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?