Why I Don’t Write Happy Endings
I don’t think I’ve ever written a one-hundred percent happy ending in one of my stories.
Except for my first story, a soaring epic titled How Jery Rat Kild Thu Monstr, my endings usually deal out a heavy dose of sad along with the happy, and sometimes just a little more sad.
And not because I just really enjoy depressing myself and other people. For me, a ending that’s not all happy makes for a more thought-provoking and fulfilling story.
The Contrast of Sad and Happy Is More Relatable
I think there’s a place for an occasional Hallmark happy ending where no one dies, every broken relationship becomes good as new, and all the single people are getting married to each other. Sometimes you just need one of these. They’re therapeutic.
But the truth is, life isn’t like this. It’s one huge tangle of the happy and the sad. I guess you could say life is one big bittersweet ending.
And endings that are bittersweet often resonate with us more, because we relate to them. We understand that joy comes along with loss, and vice versa. These are the stories that seem real. And aren’t they, really?
A Little Sad Makes the Happy Matter
I’ve never liked the Disney-esque ending “twist” where a main character sacrifices his life for his friends or the story goal, only for us to find out five minutes later (in a flurry of dramatic music and extravagant slow-motion shots) that guess what, he didn’t actually fall off that cliff. Or explode. Or get crushed by the falling heavy thing. Or whatever. I’m looking at you, AnnaDiegoHiccupTony Stark and Batman.
This bugs me even if I really like the character. If they die, I want them to stay dead.
That sounded a little cold. I am not a sociopath. Let me explain.
When a character sacrifices his own life, it’s usually a sock-in-the-gut culmination of his character arc, a manifestation of the lessons he’s learned so far. It brings meaning to the story. But when, oh guess what, the character isn’t actually dead—his sacrifice is cheapened. Now I feel like his death was a Feels Gimmick instead of a meaningful story event.
True loss and true sacrifices bring meaning. They make the happy parts matter, because we know what has been given to achieve them.
(And by the way, I’m secretly happy that Hiccup didn’t die at the end of HTTYD. Just so you know I’m not totally heartless.)
A Bittersweet Ending Shows Hope More Clearly
Feel free to argue with me on this one, but I don’t think there are very many stories that give a more inspiring picture of Hope than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Most specifically, Return of the King.
Talk about a bittersweet ending. Good has won, things are as they should be, but man–we’ve had to pay a heavy price to get here.
We’ve waded through pain and darkness with Frodo. We’ve watched many beloved friends die. We’ve despaired. And then, at the end, Tolkien surprises us with a picture of Hope that is so vivid, so bright and tangible that it takes our breath away and brings tears to our eyes. (Yes, my eyes. Yes, men can cry when they read Lord of the Rings. It’s allowed.)
Our hearts may be warmed by those Hallmark happy endings, but we miss some parts of truth along the way. Hope and Joy are really only seen to their fullness when placed against the backdrop of pain and despair. In that contrast, Hope is unignorable. Joy isn’t just a fuzzy feeling, it’s a breathtaking shock that we didn’t realize we needed until it came crashing into the darkness around us.
I think true beauty comes in the bittersweet. For me, these are the stories that move my heart and nudge me a little closer to truth.
But what do you guys think? Do you enjoy bittersweet endings? Do you incorporate them into your own stories?