But does this mean all endings should be happy? Are sad stories with sad endings the domain of the lonely, the manic-depressive, and the masochistic?
In his essay “Writing toward the light” (The Writer, December 2010), creative writing teacher and short story author David Harris Ebenbach shares his experiences:
More than once I’ve been asked why I don’t write happy stories. I’ve been asked by friends, family, strangers, and even the president of the college where I teach. My wife, too, messed up a perfectly nice date by reminding me in the middle of my complaining about how hard it is to get published that, after all, people like to read about hope, beauty, and wonder.Is that what we’re doing when we write sad stories? Are we squelching hope, beauty, and wonder? Or are we perhaps just exploring the opposite side of the same coin? Life is just as full of sadness as it is of happiness. To ignore that fact is to limit both our personal experience of the human existence and our ability to write truthfully about life. To cap every story with a happy ending is dishonesty to both ourselves and our readers. The moment fiction becomes dishonest is the moment it becomes useless. Novelist Aryn Kyle comments in her article “In defense of sad stories” (The Writer, June 2011):
“You should write something happy,” people tell me, and I don’t understand. Happy like Anna Karenina? Happy like The Grapes of Wrath? Happy like ... Catch-22 or ... Hamlet?Take a moment to think about the stories that have changed your life. I’m willing to bet many of them were stories of pain, loss, sacrifice, and sin. These are the stories that speak bluntly about hard subjects and force their characters—and their readers—to face hard truths and, hopefully, walk away from the realizations as someone slightly different and perhaps slightly better. Few of us would want to subsist on a steady diet of tragedy, but all of us are better for having occasionally cleansed our reading palate with the astringent bite of these unflinching portrayals of bittersweet truth.
As writers, not all of us are cut out to write the next Crime and Punishment. Light humor is just as valuable as stark reality. But if we’re going to call ourselves authors, we need to be brave enough to stand unflinching before the truths of life, even—and perhaps especially—those that don’t end happily ever after. Readers won’t hate you for writing a sad story (although, granted, not all of them will be ready or willing to stomach it). In fact, if you execute it properly, you have the opportunity to leave an impression they’ll carry with them all through their lives.
Sad stories don’t have to be depressing stories. The stories that have broken my heart and changed my life are stories of great tragedy, but they’re also stories of great hope. That, right there, is where we find the true power of the sad story—because light always shines brightest in the darkness.
Tell me your opinion: Have you ever written a sad story you were afraid would turn readers off?
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Story by K.M. Weiland