I have a love-hate relationship with happy endings. I love the sense of closure a satisfying happy resolution brings to a work of fiction, but sometimes the simplicity with which the problems fall away leaves me feeling empty. To me, the best kind of ending is one that marks the completion of a beautiful, messy journey, providing a sense of closure without the implied “happily ever after.” The journey was messy, remember? The protagonist still has dirt under her fingernails, and maybe a few scars. But she made it.
We’ve all read books that we loved… right up until the end when suddenly something felt “off” and the story stopped speaking to us. Sometimes a happy ending robs the character’s struggles of their meaning: she lived happily ever after, and chucked all those memories of sorrow and courage and becoming out the window. Sometimes a sad ending seems equally unsatisfying: he sacrificed everything to reach his dream! And he accomplished it! And then… he died. The end.
What is the sweet spot that makes a happy ending realistic, or a sad ending satisfying?
I’ve mentioned before that I still haven’t fully determined how the book I’m writing will end. The beautiful, messy journey I’ve sent my character on is more of an internal one than an external one. There isn’t a finish line she can break through, pumping her fists in the air like a champion. The break-through she has is in her way of living. And then, she has a decision to make between two bitter-sweet paths. Both paths are compromises in which she could find a satisfying life… but neither feels fully satisfying to me. Happily ever after doesn’t feel right to me, and I’m not going to kill her off to spare me from making the decision (tempting though it may be)!
I’m hoping that the right solution will reveal itself to me as it becomes clear to the character. I’m only about half-way through her journey, and she hasn’t been truly tested yet. All I know is this: there’s no prince coming to rescue her. She’s going to have to get through it on her own.
What kind of endings do you like to read or write? Do you begin writing stories with a specific ending in mind, or let the story evolve over time?