Frith (frith_in_thorns) wrote,

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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?

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Tags: meta, writing
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