction is apt to fall off on the left, serving up suffering, squalor, and trashcan angst that's as fully a violation of our sense of life's diverse possibilities.

It's important to realize that formula moroseness and despair can bejust as trite and unconvincing as doctrinaire, regulation happiness and cases of the terminal eûtes. Gloom isn't intrinsically any more honest, courageous, or intellectually respectable than joy. Either has to be rendered credible in the context of a particular story. Each needs to be earned. And each works the better for a dash of the other, like Yin and Yang, opposing swirls that divide a circle, each containing a spot of its opposite.

Better, in the long run, to be honest than either vapidly "happy" or churlishly scowling and grim. Let the story shape its natural ending no matter where on the spectrum of blessing or bane it may fall.

But, with deliberate craft, it's possible to have things both ways. Unless you're committed to unmitigated cynicism and despair, there's going to be something readers can contrive to interpret as a positive note in your ending. Let them.

If 99 percent of your ending is wretchedness, gloom, and doom, if the whole world has been destroyed except for the two lovers and they're not feeling any too healthy, readers will still nod and say to themselves, "Well, at least they have each other." They'll notice the positive 1 percent if you focus on that and keep the gloom and doom no less black, but off to the side a little, where it can be ignored if a reader is so inclined.

Remember Scarlett O'Hara. Remember that Ishmael survived the meeting with Moby Dick, even though nobody else did.

Even death can be positive, if it's sentimental enough and worth a good cry, and has a healthy chunk of true, unselfish love and sacrifice mixed in. Look at A Farewell to Arms, Romeo andJu-liet, or A Tale ofTwo Cities. Tears, accepting the sadness and passing beyond it, can be a healing thing too.

Likewise, that a character can win or recover a capacity for joy, in spite of great and convincing suffering, makes that joy stronger and more believable. Such a stance doesn't pretend that the hurts, the cruelties, and the disappointments don't exist. It accepts them, but says thatjoy is nevertheless still real and valid in the world as well, unquenchable as grass. And that's more powerful than unrelieved niceness and empty bliss that escapes the dark only by keeping its eyes resolutely shut.

If you can refrain from depressing the living daylights out of your readers, they'll probably like your work more. But if, in a given story, you find you really have to choose between happy and satisfying, take satisfying.

It lasts longer.

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