Why do so many people disparage happy endings as a general concept? Why is it such a cardinal sin for romances to end happily and why do so many writers think their hipster protagnoist passing out in a gutter is so much more valid? Well no one seems to be asking, “What the hell does this story actually need?”…more importantly What’s the problem with tying up your story’s end too tight? Isn’t happiness a good thing?
There is such a thing as a story tying up way too nicely with too happy an ending. 400 pages of struggles suddenly skips a few months and everything is resolved somehow (I’m looking at you Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes. I do love her though). Everything works out in the best possible manner for everyone and “All’s well that ends well”. Trouble is we know that isn’t how life works, and you know not every story calls for a happy ending even if you love it. When things get tied up too neatly you get three responses people either embrace the sappiness for pure satisfaction, raise a brow but accept it, or respond with full on eye rolls followed by questioning your writer cred. While other writers have mentioned getting negative reactions for not making happy endings, this post is going to focus on the other side because for some reason tidy endings come across as more scrutinized. I don’t think any of these reactions are wrong, but I do think the validity of negative responses hinges on one thing beyond personal taste: There gets a point where the book doesn’t support a happy ending. Sometimes a book doesn’t actually build towards one. Sometimes you get half way and the last arch of the story is obviously hastily put together. You can’t help but feel like you didn’t get your money’s worth or,if you’re kind, you just wish it were better.
When the whole story is perfectly tied up in a neat little package and has a nice little bow that is one thing, but when the package is all lumpy that bow won’t really fit especially if its two small for the package you made. Your story has to support its end, and for all the well loved and consumed romance novels in the world…very few of them actually do this.
Let’s Get Serious?
So why do people roll their eyes at romantic happy endings? It isn’t just them being sappy if that was the case then most people would move on and not feel the need to drag story endings. If that was the case romance wouldn’t necessarily be treated like the genre of the brain dead. For some reason happy endings make people feel like the author just isn’t being authentic or just hasn’t really written anything of note. Of course this gleefully ignores 90% of beloved literature has romance plots regardless of if that is an intense center focus aspect of the story. So why? Aren’t literature and book geeks smarter than this?
No. Not really….ok I’m half joking.
I mentioned this in a previous post (Disconnected from Happily Ever After?) but it is relevant to romance, and any literature aimed at women. There I talked about the outside pressures affecting endings, but long before economic shifts people rolled their eyes at happy endings and balked at the stories with them being more than entertainment. The distaste for happy endings can be tied to the view of woman orientated literature as being of lesser importance because that literature tends to focus on relationships and “frivolous” things. Men are traditionally considered more “logical”, action driven, and less people orientated. It’s all biased thinking though differences across averages suggest relatively minor differences in relationship building and gendered responses to them.Mostly women are socialized to be more focused on relationships(all kinds). We also get called over emotional, etc. etc. Male focused stories and authors are assumed to write about less “frivolous” more serious happenings and female focused stories are assumed to be shameless author inserts with a lack of imagination and over emotional style. As a result stories with a heavy focus on dramatic relationship elements, especially if they’re by women, usually get side eye for not being “real literature” by old fuddy duddies of all genders.
“The romance genre”, a dusty professor assumes,”does nothing except offer entertainment instead of intellectual thought.”
Bullshit, of course, but it tends to be taken as true. Ignore the fact that romances allow women the ability to explore romantic and sexual journey’s we’re often told we shouldn’t or can’t have. Regardless of gender they can reflect ideas of how you can conduct a good(or bad) relationship, offering riveting story lines, and make you feel a thousand different emotions, etc. However, the tendency for romantic stories to result in happy endings often leads people to conclude those endings can’t be taken seriously. They’re automatically frivolous, unrealistic, and idle feminine wishes. “Mary-Sues, self-inserts, reflections of fantastical, petty, and female selfishness , and not the huMAN condition, blah blah blah more bull shit blah.”
Serious is not synonymous with realistic, but we often use those words interchangeably when talking about writing. That itself probably is a reflection of gendered thinking that we should get out of. The serious isn’t frivolous, and so the serious is realistic. Its a bit of a leap, but it seemingly follows. You can have a happy ending but it is strongly tied to the romance, the female, genre. It isn’t real…just a day dream for bored housewives.
Meanwhile proponents with good reason often defend the value of entertainment, the benefits I indicated, and assert that having a sad or neutral or even ambiguous ending just for the sake of it is really a reflection of ego and faux “depth”. They question the fundamental assumptions of traditional literature and undermine their premises. In a way Jennifer Weiner, who talks about this often, is kind of punk rock for doing that as are those on that side of the argument. Plenty of writing classes are filled with faux depth and assertions that the Tom ending up drunk in a hotel room is far more “real” and human then Betty getting happily married. Its such a troupe the “edge lord” and MFA hipster novelist are often joked about in inner circles. Hell check this out twitter. The joke is real and for a reason. Let’s be real every generation has people, usually men, like that who then in turn have dictated what stories and story elements have value. Luckily people of all genders are calling the BS out for its shallowness. Still with that out of the way we’re left with one thing…
Both sides of the argument often focus on the concept of endings ,for any story, as having to be neutral, happy, or sad instead of endings fitting individual stories.
We say the ending is bad, but we don’t go back and understand why. If you don’t understand why you can’t write better next time, you can’t learn from someone else’s failings, and really you end up making blanket statements about the concept of endings without story context.No ending is inherently good or bad, but if things are put together too neatly then you end up in a weird place
Nothing sparks more eye rolls than Shakespeare. A beloved male author whose stories are prototypical “wrap it up in a giant red bow” stories when they aren’t tragedies. Still he was considered a masterful play write whose works are held up as a standard of writing and reading. However that doesn’t necessarily mean he goes unchecked by those unimpressed by old Willy S’s rep. As a trained actress who has surrounded herself with people interested in his works and other actors who participates in performances of them there is a general consensus regardless of age or gender that the stories tie up ridiculously neatly. I can still remember reading and watching Much Ado About Nothing in high school. Kids of all races, classes, and background collectively rolled their eyes and almost every response to the story my teacher got from the most to the least interested student was about how “ridiculous everything falling into place seemed”. Once again the problem was that when the story breaks down the pretty language, which was foreign to many, couldn’t convince them the story was good. Willy didn’t convince them, and those who plop on happy endings instead of crafting them will end up being just as unconvincing.
When you get past the Willy worshipers ,who are usually the same people suggesting happy endings don’t really belong in literature and romance stories are rarely is ever literature, you find a ton of people who think his works are too neat.
At the end of the day Much Ado has two characters who have come to hate each other, who are manipulated, a scheme by an angry prince to dispose his brother, a grave misunderstanding created out of pure spite on an issue that to this day can end with girls being pushed out into the streets, more deception, and then…everything works out. You can’t really write Much Ado to sell in 2016 unless you’re actually working on a version of Much Ado. The sudden solution to everything appearing like an angel from heaven doesn’t impress readers who are inundated by narratives and have literally millions to choose from. For the rare few they can weave gold with a single word, make doves cry, and the skies weep! Then there’s the rest of us who do the best we can.
Write What The Story Needs Not just What You Want!
If you’re crafting a narrative you build a base where the audience understands your characters like you want, where the plot flows like it needs to, and where you are without question writing what the story demands. I say that last part to you a lot. You are writing a story in your head and it is yours, but that story still can make demands. You can break convention, but you must do so artfully where it seems like your intention. That’s why people say don’t break the rules until you understand them because otherwise your audience can’t separate mistake from intentional action.
My problem with In Her Shoes is that the happy ending is there because the author wants it there. She forces that metaphorical shoe to fit at the end when she, the reader, and the characters haven’t actually earned it yet. Without earning it there is no tangible satisfaction. It comes out of left field. It comes with little preparation. It comes like someone threw a puppy into your house. You might want it, but shit that’s not only inconsiderate but unsatisfying because (the puppy’s fine) BUT YOUR DAMN WINDOW IS JACKED AS FUCK. But you got a puppy that makes you feel warm inside, so shouldn’t you be happy. Maybe. Not if it isn’t a puppy you did not want, did not ask for, were never prepared to take care of, were never prepared to get, or it just doesn’t fit with anything that is going on in relation to how you get that puppy(a puppy doesn’t fix a broken window).
If you establish a world of terror, characters with a thousand different problems, and a tone that just does not serve to make your readers believe a pleasant solution is possible than your happy ending won’t feel real. Your story can telegraph happiness and still feel real, but it can’t ,without any warning, do a 180 at the end so almost every single problem gets solved. Your book may be excellent, well written, perfectly proofread, and almost perfectly well executed until the ending. What the reader will remember is the dissonance of that random ending. They will remember it not making sense that all of a sudden everything fits together so each heart break is forgiven, every couple is happy, death is mourned the forgotten, new jobs are destiny, old jobs are saved, and peace is restored. Most of all they will remember none of it ending as it really should as established by how you wrote the story. If you establish sadness without establishing hope and resolution then your writing will feel like you couldn’t bear to end the story on a less sad ending. When that happens the feeling your story gives off is one that makes the end see thoughtful, inauthentic to the rest of the story, perhaps rushed, and most of all completely out of place. Worse is that some people will question your skill as an author. Truth be told I haven’t looked at another Lauren Beuke story after Zoo City because the last half was…unsatisfactory to say the least. I may pick up another book and try again, but what I remember is the ending. This goes to show the importance of establishing your story in a way that feels correct to your audience.
I’m not advocating for the idea that you can’t choose anything. We’re writing after all. In fact what I’m saying is you do have a choice based on the obligation you’ve made to tell the story. You can choose to tell it one way, to add certain elements or subtract others. You dictate the story, so you have to dictate it correctly so the audience grasps not exactly how it is going to end, but the possibilities of that ending. At the end of the day that is the problem audiences tend to have with endings once you get past the emotional response. They just didn’t believe how the movie ended. They couldn’t resolve the dissonance between the rest of the story and what a writer established and the way the story ended with everything being tied up neatly. Things were shit 30 minutes ago in the movie. Two issues ago these characters weren’t even talking to each other anymore. Over the last 260 pages we watched the main character’s lives nearly crumble, be belt back up again, and then fall apart in a way more severe than what happened at the movies start. How is it in the last 15 minutes, last seven pages, last ten pages that everything is ,not just resolved, but fixed?
It is one thing to leave the reality of exactly how the sausage is made out of the kitchen and just serve sausage, but it is another to start making the sausage and end up serving everyone a nice Caesar salad.
You need to write what you love and what you believe the story should be. I’ll never tell you any different, but you need to always ask yourself if any of that relates to the story your actually writing. If the ending of your story gets tied up at the end with complete happiness for the main characters when you’ve set up a story of constant heartbreak without much in the way of hope or possibility than the neat little bow on that boxed Caesar salad of an ending is lopsided…and you haven’t given anyone anything they really want to sink their teeth into. And when you do that the audience may decide to sink their teeth into you instead.