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.