Thursday, January 17, 2008

... Happily Ever After?

There's a line in one of my favorite musicals: "But we go on pretending / Stories like ours / have happy endings." In some of the recent memes floating around the web of "top ten signs a book is written by me" (which I have yet to complete), I saw several people write that there is usually a happy ending.

I think that's true of my own work as well, but I started wondering how much of a cop-out it is. We complain about stories being unrealistic, but we often squirm at depressing or uncomfortable endings. Myself, I like a happy ending as long as it's satisfactory. That is, the protagonist has to learn something and change somehow, but not be ruined or killed by the experience. There are some stories I've written that are a mix of the two; "A Prison Of Clouds," the first New Tibet story, has what I consider a happy ending, though people have disagreed with me on that one.

Personally, I think in order to learn something and change, the protagonist has to give something up. It may be something tangible or something emotional, but some sacrifice has to be made for the lesson to have impact. Often in amateur fiction, you get wish-fulfillment endings, in which the protagonist basically gets everything he or she wants. Those ring hollow to me, because then the lesson doesn't seem valuable.

"When Harry Met Sally," a very good movie, had many people complaining about the ending. The happy ending in this case didn't feel realistic enough to them. I'm not sure I agree with that, but I can see the point. To some extent, it does feel forced. The characters don't really make any sacrifice or change to achieve their happiness.

How happy are your endings? What's an example of an ending that was too happy for you?

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