Would You Like a Happy Ending?

I'm approaching the end of the rough draft of my current novel-in-progress and it's brought to mind the cheeky end to Wayne's World, in which the viewer is actually given three different endings:

1. The Sad Ending
2. The Scooby-Doo Ending
3. The Mega-Happy Ending

Basically, these three endings seem to cover every kind of ending any story in any form of media can really have. You've got your sad, happy, or in-between. Admittedly, in-between covers a lot of ground here, and your traditional Scooby-Doo ending is actually just another variation of "happy", since the villain is caught and unmasked and the day is generally saved and basically groovy.

Most modern fiction, at least the kind that calls itself "literary", usually has either an in-between ending or a sad ending. Happy endings are passe and generally considered trite, more the domain of romance novels and sassy mysteries about older ladies who wear elaborate hats and use knitting to solve crimes. I'm pretty sure a writer like Cormac McCarthy would rather kill every character he's ever created, and maybe some real people on top of that, than write a novel with even a mildly happy ending. He's generally been rewarded for this authorial viewpoint, which instead of just being considered bleak has been deemed really, really literary and profound, his every word practically seething with gravitas.

I wonder what Charles Dickens would make of this current taste for unhappy endings-he wrote some of the happiest endings of all-time, like the ending of A Christmas Carol and how they finally decided to pull the plug on Tiny Tim and Mickey Mouse wept into his puffy over-sized hands...wait, does that sound right? Anyway, even the ending of Great Exceptions, as harsh as that novel was on its main character, leaves us with hope for the future, as if Dickens, when all was said and done, couldn't bear to leave his readers in a cold and desolate world, even if that's how he truly saw it at that moment of his life.

Usually by this point in the novel, I know what's going to happen in the end but still feel the strong pull of all three kinds of endings. Some, like The Suicide Collectors, end a half dozen different ways before I settle on the ending that feels right. Some never change after the first draft. My basic goal, no matter how the book ends, is to find the ending that feels right to the story and allows me to sleep soundly at night. The rest I try to leave up to the characters themselves-after all, it's their story.


Anonymous said...

Jim Heynen once told me that when you're writing a poem, once you think you're done you should chop off the ending. Then you're done. I find that some novelists should probably have tried to employ the same technique.

Personally I prefer ambiguous endings. The recent trend for unhappy endings is, for me, about as passe as a happy ending. Well, unless we're talking about a slapstick or a horror movie, in which case happy and unhappy, respectively, often work quite well.

David Oppegaard said...

I'm split on ambiguous endings (hardy har-har). Sometimes they seem to work beautifully, sometimes they just seem to be cop outs.

That chopping off idea is also good for short stories, but more for the first two pages of a story. Often writers seem to be flexing their muscles and warming up on those two or three first pages and would be better served diving into the story a little later. We saw several cases of this when I helped edit Waterstone Review for a year.

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