Friday, June 28, 2013

Happy Endings

Fiction novels these days have mood swings.

As with a lot of other things in life (predestination and free will, for instance), people tend to swing one way or another on happy endings.  There are two mistakes novelists make when writing endings, and that's either to make it too happy or not happy enough.

This particular subject was brought to my attention by a person named Hana who commented on my post about fantasy cliches.  She wrote this:

" I, personally, adore writing teen fiction, so long as I never finish with the all too familiar 'happy ending.' Life has loose ends, odds that won't match up, people that end up alone, afraid, and without hope. You can't tie a story up with a pretty red bow and and call it a masterpiece. Often, things are left unfinished, words remain unsaid, and regret lingers in the air. If we are steering from cliche its not the subjects I stress to look out for, more-so the endings. "

I agree wholeheartedly that things aren't as easy as many books portray it to be. There needs to be grit. Too many novels make everything tie up in the end, easily and without cost. There needs to be cost, otherwise there won't be meaning. The world doesn't work like that.

But here is where I differ, very strongly.

I never have the excuse to write a completely realistic novel. As a writer, I have a vision of a sort of world that is different from our own, a better sort of world, the sort of world that is sanctified - even if we never get there.  But you cannot change the world unless you show what it could be, not what it already is.

Maybe fathers leaving their kids is realistic, but it's certainly something we want to change.  Maybe there's a story where the dad comes back - or never leaves at all.

Say somebody got lost in the wilderness. He's starving, he hasn't had water for hours. What good would it do to come up to him and describe to him his story, front-to-back, thirst and all? It would certainly be realistic. That is, after all, the way his life worked.

But say I sat down and told him a different story, one that was less realistic. Say I told him that if he had the strength to cross the wilderness, there was a lush oasis on the other side. Say that I told him that there was water there, and fruit he could eat, and a way to get back to civilization.

Realistic? Maybe not. But it gives him something a "sober realistic novel of to-day" (as Chesterton would say) never could. It gives him hope. It gives him vision. It gives him the motivation to change.

As a novelist, I'm not in the business of showing the world as it is. I'm in the business of changing the world into what it could be.

And, as a disclaimer, this involves showing the world as it is, but not stopping there.  The first three-quarters or Tornado C show the world as it is - the fantasy world, anyway.  But as things rise to a climax, that is where my story departs from our perception of what is "realistic".  My story has a happy ending.  Not one without pain or loss, but a happy ending.  Because even if unhappy endings are realistic, that's not what each of us wants in our own lives.

That doesn't mean I'm going to write perfect characters and completely happy endings and god-from-the-machine climaxes. But that does mean that I'll never write a book that is completely realistic - because realism is a portrait of depravity.

I'm not going to write a Brave New World. I'm going to write a Lord of the Rings.

What do you think?  Happy endings or not?  Do you agree with how I defined realism? Why?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Jag Swiftstorm said...

Great post, Jake! Oh, and about predestination... no, I won't go there now ;)

As a novelist, I'm not in the business of showing the world as it is. I'm in the business of changing the world into what it could be.

I totally agree with that. The world knows what it's like – everyone knows what it's like. But we need to show the world what it can be.

And I love your last line: I'm not going to write a Brave New World. I'm going to write a Lord of the Rings.

Keep it up, Jake! The world needs more writers like you.

Bluebelle said...

I LOVE this, Jake! I completely agree, and I've written similar things about the concept of heroes. Writers have a bigger impact in society than people probably want to admit; in a way, we really do make the world go 'round. Books influence how people think. So shouldn't we be writing things that will inspire good thoughts? I applaud you for voicing your thoughts on this. This is a great post! And I agree with Jag - that last line is terrific! :D

ElizabethLiberty said...

Excellent. Just my thoughts on the matter, but I'm not quite coherent enough to put them together. ;)

Bookishqueen said...

I completely agree. When a book ends completely happy, I feel a little cheated that I did not get a true ending. However, all endings need hope or they are worthless to teach (unless the message is that life is worthless).

Pathfinder said...


Epic closing line, though. *tips green fedora*

Writer4Christ said...

Really interesting thoughts!
I think happy endings or sad endings depend both on the writer, and the purpose of the style/mood of the book.
My ending may be a bit unexpected, and if I told you, you'd think it's a sad ending. But when you read it, I made sure the end was full of hope for the future.

Marian said...

Realism doesn't have to be sad. As Hana says: "things are left unfinished, words remain unsaid" - bittersweet, but not necessarily tragic. Even when tragic, though, realism is not always moral corruption...natural disasters, death, these things are beyond our control.

I think there's a need for both happy and sad endings, both idealism and realism. Someone else's realism, especially, can shed some perspective on the reader's own life.

Anne-girl said...

Thanks Jake. This is why I never read Virginia Woolf. Great post, well thought out and to the point. I totally agree {though it would be a great post even if I didn't}

I like to go for a hopeful ending. Some people can't get a "happy ending" with a bow and shiny wrapping paper and batteries included but I like to have every body happy in the end, even if they didn't get everything they wanted.

And actually that's more realistic from the christian perspective. In the end god doesn't give us what we want, but every blood bought believer has got a happy ending waiting.

The Director said...


This post is exactly the reason of what makes fiction, fiction. And why it is a blessing and not a curse.

While I am a sucker for the unhappy ending, sometimes, I am definitely with you on not sticking to reality. Why stick with reality when writing? If you want reality, just tell the reader to go outside and go live. They'll have reality aplenty. *shakes head* Better to write of greater, sometimes impossible things.

Christopher said...

See, Jake, I agree with you that all stories need to be part of the larger story (the story of reality) in which it will ultimately be a happy ending. But my agreement stops there.

In life there are certainly happy endings, but at the same time there are sad endings as well. Being realistic provides us a chance to say something strikingly true about the world we live in, and just how depraved it is, or, even better, to show how depraved it is and remind the reader that the only way things will get better is if they have a savior.

I read a book recently called The Boy in The Striped Pajamas. It's holocaust fiction, so I thought I knew the ending, but it completely blindsided me. It was so much sadder, so much more depressing than I thought it would be. I never want to read it again but it still is easily one of my favorite books. Why? Because it reaffirmed an uncomfortable, but important, truth. That people are wicked, and that Nazi officials like the ones in the book, are people. People like the ones we walk by on the street. People like us.

Is that fun to read about? No, but as Lewis once observed, stories have a great ability to tell the truth in a more piercing way than simply stating it. My problem is where you say that all endings must be more happy than not. But that's not how God tells his story. The subplots, if you will, the mini-stories within God's story don't always have happy endings. Hitler really did kill 6 million Jews. Mao really did kill 60-120 million people.

It may hurt, but sometimes we need to be reminded that there are in fact dragons.

But at the same time we need to be reminded that dragons, and in fact, THE dragon, has been and can be defeated.

Movies like The Dark Knight are very realistic, and do show humanity at its worst. The Dark Knight is my favorite movie, though. Not because it has a happy ending, (it doesn't) but because it and the other movies in that series revolve around one thing. People are evil, and without someone to save them they will, as the villain says once, eat each other. That's dark. But at the same time, the beauty that is portrayed in that trilogy makes it one of my all-time favorites.

The sad endings, even the sometimes tragic endings in that trilogy, and the constant battle of the protagonist to discover what good really is and to fight for it, are beautiful. The sacrifices the hero has to make remind the viewers that, as Sam said, there is good, and it's worth fighting for.

That message wouldn't have been lost, but it certainly would have been dulled had the film been less realistic.

The world we live in is not a world of happy endings, or of sad ones. It's a world of both. Tolkien understood that. The Lord of the Rings ends well, but The Children of Hurin most certainly does not. The Silmarillion contains instances of both happy and sad endings.

I agree with you, as I said before, that our stories, that all stories, need to be part of the bigger story that God is telling. But I disagree that that means we cannot write realistic fiction, or fiction with sad endings. Neither does it mean we have to write such fiction.

To put it in terms of your closing sentence, the world is a world of both Brave New Worlds, and Lord of the Rings.

Jake said...

I think we agree more than you think. The Dark Knight (which I actually saw for the first time several months ago) is one of my favorite movies as well. In my mind, however, it is a happy, though very bittersweet, ending. Why? Because the bad guy was stopped and the "positive ideal" triumphed.

I think that's one of the distinctions between happy and unhappy endings: which ideal triumphs? Does good win out or did evil win a round?

If good wins, but at a cost, then I would probably consider it a happy ending. But in books like Brave New World, evil wins. Not so happy.

I'll probably reply to this more in-depth later on, but I think that covers pretty broadly what I'm trying to say.

Zain awan said...

Actually i wouldnt have agreed less with you jake on this one .See there is a reason why fiction and reality are different genres and considering that most people consider that a fiction work should end in a more realistic fashion .It was the alternative reality that had caught the attention in the first place.Not the portrayal of the bitter reality the world has come to .Atleast with these books based on fiction we as writer and the readers as audience would not have had the opportunity to explore the authors point of view as realism would have limited the concept of the book itself .Rather the alternative reality would provide better exploration .Allowing for the exploration of new ways of both book writing and the expression of mind .Which is why i believe the authors view point gave us the brilliant book i am/was reading .So it's his right to show his way of the better world something we never thought possible .Any ways happy ending are always acceptable because it's the author choice how he wants to pan the climax out.