do you have to write happy endings header

Do You Have to Write Happy Endings?

do you have to write happy endingsIn the 2003 film adaptation of Peter Pan, Wendy describes the stories she’s been telling the Lost Boys as “adventures, in which good triumphs over evil.” In response, Captain Hook sneers, “They all end in a kiss.”

Like Wendy and the Lost Boys, millions of people escape into the world of fiction to find happily-ever-after endings. We cheer when the good guy defeats the villain. We applaud when true love conquers all. We find hope and encouragement in the fictional examples that peace and happiness await on the other side of seemingly insurmountable trials.

Without doubt, happy endings are enjoyable, uplifting, and reaffirming.

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” in The Writer, creative writing teacher and short story author David Harris Ebenbach shared 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 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 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 commented in her article “In defense of sad stories,” also published in The Writer:

“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. Many of them were undoubtedly stories of pain, loss, sacrifice, and sin.

These are stories that speak bluntly about hard subjects and force their characters—and their readers—to face hard truths and, hopefully, walk away from those realizations 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 must 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. In fact, if you execute it properly, you have the opportunity to leave an impression they’ll carry 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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written a sad story you were afraid would turn readers away? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Daniel Ch says

    When i feel and/or know the ending will be sad i just skip the show movie or book everytime i get a sad ending all i can think is “well that was a waste now i feel crappier than before” i get the realistic and life is not always happy blah blah blah but wtf would u be reading books if not to escape reality? A happy ending leaves a good war fuzzy feeling in your stomach a bad one makes u wanna either get you money back for the waste of time or if it was especially sad throw up in the toilet. (sorry for the grammer i am nativly a polish )

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Why would you be reading books if not to escape reality?”

      Lots of reasons. I read for pleasure, for education, to learn about life, to feel emotions vicariously–both the good and the bad.

      Nothing wrong with reading just for escapism, but stories are about so much more than just that.

      • Nicolas Lopes says

        personally since happy endings tend to be the default i feel like making a bad ending without a good enough reason is kind of a betrayal of the reader’s trust

        it could be said that the author is abusing his authority over his work to cause unwanted suffering upon people

        and no i don’t think anyone is entitled to that right its like a girl who purposefully give hints to you just to reject you in front of everyone while you can argue its not wrong per say i would definitely hate such person

        i have got to say every time i see one of those sad endings i feel that its extremely presumptuous of the writer to think that he can teach a lesson to the reader

        in those cases i feel like i read a entire encyclopedia just to be told a single message which either i already knew or that i know for a fact

        if anything it makes me less likely to trust any writer and prevents me from enjoying good stories since i will be to worried about he writer being an asshole

  2. Christopher says

    Really well written article! 🙂 As I read it got me thinking about whether a negative or positive ending is less or more appropriate depending on the genre of the story. I think that literary fiction offers much more leeway in this regard, more than fantasy or romance. It seems to me that a negative ending would be less welcoming in mystery/crime, romance and fantasy. I think there’s an expectation of success in these books, and if the hero, heroine or main character fails, readers COULD be put off. I wonder if the genre one’s writing in has a strong influence on the type of ending that’s written . . . not sure. I don’t see too many stories where the “dark lord” wins, the “criminal” outwits the “detective” or the “lovers” end by hating each other. Actually, I can’t say about the latter because I’ve never read a romance novel (ha ha) but seems as if in the movies it would be against “the formula.”

    Anyway, thanks again for the link!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Genre is definitely a factor. We can’t play *too* fast and loose with reader expectations (otherwise, they get very, very cranky). But there’s a home for every story. Write the end your story needs (foreshadow it appropriately, of course), and let it find it’s home.

      I was just reading a great interview with Dennis Lehane (there we go back to Shutter Island!) in the latest issue of Writer’s Digest about how he was frustrated that so many wonderfully nuanced (and, coincidentally, tragic) stories were getting passed up by the literary awards, simply because they were squarely in the mystery/thriller genre. He said he *decided* to write genre fiction because he realized you could write something that’s wonderfully literary, even within those confines.

      • Christopher says

        Yeah! I was thinking “why not” too! Sounds like a good interview. 🙂 That’s some of the stuff I’ve been pondering lately. I want to write a fantasy story but want to deviate from the norm and make it more literary, so this is really relevant to me right now. I was thinking why can’t I write about a fantasy character who’s father suffers from Alzheimer’s (something similar, maybe) and incorporate the main character’s struggle with that. Why can’t I bring very personal, contemporary issues (but universal and timeless at the same time) and incorporate them into a genre that tends to focus more on the classic plights of fantasy. I’m sure it’s been done before, but I haven’t really read anyone who’s done that. These ideas/plots tend to gravitate toward literary fiction. And it seems, by the interview, that it is due to missing out on recognition, that writers don’t want to be devalued because of writing “genre.” I think that’s kind of limiting. 🙁

        Anyway . . . good advice—I’ll write the ending the story “needs.” 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I think that sounds amazing! The great thing about fantasy is that it’s such a milieu genre–there’s so much room for so any types of stories within the overall setting.

  3. Hi Katie,
    I am currently writing a fantasy novel that I know will not end the way reader will want it to. I have written a short story that blew the socks of many people, but a lot still commented that the ending should have been rounded up with a happy feeling. Well, for me, the story was over. The problem I am facing here is, my antagonist isn’t actually a ‘bad guy’, he’s just hugely misunderstood and had been double-crossed. So, I was delighted to read this post. The protagonist is going to have his ‘lie’ addressed and the question will be answered, it just isn’t going to be the answer everyone expects!

  4. I think the ending should be down to what the author is trying to convey in the story. You’re right, not everything should be a Disney ending. Note: I pick on Disney on account of reading the actual Hans Christian Anderson version of “The Little Mermaid.” Sorry, back to the point. I wouldn’t call my ending in my last novel mega happy or tragic. It ends with the parties who are at odds with one another coming to a reconciliation. With the one I am working on now, the first part of the novel is a collection of short stories of people being let down by the justice system. None of those stories end happy.

  5. I actually looked up this subject because I had two of my beta readers ask me if I could possibly change the ending. They were not happy with my ending AT ALL! I was expecting to hear that but not for people to ask me to change the ending. It made me feel a little insecure because I wasn’t sure if it was the ending they hated or the fact that it was sad. Up until that point the feedback had been positive to the point of manic. They were really into the characters and the story and the relationships but the moment they read the ending it was a huge drop in their enthusiasm. As a first time novelist, I’m a little unsure of myself. I want to keep my ending but I think it fits. The book is not billed as a romance novel at all. It has always been described as an epic contemporary fiction but after reading this article I’m going to stand my ground. Romeo and Juliet would end up being just a cute romance novel if it didn’t have it’s ending so I guess that’s what I need to focus on.

  6. I don’t think that all endings should be happy. Bad endings are surprising, sudden, and kind of fun. I mean, it’s not the best kind of ending for kids books, but they’re not that bad. You can have bad ending once and a while, can’t you? Cormac, age 7.

  7. Nadia Syeda says

    I’m writing a book right now. I can see the ending very clearly.He’s someone who’s manipulative, doesn’t take responsibility for his actions and how they affect others, and that all changes when a girl demands that he uses his intelligence for the greater good or else she’ll make sure he gets behind bars (and since she’s a ghost, he can’t do anything to her). He dies returning her ghost to her body (sort of like Sleeping Beauty) because every time I try to imagine a happy ending, I feel dissatisfied. He still committed many crimes. He still has a bounty over his head. How can he make a future with a princess? It’s too morally complicated for her to handle.

    I don’t know, I don’t think I’m ready to write something like that. It’s a dark reality and I’ll think I’ll cry. But maybe the readers will appreciate too. I hope they’ll understand why he had to die, why he couldn’t have a fresh start. Sometimes, the past won’t let you have a fresh start. But the girl will always remember him as her first love, the person who she shared her life with instead of being visited like a dementia-riddled grandma in a nursing home, and a person who taught her a valuable lesson about her self-worth

  8. Thank you for this; I am writing a historical novel that ends tragically for the main character. But I also saw extraordinary courage and grace in her demise which I hope I can adequately impart. I have been living with her story all my life but most especially in the last 8 years with my research. She has made me cry on more than one occasion but I also find myself wishing to emulate her. I read a similar book once where the main character died tragically and I was preparing myself for the death scene only to discover that the author skipped over that scene, depriving this reader of a good cry. Does that make me morbid? 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      True-life stories are some of the most powerful tragedies. The fact that they really happened that way, and the author did not just arbitrarily choose the sad ending, is sobering and forces readers to contemplate deep themes.

  9. Ken Farmer says

    I personally like to write hills and valleys…Drama, pathos, humor, love, tragedy, action, suspense. All of it. Every twelve pages or so, there will be something in my stories that will evoke one of the emotions above. A roller coaster, if you will. I want my readers to slide sideways to the end and just say…”Wow, that was a hell of a ride.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although tone should be consistent throughout, I agree. I like stories that run the gamut of emotions. Joy is more poignant for pain, and vice versa.

  10. I agree with this.
    After all; even a sad ending can feel like a happy one.
    Like in Lord of the Rings; everything is stricken by war and all of the fair folk leave Middle Earth, even Gandalf, Elrond, Frodo, and Bilbo- and they leave behind everything that is left of what they love. But still there is hope. There’s still a Shire, there’s still love, there’s still things that grow and people to enjoy the peace…
    But then we also can’t help but feel sad as the grey boats slip away into the sea.
    Right now I’m working on a novel that has a sad ending myself, so this was really nice to read.

  11. Usvaldo de Leon says

    I don’t mind the ending, whatever it is, as long as the groundwork has been laid. Genre expectations would play a role here (not many romances end in disappointment), but proper foreshadowing is critical. Out of Africa is a great example of a sad ending that was properly set up – the whole thing is a slow moving obvious disaster. The reader hopes they’ll work it out but it’s pretty clear it won’t happen.

    What I would object to would be something like an Ocean’s 11 that ended “And then Danny got life in prison for his crimes and everyone was sad. The End”. Nothing in the film gives any indication of an unhappy ending.

    Stories need to end how they need to end, but they need to be properly foreshadowed to avoid disappointment in the reader.

  12. Why are you writing? Are you creating a cautionary tale? Are you trying to lift people out of their horrid little lives? There is no right answer. Only a goal.

  13. Hi Katie! Another timely post for me. Life isn’t always a bed of thornless roses, so it’d behoove us to explore those times when we experience the pokes, cuts, and bruises…then the healing that comes if we’re open to it. For myself, I’ve had many blessings in my life. But they are all the sweeter because of the valleys I’ve had to tread. I want to write that journey.

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