A Defense of Happy Endings

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Let’s get down to it. What’s better: a happy ending or a sad one – and why?

First, let’s define “happy” and “sad” endings. It’s not as simple as whether or not the hero survives; Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Lewis’s The Last Battle both end with everyone dying, but one leaves you in despair and the other brings you incredible joy.

I think it’s more accurately measured by the presence of two things: meaning and victory. Compare Sydney Carton’s death in A Tale of Two Cities to any Nicholas Sparks book. Everything that happens in Two Cities leads up to, even contributes to, Carton’s death, and he dies nobly (meaningfully), to save a friend (victory). Whereas Sparks’s M.O. is for two people to find love, only to lose it again (defeat) when one of them unexpectedly (senselessly) dies in a car wreck, in a shipwreck, or of Leukemia. We cry an awful lot at Sparks (at least the movies; I never deemed the books worthy of my time) as well as at Dickens, but one leaves us sad and the other, satisfied. Dickens’s ending is meaningful; Sparks’s is a parlor trick.

Sparksstirs up emotion, sure – but tears are cheap. It’s easy to get our characters into scrapes, to beat them bloody, to take away everything they care about; it’s harder to get them out of trouble, heal them, and give them their hearts’ desires while making it meaningful and believable instead of nauseatingly cheesy. But the fact is – and Dickens proves it – it can be done.

Happy endings sometimes seem cheesy because they are unrealistically glossy – like nothing bad ever happened again. These are either simplified to reinforce the style of the story (perhaps for younger readers), or are just badly written. But some people lump all happy endings into the same “Unrealistic” category. They call themselves realists, preferring books that speak the “hard truth.” They scorn stories that end with weddings, saying the marriage would never last in real life. But that’s not realism. Realism is acknowledging that some marriages end in divorce; cynicism is assuming they all do.

And the funny thing about cynicism? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. How much of what’s wrong in real life, failed marriages included, is that way just because people have given up fighting? If you write about a “realistic” failed marriage, what good is it? You’re not revealing anything your readers haven’t seen already. You’re only reinforcing hopelessness. Why not write about a struggling couple that fights to save their marriage? You can empower your readers to hope and to fight without being cheesy or unrealistic.

Don’t be silly, you might say; everyone knows it’s just a story. Readers don’t take it to heart.

That’s a lie. Even the cynical marketing world I work in acknowledges that the story is one of the most powerful forces on earth. A well-crafted story doesn’t just claim that a bad situation can turn out well—it shows how a bad situation can turn out well. Stories can make people see new possibilities. Stories can change people’s minds. Stories can inspire or discourage.

What will your stories do?

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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21 Comments

  1. Oh endings. Mine will be the death of me. xD

    Still I totally agree, ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ are really relevant terms. Really all that matters is that there’s satisfaction in the end. Although I’d personally just love to leave people with no satisfaction from mine. Haha I won’t most likely, but I want to leave the sense that even if one goal is accomplished there’s still more to be done and the world will still be there, growing, changing, and struggling.

    Great post! Making me think again of course!

    • You’re so mean! But I know what you mean – there’s definitely value to the sense that the story goes on, that there are more adventures to be had.

      • I won’t be that mean unless I think I can do absolute justice to it. If I’m not a strong enough writer, and it doesn’t jerk heartstrings and tears and all that just right, then I won’t do it.

        • That’s no kind of attitude! You have to BECOME that good of a writer. I hate to quote Yoda, but there is no “try” – it’s do, or do not. Either you keep pushing (and rewriting and editing and hitting your head against the computer screen) until you succeed, or you give up. You can do it – I believe in you!

  2. This question is a hard one for me to answer because I’ve loved happy endings, tragic endings, confusing endings, and even abrupt endings that left me desperate for something more. In general, I want resolution (in other words, usually I want a conclusion), but I’m not absolute on that.

    For example, Roberto Bolaño is famous not only for plots that defy understanding for hundreds of pages; even his endings are somewhat mysterious (see “2666″). Tolstoy tended to intermix tragedy and happiness in his endings. “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace” are both good examples of this tendency. I couldn’t believe the perfect ending Dickens gave to David Copperfield in the novel of the same name! Yet I enjoyed that book.

    Most of all I want to see character growth because I agree with you that as a writer you want to “empower your readers to hope and to fight” and to “show how a bad situation can turn out well.” I can tolerate and even love endings that don’t fulfill this desire, but the author must pull such endings off brilliantly for them to work.

    • I haven’t read David Copperfield, but I did read Nicholas Nickleby and I suspect they are similar. But the tone of the whole book was charming and unbelievable from the start. It was more for amused entertainment than for deep, soul-wrenching inner contemplation (or whatnot). The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is funny and totally unbelievable and the bad ending is actually perfect and hilarious. So it depends on the type of book – but in this post I am referring to more serious work.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I think the only reason people want sad endings is cause all the time happy endings seem cheesy. in my mind the best ending is A happy ending but not THE happy ending that has been anticipated. or a happy ending with a catch. or a sad ending cliff hanger.

    • Great point! The happy ending that is suprising is best of all. Surprising and yet believable – as if you should’ve seen it all along but didn’t.

      I don’t like sad ending cliffhangers, though, unless there are sequels!

  4. I suppose it doesn’t have to be happy, but I do want closure, and a good feeling when I lay the book down.

  5. I don’t want a happy ending if it’s cliché. I think that might be what makes some happy endings cheesy. Happy is good but it has to be thought-provoking.

    I prefer happy endings (as long as they’re not cliché), but for some reason it’s the tragic ones that stick with me forever. Like the end of Stephen King’s The Mist. Now I only saw the movie, but wow. That one will haunt me forever.

  6. Ah, the ending… I find the “overly glossy” happy endings you refer to as dissatisfying, most of the time, as the hopeless ones.

  7. Not as glad as I am. 😉 Although, I am glad I was a cynic for one reason. I understand what the world looks like through darkened glass, and can relate to those who still see it that way. I am fluent in cynic and pessimist. Optimist is still fairly unintelligible to me, though.

    • I imagine that will be an advantage as you reach out to others. Can you use the cynic’s language (cynish???) to speak optimistically?

      • Cynish (as good a name as I’ve heard) is incapable of speaking in optimistic terms. It is, however, quite capable of revealing Hope, which, of course, exists as strongly, and perhaps shines even brighter, in a dark world than a light one. 🙂

    • Optimism is an intentional mindset. Foolishness is idealism.

  8. Pingback: How to kill your hero | bekindrewrite

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