Friday, March 6, 2009

Happily Ever After?

I haven't blogged in almost a week. I've been nursing all my sick boys back to health. I went to work 2 out of 5 days this week, and it feels like I've worked an 8 day week. Weird, huh?

So I'm writing about happy endings tonight. Does a story need a happy ending to be satisfying? I would answer with an emphatic no! Those of you who are in my family or have been long-time friends are rolling your eyes about now. I have been known to rant at the end of a movie that ended badly...I am Legend...horrible ending. kids and I still hold that one up as the all time most horrible ending for a movie. I haven't seen it (and I never will), but Bruce thinks The Wicker Man is the worst ending ever. Bruce and I had dear friend, Fred Waugh, that once talked me into watching K-9, an 80's police dog movie. It came on the heels of Turner & Hooch, another 80's police dog movie in which the dog dies. I made Fred swear on everything holy and sacred that the dog wouldn't die. I almost beat the crap out of him when it appeared the dog had died. I'm not kidding...I punched him repeatedly while cussing him out. I HATE dead dog movies. He never let me live it down (The dog lived.). My students know that I refuse to read a book by Nicholas Sparks because he likes to kick you in the teeth at the end of his books.

So why would I say a story doesn't have to have a happy ending? A story should end honestly. It should follow through in a manner that is true to the characters, plot line, and genre. The all-time master at satisfying, but tragic endings, is the Bard. Shakespeare wrote stories in which EVERYONE dies, and you don't feel cheated or tricked at the end. Even Romeo and Juliet, one of the world's great love stories ends the way it should. I read it with my students every year, and we watch clips of the old Franco Zeffirelli movie and the entire Baz Luhrmann version. The end always feels right...sad, but right. It might help that the actual title is The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. And then there's the fact that he tells you right from the start that "from forth the fatal loins of these two foes, a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life." But even if he hadn't, you can see the tragedy coming. Romeo is impulsive, and Juliet is headstrong. They both share the teenaged characteristic of having no perspective...not being able to see past the nose on their face. The death scene is beautifully written. I think Romeo's lines right before he drinks the poison are some of the best in literature, especially when delivered by a great actor. "Eyes look your last. Arms take your last embrace. And lips, oh you the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss, a dateless bargain to engrossing death."

Great stuff...and honest. So why do I refuse to read Nicholas Sparks? Dishonesty, trickery, cheating the story for a tear-jerker effect. And it works. I routinely have students (usually girls) who think he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. I've only read Message in a Bottle, so maybe I'm not being fair, but the end of that book was cheap. The story is set up like a classic and woman meet against all odds and fall in love, even though man hasn't gotten over dead wife. I've read tons of stories with similar plots, and that's why the end feels so dishonest. Instead of living happily ever after with woman, man dies at sea saying a last goodbye to dead wife. Sorry about your luck woman (and reader). Life's a bitch and then you die. Fine...there's a place for that kind of story, but don't package it like a romance. I threw the book against the wall and vowed never to read another Nicholas Sparks, and by god, I haven't. I won't watch movies adapted from his books either. My friends can't believe I've never seen The Notebook, but sorry about your luck Nick. Life's a bitch...

The Rachel Vincent book I read recently doesn't end happily every after, and it's powerful because it's brutally honest. Actions, consequences, and all that good stuff. And it really is good stuff. Then there's one of my all time favs...A Tale of Two Cities. "It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done: It is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known." That's a wonderfully sad ending.

I am Legend and AI aren't really dishonest, just bleak. I'm not into nihilism...which if you think about it is what "Life is a bitch and then you die" is all about. I like a ray of hope. At the end of Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets and the Montagues are friends again. The kids didn't die in vain. Sydney Carton gets beheaded, but he shows us the glory of the human spirit and the power of love.

Finding the balance in my own writing has been interesting. How much am I willing to let my characters suffer? I want my readers to have a good experience with my book. I don't want to resort to cheap tricks to get sympathy, nor do I want a deux ex machina in which everything works out through some silly plot twist that isn't honest. I'm rolling along again after being stuck for a while, so I guess we'll see.

Happy weekend and Happy Reading!


  1. I remember being shocked by the ending of Gone With The Wind because it did not have a "happily ever after" tied up with a pretty pink bow. The ending was good, but it kind of punched me in the stomach.

    Years later, when Scarlett came out, I devoured it. The lovestruck teenager in me loved the ending, but I knew it was a cheap, contrived ending -- Scarlett and Rhett were not meant to be together, that's not how Margaret Mitchell wrote them. They would not have ended up together living in the moors of Scotland -- er, I mean Ireland, with their perfect green-eyed daughter.

    It made for a great Harlequin, but a terrible GWTW sequel.

    I find US/Hollywood audiences need not so much the happy ending, but the ending tied up with a neat little bow -- all loose ends tied, all issues resolved and all questions answered. The ending can be sad as long as it does not leave anything open; European/non-US audiences can handle open endings better.

  2. Thanks Criss. Good example of exactly what I'm talking about. I didn't like the end of GWTW when I was younger, but it did end honestly. Maybe a little life experience is necessary to see the value of an honest ending even if it's not neat and pretty.