Who Wants a Happy Ending?

by K C Maguire

I recently read a blog post by Celeste Ng that raised the thought-provoking issue of whether we, as writers “owe” our readers a happy ending. Ng noted that many of the unhappier endings of books she read in her childhood impacted her more significantly as a reader than happy endings and stayed with her for her whole life rather than being quickly forgotten. In her post, she defines a happy ending as an ending in which “justice will be served, and good people will be happy”.smiley

Ng’s post resonated with me because many moons ago in another life I wrote my theater studies thesis on happy endings in Shakespeare’s plays. All good Elizabethan drama students know that comedies end with weddings and tragedies end with death and despair. However, I was always struck by Shakespearean comedic endings where, despite the weddings, the “good people” may not actually end up “happy” and where justice may not actually be served. The most obvious example is The Merchant of Venice. This play is all about justice being served and exactly how “justice” should be defined – a literal pound of flesh as required by the contract? At the end of the play, despite the weddings, some of the heroes have had irreparable damage done to their relationships with the significant others in their lives e.g. Shylock loses his daughter Jessica to her marriage with a Christian (Lorenzo) and is forced himself to convert to Christianity; the clever Portia effectively drives a wedge into the bromance between Antonio and Bassanio; and, good guy Antonio is pretty much left with nothing when he loses his fortune and his best bud.

OK – so maybe “Shakespearean comedy” doesn’t necessarily equate with “happy ending”, but I’ve always wondered about what we really mean by a happy ending. Do we really want the good guys to be happy and the bad guys to be sad? Or do we actually mean that we want a satisfying ending in the sense that the characters get what they deserve? This may or may not equate to the good guys being happy and the bad guys being sad. It may not even equate to a sense of justice being served. Sometimes, injustice may be more satisfying if it’s consistent with the characters’ journeys.

Perhaps we don’t want a “happy” ending at all, but rather a “satisfying ending,” meaning that the characters whose internal journeys are the focus of the story will learn something, or perhaps will fail to learn something, and their failure will teach the reader something important about life. And whether a sense of justice or injustice follows from that will depend on the story.

For example, in my sci-fi/romance, Destiny, the lead characters (aka “good guys”) get a happy ending on a micro-level, but a rather foreboding ending on the macro-level. My feeling when writing it was that the ending was satisfying in terms of the characters’ emotional journeys, constrained by what was realistic for them within the context of their dystopian society.

After taking SO many writing workshops focusing on beginnings and opening chapters, I’d love to hear folks’ thoughts on endings. Feel free to comment below ….



4 thoughts on “Who Wants a Happy Ending?

  1. I think “happy endings” are more prevalent in certain genres, like romance or YA (no double entendres intended!). But I prefer endings that bring the story to a satisfying conclusions, not necessarily a happy one.

  2. My 5th grader has been complaining about both the predictability of both plot and ending (“The underdog ALWAYS wins!” Grrrr!) in books and movies for her age range. So, I gave her “Where the Red Fern Grows.” I think “Flowers for Algernon” is next…

  3. Ahh, Artemis, Old Dan and Little Ann still haunt my dreams. What a wonderful book for fifth graders! One of my all time favorite books has what my students call an “unfair” ending. When Atticus Finch loses his case, and Tom Robinson meets his undeserved fate, it leaves the readers with more questions than answers. It’s a conclusion that makes the reader think, wraps up the story, but leaves room to wonder what’s next. I think Harper Lee had an incredible impact on the country with her book that although was fiction, was “the truth of the time.” Those are the types of books I love.

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