Monday, September 12, 2011

Ending the 'Eternal' Despair -- Happy Endings

I’ve talked about Lowest of Low scenes a couple times before. I even talked about keeping hints of hope alive in a sea of eternal despair.

                But today’s post is about bringing an end to that despair, which wasn’t so eternal after all.

                At some point, your characters will have nowhere to go but up (unless you’re one of those authors who enjoys killing everyone and everything, but I’ll come back to that in a moment).

                Your characters are at rock bottom. Torture them any more, and they’ll be dead. All of them. Needlessly. And depressingly. At this point, unless you’re planning a resurrection or want to depress your reader, it’s best to turn around. Start to move back toward a happy ending. Not too fast, or you might border on the edge of unbelievable (for instance, if the main character’s trio of best friends he’s known since forever perishes dramatically in a gruesome, nightmare-inducing way within the last chapter, it will be unbelievable if three pages later your MC is chuckling along with the rest of the Heroic Party, partying without a care in the world after somehow scraping out a victory at the very last second).

                Baby steps. Back towards sunny days and sweet memories. Towards an ending that can leave a reader with a smile on their face. What kind of smile? Well, that depends on what kind of ending it is.

·         Wide, Uncontrollable, People-are-staring Grin: These are the truly happy endings. All the frayed strands of plot and characters have been tied together in a big, pretty bow. Sad times are a distant memory. All the couples are happy together, and all the villains have been ground into the dust. There is literally nothing left to be sad about. When done well, this can be a good ending, but done badly it can be just as unsatisfying as an awful, depressing ending, so tread carefully when attempting to write one of these.

·         Big Smile, But Creased Eyebrows = “What Comes Next?”: Things ended mostly in a happy way, but there are still some questions left unanswered. There are places where the author expects you to fill in the gaps. Will so-and-so get together? What will happen to the imprisoned villain, or the one who got away? Will the lady with the tragic past ever truly open her heart up to love? You’re happy… And yet you can’t help but mourn that it’s all over.

·         Crooked Smirk/Lips Pressed Thin: Say you are an author who kills everyone off. Sometimes, one last happy note a few pages from the end wouldn’t hurt.  Maybe there’s a little victory. Maybe there’s at least a few moments of happiness between your MC and the girl he loves. And hey, even if the meteoroid really does hit the earth and wipe out every living thing on the planet, at least your main character got to spit in the villain’s face one time before their extinction. Don’t feel like you have to break the mood you’ve been building, by any means… But like I said in another post, sometimes you just gotta interrupt the suck, and keep your reader from ending with the thought, “Nothing good happened in that book at all!”

·         Smile’s Still There, but Small. And Bittersweet: The author ended on a light note, but not without remembering that last, perishing trio. The characters remember every dark moment, every cloud that covered the sun, but in the end, there’s still hope. The ending is a memorial to every struggle the MC faced, and everyone he had to leave behind. Times were dark. They might still be dark. But somewhere up ahead, there is light.

                What happens when you don’t give the reader those (hints of) happy endings?

                You’ll never guess. You ready? This is probably the deepest thing I’ve ever written in a blog post.

                The reader stays unhappy.

                I’m serious, folks. In the post on interrupting the suck with happy moments, I briefly mentioned books where nothing good happens. Ever. I’m sure you can think of one, where things ended depressingly and you started to wonder, “Why did I read this? I just spent how many hours reading to feel nothing but sad and frustrated?”

                There are plenty of things in the real world that could do the same thing, much faster.

                Deep down, everyone loves a happy ending. It may not be obviously happy. The author may leave some threads dangling, or they may slip in a few ominous omens of evil lurking things, just in case the chance for a sequel rolls along. Or they may have made sacrifices that you wished with all your heart were just very long typos that nobody noticed during the editing process.

                But when all things are said and done, we want to end a book with hope. That things will get better. That the sacrifices weren’t in vain. That even the depressing stories were just setting the framework for a brighter, happier story that takes place long after you turn the last page.

                In fiction. In real life. I think no matter who you’re talking about, they want to have hope. It’s part of being a reader… It’s part of being a writer…

                And it’s part of being human.

What happy endings have you read that ended eternal despair, or made you smile in some way I didn't describe above? Do you agree with me, that deep down everyone wants to hope? Has there ever been a completely depressing, nothing-good-happens book that you enjoyed? Any whole-heartedly happy endings that you didn't enjoy? And as always, feedback on how I'm doing is welcome. ;)


  1. You know, I think we've been missing the obvious here.

    You need to get a degree in literature than get your masters and then: TEACH WRITING. Duh! You'll have all your lessons planned out already, piece of cake! ;)

    But to get to *this* post: This reminds me of some of the saddest times in my life: Funerals. Funerals are sad - they're supposed to be sad - but I have yet to be at one where there hasn't been some laughter. People can find joy and hope, even in their saddest moments. It's a commonality in humans - we don't want to be sad indefinitely. And most reader's don't want to be left with nothing but sadness and dispair, either!

  2. Lol. XD Teaching... I don't know. I've thought about it, but I don't think it would be something I enjoy very much. :/

    Editing might be interesting... I'd have to look into it more. XD But I think I'm going with Literature at the moment anyway, so... ;)

    I agree. Joy. Hope. Even just the bitter-sweet memories. At our core, we all have a little optimism in us. :]

  3. It's funny that I'm reading this now.

    My sister and I were talking recently about how we don't watch romance movies. Why?

    Because that's NOT how it happens in real life. And it pisses us off. Of course, there are exceptions, but really, want I want is a real story about real people leading real lives.

    On the other hand, I wouldn't want the movie to end badly, even though that's how many a real life stories end. It would blow my mind if they couple fought, broke up and the end. Seriously? I want to escape reality: give me a happy ending!

    LOL Does this make any sense at all?

  4. Kind of, lol. Like I said, I like endings that tend to be more... bittersweet. Things aren't perfect, but there's hope that they'll get better. :]