Boy gets girl. Woman falls in love. The dog lives. The hero wins. The villain is punished. Evil is overcome. Goodness triumphs. Love conquers all. These are happy endings—the endings, which most readers want and demand. But should they?
More importantly, should we, as writers, create stories with a happy ending?
In order to answer that question more completely, it’s important to explore why happy endings are most readers desired outcome in a story. There are several reasons, which include but are not limited to: escapism, emotional transference, fulfillment of hope and a sense of completion.
Good fiction transports readers beyond their own insular world of experience and emotion. This transcendence of one’s own reality is why many choose to envelop themselves in stories. It’s a form of escape and, quite honestly, why I personally fell in love with books as a small child.
The happy ending is the crowning moment that gives readers hope beyond reality’s experience and the satisfaction derived from the feeling of completion we all desire in our own lives. A wonderful ending to all experiences is what we hope for when we are living through the undesired, the difficult, and, at times, unbearable. Stories with happy endings give this to us.
But is the happy ending the only way to feel joy and fulfillment?
There is another aspect to explore in the examination of whether stories should have a happy ending. And that aspect is the converse conclusion—an unhappy ending. The ending in which the girl’s love isn’t reciprocated, the couple divorces, the dog dies, and good doesn’t triumph not completely.
What good lies in these endings? If sought and considered, much good rests in the unhappy ending. Stories that break your heart are the ones, much like life’s experiences, that profoundly change your ideas and way of thinking—they change you. What are gained are a new perspective, an enhanced ability to empathize, and a renewed understanding of the world and your place in it. Within these transformations, joy and fulfillment can be found.
This joy comes from reaching a heightened sense of awareness of oneself and the world even if the attainment of this happiness is fraught with much bleaker emotions. The feeling of completion is found in the ability to recognize, accept and grow from experiences (real or read) that are both unexpected and difficult.
Readers and writers both should remember that a happy ending is not guaranteed just because one has come to the end of the book. Just as life doesn’t guarantee a happy ending when one reaches the end of an experience. And if fiction is representative of reality then it not only makes sense but also is also necessary that not all endings conclude happily.
It is more than a matter of morosity. The reflection of reality in fiction allows a depth of emotion unavailable in the happy ending to manifest within the reader, creating the possibility for illimitable personal development.
Allowing for the fact that there are certain genres that lend well to the happy ending, I think that stories shouldn’t always “end” happily. Readers can still find a means to escape, a vehicle to feel real emotion and way to find hope. After all, the light is only brightest in the dark.
Thank you for reading. I look forward to your comments.