And they lived happily ever after: How to satisfy the reader with your story’s conclusion
This is a guest post by Marie Harbon
Does a great book always need a happy ending?
We all know the proverbial scenario; girl falls in love with boy, cowboy rides off into the sunset and the bad guy is defeated, followed by much rejoicing in the land. But is a happy ending an essential ingredient for a great book or movie?
Lindsay Doran, film producer and missionary for mood-elevating movies got to the heart of that question in a recently published article. Many of her conclusions relate to the world of books as well as movies. While she didn’t want to create a rigid formula for a great movie, she aimed to challenge the Hollywood notion that a movie is only art if it ends badly, and that you’ll only win an award if you write about misery.
One of her chief findings was that audiences care most about relationships and the positive resolution of them. It is not so much the character winning that appeals to audiences but sharing that accomplishment with a significant other. An example of this would be The King’s Speech, in which King George VI, played by Colin Firth, conquers his stammer and shares the victory with his wife, daughters and the cheering crowds.
There is value in a story with a feel-good factor. It’s a quick fix–a literary or visual form of Prozac. Indeed, laughter trumps any drug, but personally I think that the temporary lift in mood is soon forgotten. For a story with a lasting impression, there are other elements involved. Remember, in Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince Dumbledore dies. In Titanic 1500 passengers go down with the ship, and even the main character Jack doesn’t make it. As author Nike Marshall astutely puts it, “Happy endings can be cliché and diminish the impact of the story. Less-than-happy is more believable.” Concluding a story with a satisfactory or even less-than-ideal event or series of events can often be appropriate. As author Emerald Barnes surmises, “Some stories don’t have the option of having a happy ending.”
As readers we can engage with the lives of the characters and the conflicts, challenges, and successes they encounter. We relate to other people in order to learn how they deal with these difficulties, almost as if it’s a kind of virtual reality simulation. This is one of the reasons soaps are so popular. The way a book ends is also either a reflection on how we’d like a situation to conclude or a healthy skepticism in knowing “that’s life; what will be will be.”
“Life is made up of pleasurable and horrific experiences, and there’s nothing wrong with a book or movie telling a story that shines a light on our failures,” wrote Denise DeSio, author of Roses’s Will.
As human beings, we like closure. We like to be able to shut the door on something or to file it away as a success or failure. This may be one of the reasons why cliff-hanger endings in serials can be risky in the book world–because we don’t like situations in our own life to be unresolved. It is therefore important to strike a balance between wrapping up one phase and creating a lead to where the story will take the reader next. Season finales in TV series craft this well.
One of the greatest maxims of the writing world is “show, don’t tell,” which can tailor a beautiful conclusion where the reader is given both the satisfaction of finality and the imaginative license to create what happens next. As science fiction author Glenn Scrimshaw puts it, “The legend of King Arthur works so well at that; a bittersweet ending but the promise of Arthur’s return when needed.”
Everything leads to the emotional involvement of the reader in the final moments of a story. Look back at the sadness of the death of Dumbledore, a character that readers were very attached to, or the tragedy of the huge loss of life in Titanic. As author Carlyle Labuschagne states, “I like drama and feeling like my heart is about to explode with sorrow.”
What we really want as readers is a powerful climax after the build-up as opposed to a puft!
The engagement of powerful emotions can leave a far greater impact on a reader than a chocolate box ending. There is something so compelling about tales of misery because we all experience loss and even abuse in our lives or those close to us. Through a story, we can release that sadness in a positive way and observe how characters deal with their challenges. I believe there’s another factor at work too; it’s a quality called resilience. A character who survives loss, abuse, or tragedy may be far more inspiring than the traditional commercial hero because it sends a powerful signal that infuses us to endure—“Whatever life throws at me, I’m still here. Bring it on!”
About this post’s author:
Marie Harbon is the author of the science fiction/paranormal series Seven Point Eight. The First Chronicle is currently available through the Kindle store, and the second book is due for release this summer. Marie has a degree in sport and fitness and taught group exercise for several years, delivering aerobics and Pilates classes as well as instructing dance and sports for children. Aside from writing, Marie is a fabric geek and is obsessed with making bags and corsets. She lives in Eastwood, a small mining town in England, with her son and two cockatiels. You can find her on Goodreads and on Twitter as @marieharbon and @7point8series.
I absolutely agree with this article. In my latest book, A Bed of Knives, I have tried very hard to produce a satisfactory ending, but one where the reader will always wonder, because of events leading to the end of the story, whether it all worked out OK in the end.