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26 February 2014 @ 01:28 am
Meta on happy endings in fiction  
This is a perennial debate I've been having with a few people, especially sholio, so I thought I'd type it up for general interest/discussion. This is all highly personal and subjective, of course, and I accept that people have many different opinions on this topic which are all correct! (Unless you're Thomas Hardy. He can go jump off a cliff into a SEA OF CHARACTERS' TEARS.)

First: I find angst fun to write, as is probably blatantly obvious. I enjoy torturing, breaking, and sometimes outright murdering characters. And I enjoy reading the same — some of my favourite fics, and books, are the ones which make me sob until I'm an utter wreck.

However, I'm also a massive fan of happy endings. Or, if happy isn't quite the right word, than at least hopeful. Some of the characters can be dead, the survivors can be battered — but if the ones who are still alive are also still standing, looking forward and knowing that they'll be able to continue on, then I'll be satisfied.

I think a major part of my feelings on this topic are born of a strong belief that reading is a reciprocal act. The writer is telling the story, but the reader is giving their hand to the writer and trusting them to lead them through it, and out the other side. Some writers delight in dragging the reader over jagged rocks and then abandoning them there. (I've done it! It can be really fun! And I also enjoy reading oneshot deathfics for my favourite characters in which the character dies and that's the end!)

However, I'd never write a fic like that that was more than a few thousand words at the most. Certainly anything over ten thousand words is pretty much guaranteed a happy ending, and even more strongly if it's posted in chapters or as a series. This is because I firmly believe that, having trusted me enough to invest the time and energy in reading my stories, I at that point owe it to people reading to lead them to an emotionally satisfying ending. Especially in multi-chaptered things, if I'm dragging people through chapters of EVERYTHING IS AWFUL, it doesn't feel fair to not provide the recompense of pulling everything back together and ending on a high note. (Yes, this is why I hate Thomas Hardy. And Wuthering Heights. And the pointless character death at the end of The Tenderness of Wolves. I carry GRUDGES about these books.)

(Again, things can end satisfyingly/hopefully without being happy, or without the happiness making up for/overshadowing what's gone before. A couple of examples I can think of here are The Lions of Al-Rassan and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Both of which I am a mess by the end of, but I still looooove the endings.)

And, fundamentally, unless I end a story with a total nuclear holocaust or something, I feel that I should be able to bring out some sort of hope for the future. I know I often hide it behind my massive cynicism, but I'm actually pretty optimistic about the human ability to eventually find happiness out of most situations, given time and sometimes a little narrative nudge!

I read a formative quote, when I was a baby writer of sixteen who was just starting out on the internet, which went something like: Unhappy endings are easy, and very Sixth Form. Fixing what you broke is harder. It's very much stuck with me. To me, and this is entirely subjective, breaking everything and then not doing the harder work of fixing/rebuilding feels almost like cheating. In a short piece I can let myself "get away" with it, but in a longer thing — no. I haven't done the work the reader was expecting, and that isn't fair.

What are your thoughts?

Posted at http://frith-in-thorns.dreamwidth.org/118320.html with comment count unavailable comments.
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pooh_collector on February 26th, 2014 01:55 am (UTC)
Interesting timing. I finished the first draft of my RevBB today, except for the Epilogue. I'm struggling with the whole happy ending thing.

In some ways I want to go with the happily ever after ending. Cause they really do feel good.

The other part of me doesn't really think it's realistic, if that's the right word, to have a happily ever after at the end of this particular fic. So I'm struggling a bit.

I've also considered the not there, but maybe getting there, hopeful ending, which is probably where I will go with this in the end.

The 'fixing what you broke is harder' concept is true I think, as long as you don't go deux ex machina on your story to get to that happy ending.
Frith: Booksfrith_in_thorns on February 26th, 2014 02:01 am (UTC)
as long as you don't go deux ex machina on your story to get to that happy ending.

Oh yeah, that's a good point! I think the deus ex machina is another way to sidestep the actual "fixing" bit -- the ending may be happy then, but the writer hasn't actually done the needed work to get it there.

I also agree that there are loads of nuances in what constitutes a good ending! Re-reading, I think "satisfying" may have been a better word choice than "happy" -- and also, a good ending for the reader isn't always the same as a good ending for all the characters!
pooh_collector on February 26th, 2014 02:09 am (UTC)
Absolutely, there is often a big difference between a good ending for the reader and for the characters.

Oiy, so many things to consider for my epilogue.
michelel72: DW-Confusionmichelel72 on February 26th, 2014 02:18 am (UTC)
I need some kind of satisfaction out of a story. The longer (or denser) the story, the more important it is that I get something out of it. Plausibly happy endings are a particularly easy way to get that. There are other forms of satisfaction, of course, but it's equally likely that less typical forms are less likely to be satisfying to as many readers.

Don't make me slog through a few hundred thousand words of boredom or distress to learn, in the end, that people are terrible or nothing really matters. I can get that message for free! My time and attention are valuable, if only to me, and I'm actually going to resent wasting them.

That doesn't mean a tragic (or ironic, or bittersweet) ending can't be satisfying, obviously. But I absolutely agree that I need some kind of payoff in exchange for my investment.

The value of the payoff is also always going to depend on the reader. If Reader A particularly enjoys reading whump, for example, a whump-only story that doesn't have a proper "ending" at all might be fine. Reader B might be delighted by a PWP. Reader C might get a perverse enjoyment out of watching a batch of awful-people characters dying awfully. None of those do a thing for me personally; it's all down to a numbers game, ultimately, and it's up to the author to decide just what number they're aiming for. I just prefer to have some signal what general direction they're aiming ... and I'm not impressed by authors who criticize dissatisfied readers as "not getting it" or "not sophisticated enough".
Frith: Booksfrith_in_thorns on February 26th, 2014 04:54 pm (UTC)
I totally agree with your thoughts :) And there's definitely a whole other related topic about signals used in stories to indicate what path they're headed down. (Because sometimes using misleading signals and then flipping can be really effective! I'm thinking about your Rodney/Jennifer fic "Relationship" as a great example of that. And sometimes it just leaves readers feeling angry and cheated.)
Sholiosholio on February 26th, 2014 03:10 am (UTC)
Believe it or not, I don't actually disagree with this. XD I mean, on a personal level, I really don't want to read a book that ends with DEATH AND GLOOM AND MISERY. The experience I hope for, as a reader, is to get caught up in the characters' lives, and when the writer has done it well, I really love these people; having the book end with terrible things happening to them hurts! I want them to end in a good place, or with some expectation they can get to a good place eventually. "Battered but still standing" is probably a good way to describe most of my favorite endings, come to think of it. :D

As a writer, though, I don't always know where the story is going when I start it, and I don't always succeed in getting it to where it was originally intended to go. I think that's where a lot of the actual unhappy in my stories comes from -- it's that I need to get something out, or to have some kind of catharsis from the story, without really considering the effect on the reader. And you're right that this should be a consideration (I've heard it called the "contract with the reader", that the writer has an implicit responsibility to provide the reader with the kind of reading experience they've signed up for) but, in actual practice, it doesn't always go that way. Though I think I should probably try to keep this in mind more than I do. I don't want to make people unhappy; I just don't always find the story going to a good place, or necessarily think that it SHOULD go to a good place. On the other hand, nearly all of the stories I feel best about are the ones that ended on an "up" note rather than a "down" note. The unhappy ones tend to be stories that resulted from me being in an unhappy place in my life, and I don't usually revisit them.

... another thing that just occurred to me is that I also think that there's a lot of variation from person to person in what actually constitutes a happy ending (or a hopeful one). Personally I gave up on Being Human (the UK one) because it went way darker than I was willing to follow; I still feel slightly burned by how things turned out in the end (though I think it was a very honest ending, given where things started out -- just not one that I found personally satisfying). But one of the people on my flist, who does great meta, really liked where it went and has good meta support for that. I just couldn't handle ALL MY BABIES DYING ALL THE TIME. :P But she seems to have not only been pretty satisfied, but actually did consider the series' eventual ending a hopeful one.
Winterwinterstar95 on February 26th, 2014 03:51 am (UTC)
For me happy endings are good, not exactly a requirement, but I like to see a building of the person, the character. I like to know the character not only learned something, but will be stronger for it. It doesn't necessarily have to be happy but it does have to have a string of WHY BOTHER. If you know what I mean. Also, I love happy endings as long as they are not contrived. Don't like it when everything is tied up in a neat little bow all perfect if there wasn't a logical reason for that. KWIM?

I have written my fair share of happy endings. I like happy endings. I like to reward readers. I hate killing my characters or harming them in ways they cannot get out of. Even in fanfiction these are my babies and I cannot completely devastate them. I can leave them untied, unfinished, but as you say hopeful. That's good, that's life. Even in death there is hope.
Frith: Mako Morifrith_in_thorns on February 26th, 2014 04:58 pm (UTC)
For me happy endings are good, not exactly a requirement, but I like to see a building of the person, the character. I like to know the character not only learned something, but will be stronger for it. It doesn't necessarily have to be happy but it does have to have a string of WHY BOTHER.

These are exactly my thoughts. I like stories to have a point to them. For short things, I'm totally cool with that point being nothing more than "X gets beaten up" or "Y and Z have sex", but the longer the story gets the more room there is for that story to have had a point for the character, ie they've learned a valuable lesson/gained something from it, and there's way more of a noticeable hole when that doesn't happen.
Sally M: fanfic writersallymn on February 26th, 2014 03:54 am (UTC)
I'm not good at tragedy, though I've written a few B7 shorts that would, methinks, fit the bill :) Of course, my inability to write plots means that the things can be said to not really have a clear-cut 'ending', happy or sad...

It depends also, I think, on the source (especially in fanfic) and therefore what the fan reader is attracted by. I would look squint-eyed at a tragic ending for a White Collar or Magnificent 7 story, and I think the writer would have to work waaaayyyy harder than they would probably want to, to make me accept it as fitting. OTOH, the number of gloom-n-doom, life's-a-bitch-and-then-you-die stories, both short and long, I have loved in Blakes 7 is rather disconcerting (and there, a writer has to work as hard waaaayyyy hard to make me accept a uncomplicatedly happy ending, I usually won't buy it).

Of my longer stories, they tend to be complicatedly happy, I think...

pipiljpipilj on February 26th, 2014 08:43 am (UTC)
I am not averse to character's going through trials or angst. You've put it beautifully

(Again, things can end satisfyingly/hopefully without being happy, or without the happiness making up for/overshadowing what's gone before. A couple of examples I can think of here are The Lions of Al-Rassan and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Both of which I am a mess by the end of, but I still looooove the endings.)

I loved thousand splendid suns too (loved Khaled Hosseini other books to). More than any thing I like books which show resilience in human spirit some time in spite of adversity or trauma that may occur. I'd like to believe that we may stumble and fall but eventually find the means to walk and eventually find some peace with the circumstances that we are dealt with, I like books which portray that.

On the other hand some of the best love stories have been tragedies with the both or one of the protagonist dying, I enjoyed reading them too.

Edited at 2014-02-26 08:44 am (UTC)
Cerberuscerberusia on February 26th, 2014 09:58 am (UTC)
Ooh, interesting. Have you ever read any Greek tragedy, perchance? Because almost without exception, they're the very definition of 'downer ending', in which everyone ends up either dead or miserable - but they're very emotionally satisfying. For me, I think that both sadism and catharsis play a role in my enjoyment of unhappy endings. The sadism is obvious ('HE CRIES SO PRETTY ♥') but I can't really put the catharsis into words apart from 'like I felt at the end of reading Antigone'. Pleasantly drained, perhaps.
aragarna: Peter and Neal whumparagarna on February 26th, 2014 12:03 pm (UTC)
Interesting thoughts.
I'd say that for me, there's a big difference between "real" literature and fanfictions. I've read great books with tragic endings, and I didn't feel cheated (Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris, Les Misérables, a lot of Emile Zola)
There are lots of tragic/sad stories that don't necessarily give you a feeling of unsatisfaction.

But I would also say it depends on what you expect from the book. If you know you're reading a tragedy, the absence of hope at the end is acceptable. And even in some cases, I wouldn't want a happy ending just to be "reassured".

Though I do agree that most of the time, a happy or hopeful ending makes the reader (or viewer, cause it's very true in films or TV series) feel better.
And personally, I prefer my entertainment to be positive, and not depressing, so I'm all for happy endings. :-)
There are exceptions, and I am enjoying Broadchurch right now (UK series about a kid being murdered) because it's really good, but even though the "happy ending" will be that they'll catch the killer, I still generally find it (and crime novels or series) depressing.
So, for me, it's not just the ending. It's the whole story. The ending doesn't matter. You can't get a happy ending out of the death of a child...
Anyway I think I digress a little. My point is, happy ending doesn't have to be automatic in literature. You can make a good story without the reassuring end. (though I personally think that a happy ending can't make up for all the shit that happens in a tragic story.)

But things I can accept and enjoy in litterature, for other characters, are not necessarily what I'm looking for in fanfics.
I read fanfics as extension of the show. That's obviously just my own experience, but I don't read fanfics to have "something else" applied to Peter and Neal.
Sallymn has a good point saying it might depend on the source material. White Collar is a (generally) light and fun show. Having a trafic ending would be really un-White Collar.
Which can be fine for some, but that's not what I am, personally, looking for.

Also I think I'm too invested in the series and the characters, which makes it more difficult to have bad things happening to them that it would for characters I don't know.
I have read books about death and loss. But I can't stand death fanfics. It's just too painful applied to White Collar. I love those characters too much. I don't want them hurt and mourning.
And again, the happy ending won't make up for all the pain I had reading everything else before.
Frith: Neal 1frith_in_thorns on February 26th, 2014 05:35 pm (UTC)
I would also say it depends on what you expect from the book. If you know you're reading a tragedy, the absence of hope at the end is acceptable.

That's definitely a very good point! And I think it ties into my feelings about what the writer owes the reader -- there's a great deal of difference between a story which you *expect* to end unhappily, and one which you don't but does anyway. In the latter case, that choice can be really effective, but it can also end up alienating loads of your readers and making them feel really angry/betrayed.

And I hadn't thought so much about the distinction between original-fiction and fanfic, but that's very true. I definitely read fanfic to have my love for the characters reaffirmed!
Sir Rosealotsir_rosealot on February 26th, 2014 12:39 pm (UTC)
Hmmm. I usually find the ending to be the least satisfactory/realistic part of almost every book or story I read, so I don't attach much importance to them. For me, the enjoyment of reading the rest of the book is more important. Also, compared to many of my friends, I have a much higher tolerance (and indeed love for) short stories, even though they offer more of a cop-out-ending opportunity than novels.
Frith: Katarafrith_in_thorns on February 26th, 2014 03:40 pm (UTC)
That's very interesting! Personally, the ending can overshadow the whole rest of the book for me, if I get there and then it's rubbish. (I'd certainly be very hesitant about reccing that sort of book to other people.)

Out of interest, do you have any examples of books where you didn't find the ending less satisfactory than the rest of the story?
leesa_perrie: Neal & Jonesleesa_perrie on February 26th, 2014 02:08 pm (UTC)
I tend to prefer an ending that offers hope for the future in most things that I read. There are exceptions - I like Othello and some other Shakespeare tragedies, and didn't have a problem with Wuthering Heights (though I was reading that for study at uni, so I probably wasn't as invested in it as I could have been) - but they are the exceptions.

In fanfic, I'm even less keen on the unhappy, unhopeful ending, because that's not what I'm looking for in a fanfic. That said, I've read a few fanfics where the happy ending has seemed too perfect and neat and not very realistic, and that can leave me unsatisified too!

Writing wise, I tend to reflect my preferences - that said, I wrote a SGA fic where Rodney's sister, Jeannie, had died. I also wrote one dealing with the team's grief after Carson's death. But even with those, I ended with a feeling of strong friendship, so maybe that could be seen as a happy ending - ie, they'll get through this together? Hmm. But normally, I like to have hopeful endings and find it hard to kill off a main (or someone I consider a main) character.

Actually, this has stopped me writing some fics, because I can be VERY good at breaking a character, and not so good at putting them back together. Some fics have died because of that (or been replotted for less breakage!) - and there's a WC apocafic that I started, that now I need to do something else with. The first scene I really like and think can be reworked into a casefic or pre-series fic (at least, that's my aim), because as much as I enjoy a good apocafic now and then, I can't kill off characters! Peter, El, Mozzie, Neal, Jones, Diana and June would HAVE to survive, and I'm not so sure I could kill off Hughes or Sara either! So, no apocafic for me! :) :)
kriadydragon: Shep iconkriadydragon on February 26th, 2014 06:19 pm (UTC)
I love "breaking and putting them back together" so much that I kind of feel bad for my own characters, sometimes, for what I put them through just to piece them back together. But it's so much fun!

Anyway, for me I generally like happy endings, the happier the better, but like all things in writing it all comes down to how well it's handled. I've read stories with less-than-happy endings (where things get resolved but the characters are still somewhat broken) and endings that are happy but not everyone made it out unscathed (one character died, for example). And though it left me sad, I still enjoyed the book because the ending worked, and in some cases that was the only way for the story to end, and in other cases maybe it could have ended differently but how it did end worked just fine.

I think the problem with a lot of unhappy endings is when a writer puts it in just for the sake of putting it in, because they're under the impression that a story isn't "real" unless it all ends in misery and death. Kind of like twist endings in most horror movies, there because that's how people think horror movies are supposed to end. I love scary movies but these days I can never bring myself to watch any because they all end with a pointless twist that I can see coming a mile away. The twist isn't clever, it isn't unique, it's just there to be there. And if the misery in a story is anything like those twist endings then I will rage quite profusely.

(Although, to be honest, this has never really happened to me. I'm a naughty reader in that I will often take a look at the end of a story to see if the end is worth reaching.)

My own stories will always end happy or at least full of hope, because that's just the way I write :D Happiness is no less real than misery, and we have enough misery in the world.
J.K. Cornah: Misc: Lego Marxhukbillgoomba on February 26th, 2014 10:19 pm (UTC)
This is something I think about a lot. In my own work, specifically the trilogy I'm working on, is sort of playing with different themes of how stories can end. There are sad endings, happy endings, and bittersweet endings. But they aren't 'endings' as they all lead into something else, I suppose.

There's an established way narratives tend to work; status quo, disruption, escalation, resolution. Often the resolution is a restoration of the status quo in one way or another. Often you find characters seeking to restore some former state of affairs. I noticed it even in things like The Hunger Games, where part of the revolution's motivation is to restore Panam to how it was before the Capitol took over.

To say that sad endings are easy is, I think, silly. Tragedy is a well established and very powerful art form. Fucking Shakespeare used it all the time! Tragedy gets the reader more worked up, wishing they were there to change things, to tell the characters not to do x or y or to wait just one more second...

If you have complex characters it's going to be difficult to reach a conclusion that is 100% good. Because the more levels on which you examine the people and their condition, you realise that no single solution will solve all their problems. IN the resolution to the story, to the character arc, to whatever, must involve some sort of trade-off. Victory is bought often at a high price. Emotional trauma, social meltdown, relational breakdown, etc. Things have a cost and to show that in a story is powerful.

I was reading something on tumblr the other day about the Fair World fallacy - people like to believe that the world is fair and are uncomfortable with anything that suggests it isn't. I think this is why people don't like sad endings. A sad ending implies that something unfair happened. In tragedy the characters are often at fault, but the cost can be very high. Look at Hamlet - yes, Hamlet is a douche and has plenty of character flaws, but then EVERYBODY DIES. You can follow the train of cause to effect in the play, but ultimately you feel the tragedy because it seems so unfair. So much blood.

An ending should be satisfying in some sense - in that it has a clear arc to it, makes sense, and can be traced back. But that doesn't mean it has to be 'happy' or 'sad', necessarily. There are different kinds of 'sad endings', I think. Everyone dies. Someone is betrayed. A relationship ends or is damaged. These are all complex issues with real emotional effect - to call them easy and 'Sixth Form' is a bit childish and ignores the difficulties with dealing with these subjects with the respect they deserve.
imbecamiel on February 27th, 2014 02:04 am (UTC)
So I was gonna go and ramble on about my thoughts on the subject, but... I think I basically just agree with everything you said. XD