Deciding on the ending to a story is one of my greatest writing challenges. I enjoy it, but I find it tough nevertheless.
Fairytale endings annoy me. Even putting aside the question of death, people just don’t live happily ever after, in my experience. You can marry the one you love, but there will be challenges and troubles, temptations and arguments down the line. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just life. You can find the person who killed your daughter, even find her alive and trapped in a cell, but there are going to be years of therapy, guilt and fear to go through afterwards. So even if it’s realistic for the characters to get together / solve the murder / etc, I don’t like it when the end of the book implies the end of the story.
But as often as not, happy endings aren’t realistic and are hideously predictable. As readers, yes, we want everything tied up nicely, but is it realistic that even the minor characters find true love / solve their problems / whatever at the same time as the major ones?
Of course, annihilation endings are pretty rare and also hard to get right, and leaving things open can seem to the reader like a cheat or a pitch for a sequel, both of which are annoying too.
In last week’s Friday Fiction, I wrote something that arguably wasn’t a story so much as a scene: A dentist, looks out of his window and sees a woman getting off the ferry every Thursday. He feels a connection, but never spoken to her. Many readers wanted him to run out and get the girl – you’re a bunch of romantics!
Unusually for me, the scene is based on a true story. I used to walk down a hill to work, and at least once a week, sometimes more, I’d pass this one guy walking up the hill.
I saw him so often, I felt a sort of connection with him. I never spoke to him, and I certainly had no dreams of a romance with him (I was happily coupled up), I just felt a little connection. Seeing him made me smile, not seeing or speaking to him didn’t make me sad, but I did sometimes wonder about saying hi, making that connection real.
The point is, this story has a happy ending (I’m happily married, in spite of the trials and tribulations we, like all people, endure), but it also has the same ending as the one I wrote.
As writers, we don’t want to leave our readers hanging and unsatisfied. It’s part of our contract that if they read to the end, we’ll clear up our messes and leave our affairs in order. But we shouldn’t be afraid to surprise them, to play about with the concept of the happy ending, and to admit that in life there’s more than one sort of happy and only one real end.