Friday, July 31, 2009

Happily Ever After

Remember that today is the last day to get your entries submitted for our 'Audience with an Agent Contest.' Please see our 'Promotions' section for details. We can't wait to read your entry!


Some people won't read a book if they learn beforehand that the ending is not a happy one. In fact, I once had it explained to me this way: "It's fine to give your story a down ending, so long as you are ready to accept that you are writing to a smaller audience. A much smaller audience."

I get it. It's a great feeling to turn the last page of a book knowing all the characters you've come to love are safe and sound. Our day to day lives are fraught with uncertainty, so when we enter a story, we like to know that in the end, all our worries will be put to rest, that everything is going to work out fine.

The only problem with a happy ending is that we know what it will be, generally by the end of the first chapter. The boy will get the girl. David will triumph over the giant. It can be fun learning how he triumphs, but really, at some point toward the end of the book it will no longer be necessary to continue reading. You could write the ending yourself. In his wonderful book, Story, Robert McKee tells us, "Anyone can deliver a happy ending. Just give the characters everything they want."

But there are more ways than one to write a happy - or let's say a sort of happy - ending. Last night I finished reading a novel that ended very differently from the way I'd imagined it would. (I'd give you the title, but I hope you will read this one someday, and I don't want to spoil it.)

I'd thought the character would ultimately mend the troubled relationship with his father. Instead, just when things looked hopeful, he did the one thing that would smash that relationship all to bits, and was thereafter separated from his family and all he loved, perhaps forever.

A terrible ending.

And yet...

And yet he walked away with a new understanding of his own power to wound. He walked away a wiser, better man.

A bit more from Story by Robert McKee:
"In Aristotle's words, an ending must be both "inevitable and unexpected." Inevitable in the sense that as the Inciting Incident occurs, everything and anything becomes possible, but at Climax, as the audience looks back through the telling, it should seem that the path the telling took was the only path. Given the characters and their world as we've come to understand it, the climax was inevitable and satisfying. But at the same time it must be unexpected, happening in a way the audience could not have expected."
The ending I described above was unexpected, but it was also inevitable. The fact that the story remained true to itself to the last was what made the novel different from a million lesser novels that have given me the endings I wanted.

How about you? Do you demand a happy ending, will a "sort of" happy ending do, or are you fine with any ending that rings true? We love to read what you think.

15 comments:

Katie Ganshert said...

So excited about the contest! Also, I'm reading Every Good and Perfect Gift and absolutely love it so far. :)

With that said....

I'm a fan of Happily Ever After. I love getting that big smile on my face at the end. With that said, I will accept the more ambigous ending...like in Home Another Way or The Moment Between. I wouldn't say these are happy endings, but they satisfied me. So I think satisfaction is the most important thing.

What I don't like is a downer ending. One that is the opposite of happy. I read to escape into another world, and I don't like to be sad at the end.

Great question!

ConnieBrz said...

I'm a sucker for a happy ending, but some endings are happier than others. Boy gets girl is fine, but the book has to build until you know that boy gets the *right* girl, at the right time, under the right circumstances.

Kristen Torres-Toro @ Write in the Way said...

Hey! Happy Friday!

Honestly, I love a great "moody" ending. I really admire and appreciate when authors close their books with something that isn't as easy, clean, or happy, simply because it's so honest and vulnerable. I truly believe that pain, no matter how difficult, can teach us so much about Christ. It is a reality of the lives we have here (though, thankfully, not of the life to come!) and He does use it. Reading a book with strong Christian themes that doesn't end perfectly happy really... well, makes me happy! It keeps me thinking. And I'll come back over and over again to re-read and re-discover what's inside.

I know it's late; please forgive me for this! I usually enter things early, but I just found this blog last week. A few days ago I posted a question about the contest in "promotions", under the announcement/rules. Depending on that answer, hopefully I'll be able to enter later today. Is there a time limit? Or is it just by midnight?

Thank you!

Janet said...

I think this is one of the reasons I don't read romance. When you know ahead of time not only how it's going to end but more or less how it's going to get there - hohum.

I like ambiguous endings. The characters might get what they want, but at a cost. (John LeCarré did a lot of those.) They might discover that what they wanted was not so great after all. The protagonist might slowly morph into the antagonist, or vice versa, so the reader's allegiance changes. Going out in a blaze of glory can also be an effective, not-so-happy ending. I do think it's important to let the protagonist have some kind of victory though, even if it's different from the one we expected.

I recently read a book in which the protagonists are slowly revealed to be pretty vile people and when they ultimately self-destruct, you almost don't care. You don't even get the pleasure of seeing them brought to public justice. Meh. There was no satisfaction in that at all. I kept waiting for them to redeem themselves, but no, they just slid downhill and over the cliff. THAT was a frustrating ending. It was only the strength of the writing that kept me going and in the end it wasn't enough. It didn't even qualify as tragedy.

Nicole said...

I know this is an ambiguous answer, but for me the ending has to work. As you suggested, it has to be real for the story/characters and what I've just read. If it ties up nicely, happy, if it works, I'm okay with it.
What I don't like is a rushed ending which points to a particular word count being reached. Slam, bam, it ends. No thanks.

Patti Hill said...

You are all so brilliant that I have nothing more to say about endings. That's not true. Here's something about endings: Give me hope for the characters. They don't have to "arrive," but I'd like to know they're headed in the right direction.

Kristen, no worries. We're new at running contests. I'll make an executive decision by telling you to send the prologue and the first chapter because that's what I would want to do. Yes, up to midnight, although we will all be snug in our beds.

Kristen Torres-Toro @ Write in the Way said...

Sweet! Thank you so much!!! Have a great day!

Bonnie Grove said...

I've just spent a month hammering out a three page proposal for a novel. My editor (the same brilliant woman who worked with me on Talking to the Dead) worked with me and we went back and forth on various ideas about the ending.

See - I agree with Nicole's ambiguous answer. The ending must 'work'. Happy/sad isn't so much the goal in this work as the reader's absolute knowledge that this is the way the book should end without seeing the ending coming.

I don't tend to categorized endings as happy or sad - but I use the feelings of "satisfied" or "saw it coming for miles".

I put aside a book last night (I won't name it - but it is CBA) because I guessed the ending at chapter 3 when a new character was introduced. (But, I'll be reading this same author's new book when it comes out because he/she has some mad skills and I'm certain the author has great books coming)

You know what's so funny? I'm typing and typing my responses to you all and all I can think is - man, I wish we could all meet at Starbucks and just TALK about books!

I've come to adore you all.

Weronika said...

This is something that I carefully considered before I started the current WiP, and I hope my considerations suffice to make the ending both unpredictable but satisfactory. :)

Have a good weekend -- and thank you for this post.

Stace said...

I would so much rather have a ring true ending, especially if there is some take-away for someone we care about. It doesn't have to be a good take-away, but valuable. While occasionally I like to pick up something light and frivolous that I know will resolve with all in its place and even the bad guy turning good, its rare and its . . . well, frivolous. It almost feels like a waste. I want meat of some sort. It doesn't have to beat me up, but it should be there to chew on.

Anonymous said...

Janet hinted at a "victorious" ending. I like that. Romance is part of life, but so is disappointment. If we write to inspire, how do we deal with situations that don't come out as we would have chosen.

As writers we block our characters' goals with obstacles and conflicts at every turn. In life, sometimes we dig deep and overcome. But other times we discover that it was God blocking our attempts because there was a better way to go. It might be a bit sad that we don't always get what we think we want, but learning to want what we get in the end can be a deeply satisfying victory.

Yours because His,
Lynn Dean

Laura Frantz said...

Actually, I just finished one of the most poignant, beautifully written novels I've ever read - Love's Pursuit - and I was heartbroken at the end, yet it somehow seemed to fit the novel. Nevertheless, as an author and avid reader I long for the happily ever after just as I did as a little girl. Life is so hard at times. I want a reprieve from that with a good book. Bless you for such a wonderful post.

Carla Gade said...

I don't require a "happy ending", but a satisfying ending.

To be satisfying to me most of the loose ends need to be tied up. If it is a series there needs to be some type of temporary closure that you know that it can be resolved in the next series. But I find that works best for secondary characters. I read a book that had me so frustrated at the end. It was written like a "to be continued" tv episode, and the next book in the series wasn't out for a very long time. The problem with that was that the last chapter ended almost the same as all the previous. It did not work like an ending. I believe that even in a series, each book can and should be thoroughly satisfying in and of itself.

Satisfying endings to me are also ones that not only have closure, but show growth. I like the main characters to be suprized at how well their story turned out, that despite the odds they can continue on because even though it is the last page, in my imagination their story goes on and I want to believe that they will endure personally and/or as a couple.

Nichole Osborn said...

Kathleen, if we are talking about the same novel, you're right it didn't end "happily ever after" but in the words of my oldest son who also read the book, "He(the father)had it coming". I look for the author to stay true to the story. I could live without a happy ending. Life isn't always "happy".

Steve G said...

What I love for endings is Redemption. That is often happy, sometimes not so. Redemption is the theme from genesis to revelation, and what is at the heart of the Gospel.
This is what Janet mentioned and what works for me. Redemption and Grace.