Does Every Story Need a Happy Ending?

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by Allison Maruska

Every story needs certain elements to be a story. We’ve talked about characters, settings, and problems. If we’re following the mnemonic below, that leaves us with solutions to talk about.

Cows = Characters

See = Setting

Pretty = Problem

Sunflowers = Solution

This works great for eight-year-olds learning the parts of the story they should include in a retell. Up to problems, it’s also helpful for writers to ensure they’re making the most of the elements. Are the characters interesting? Do they have issues? Does the setting add to the story in some way? Are the problems really problems, or are they goals?

Right around here is where things start getting fuzzy. Because solution isn’t really the right word.

Because not all stories have a solution.

What they have is a conclusion, and that’s different. Some stories have a conclusion that is also a solution – the classic “happily ever after.” The prince wins the heart of the princess. The kids find the treasure. The green eggs and ham are actually pretty good.

But other stories are less satisfying in their conclusions. Instead of a feeling that all is right with the world, they leave readers with…something else. Sadness. Frustration. Disappointment, but hopefully not simply because of how the story ended. We’ve been rooting for the characters for the duration of the tale, yet the white whale still wins. The gladiator dies. Bruce Willis was dead all along.

It’s just not what we were expecting.

I’ve heard people say stories should always have a happy ending, but I heartily disagree. I disagree for the same reason I think it’s a bad idea for any author to lock himself into the same kind of ending for every story.

Here’s the deal: If every story ended well, there would be no real suspense in any story. We wouldn’t worry about the prince because we know he’ll get the princess. He always does. We don’t worry about the detective tracking down the murderer because we know he will. He always does.

Get the idea?

It’s those other stories, the non-happy ending ones, that keep us caring about stories in general. The princess might tell the prince to bug off. The murderer might kill our detective. We don’t know, because anything is possible. It’s not always going to lead to a happy ending.

Just like every other element, the ending must serve the story. That means there won’t always be a tight solution. 

One of my favorite movies ever is Stranger Than Fiction. Setting aside the supposedly famous author’s use of “little did he know,” the story masterfully illustrates my point – there are comedies and tragedies. Peaks and valleys. Sometimes even when it looks like the good guy wins, he doesn’t.

The main character of the movie is Harold Crick, an OCD-leaning accountant with the IRS. He’s also the main character of a novel being written about him. He can hear the author’s voice in his head as he goes about his day. She narrates his actions and even provides him his internal monologue. Once he figures out what’s going on and tracks her down, he learns his story – the story she’s writing about him – doesn’t end well. She allows him to read the draft, and in spite of him knowing how things end for him, he doesn’t tell her to change it. Because her ending served his story very well.

That said, I feel I must offer a word of warning. Readers love happy endings and air-tight solutions. If you write a story with a not-so-happy ending, you’ll hear about it in reviews. A YA book I enjoyed was Reason to Breathe by Rebecca Donovan. The ending was shocking – it fit the story perfectly, but still, it was shocking.

If you read the negative reviews, you’ll see many, many complaints about how it ended. But the book is still highly rated even with those negative reviews, proving that it worked for the majority of readers.

In my own experience, The Fourth Descendant doesn’t end well for some of the characters, and several reviews mention it. When Drake and the Fliers was with beta readers, one was overjoyed that it had a happier ending. I laughed, because even after just one book, I’d conditioned readers (or at least that reader) to expect unhappy endings from me. I’m glad I get to be unpredictable.

 

 

 

 

Alternately titled: “To Every Problem There Is A Solution – Or Is There?”

Guest post contributed by Allison Maruska. Allison likes to post in line with her humor blog roots, but she also includes posts about teaching and writing specifically.


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31 thoughts on “Does Every Story Need a Happy Ending?”

  1. This is interesting as a novella I have written, 369 deals with a young girl coping with her father’s terminal illness, and it couldn’t get any darker, especially as she develops the onset of a mental illness as a coping mechanism. It’s a happy ending in that even though her fathers passes away, he finds peace in acceptance, and she finds peace in acceptance, but I feel if I am giving, not just the reader, but people who have experienced such a tough thing, a rough ride, or am I?
    I have started to continue the story where the girl then goes on to have further adventures, making more sense of the hardship, and I wonder if this would be more satisfying for the reader?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It sounds like you’re hitting on some true-to-life stuff – it wouldn’t be realistic if the father were magically cured. Her future adventures that help her make sense of it would be very satisfying, I think. Some of the most memorable and lasting stories are those that deal with human aspects like these.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The romance genre is the only one that requires the happy ending. All other genres are up for grabs. 🙂 In my opinion, The Sixth Sense movie with Bruce Willis had the best ending of all times. The questions were all answered in a satisfying way, and it was definitely a shocking ending. Those writers did an awesome job.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes! I’m not the only one! It feels good to know since I’m considered an oddball amongst my friends. I love death scenes and when a movie ends horribly (in a good way). Even my mom thought I was weird when I said I liked the ending of “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.” It’s a good movie, check it out.
      Anyway, personally, I’ve actually become sick of happy endings especially when it feels forced.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. The Sixth Sense is an example of how not to write a movie script. Surprises at the end of the story do not create a pleasant experience for the reader. And a Romance can be more interesting if the boy does not get the girl, or vicev ersa. Maybe s/he finds out the real life partner in somebody else.

      Like

  3. Endings need to e consistent with the story, because a story’s ending is what leaves the lasting impression on the audience: an ending that isn’t consistent with the story will leave them thinking the ending was inconsistent.

    A happy ending needs the second act to end on a negative note, in order to make the happy ending cathartic – the reader knows the extent of what was at stake. The happy ending should also solve the protagonist’s problem, because that’s the protagonist’s aim.

    A sad ending needs the second act to end on a positive note, in order to make the sad ending dramatically effective – the reader knows the potential of what could’ve been. The sad ending should also end the story without solving it, because then the protagonist hasn’t achieved what they wanted, which is the difference between a happy ending and a sad ending.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t think there should always be a happy ending, but I do think there should be a satisfying ending. I like it when I’m surprised or shocked – Jo Nesbo does it beautifully and for that genre it is great because it makes the suspense even more suspenseful. Once you have read a few of his books you are really on the edge of your seat because anything can happen.
    The ones I hate are the nothing endings that just trail off – they leave you thinking “Was that it?”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think this can most definintly be done but it leaves people upset often. Sometimes it has amazing results such as Bruce Willis in that one movie being the ghost. Other times it’s terribly upsetting. In the last book in the Divergent YA series ‘Allegiant’ I literally cried when the main character Triss died. I bawled and was very upset, even though it took me time to see this was the writer’s setup all along. But I still hated that she fought to be with Four, to live, and then she’s gone. I am wondering what they will do for the movie, if the actually do Allegiant Part 2. I hope she lives lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m in the process of writing a fictional series, inspired by real life events, and sadly it doesn’t all end well. It worried me to start with, but this post and comments have made me feel better about it. I have tried to make a satisfying ending by tying up all the loose ends and showing some hope for the future, but I guess only time (and reviews) will tell!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think difficult endings are definitely worth writing, but they do need to be set-up–not telegraphed so clearly that there is no shock, but to where they are the “right” way to end the book, to where there is artistic satisfaction that this is how the story ends, even if we don’t like it. Hamlet would feel wrong if the main character lived, and even though some people rewrote Shakespeare to give his tragedies happy endings, the “sad” originals are what have had the lasting power (and not the happy ending versions of King Lear, where he and his daughter live, or where Romeo and Juliet make it).

    Thanks for sharing this! It’s always encouraging to read this, as an author, because so many readers do prefer happy endings. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve read a lot of books that I think somewhere in editing were forced into a happy ending. And it doesn’t sit right, because it doesn’t match up to how things work in real life. Some books I really love (99% of the way through) leave a sickly sweet taste with the forced sugar cube ending that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the book. Blegh. Sugar high.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. One of my favorite movies is The Empire Strikes Back. Definitely not a happy ending for our plucky heroes. However, it was the proper conclusion to that part of the story and let us continue into the next movie. It worked as part of a series. Another great example of not happy endings would be Every Game of Thrones Book.

    The books need some kind of conclusions. Now always Happily Ever After though.

    Thank you for sharing this. Well written and thoughtful. Well done.

    Like

  9. My current WiP, which will be my first novel, doesn’t have a happy ending. I’m aware of the negative reviews I’ll get on this element, but I will not change my idea for this story. Bits and pieces of it are true life and that’s just the way life is.

    Yes, not all stories should have happy endings.

    Like

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