Fairytale Endings

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.


Filed under Writing

11 responses to “Fairytale Endings

  1. Enjoyed your thoughts, Jen, and find myself in agreement. I’ve had similar things happen in my life, as your story of the man you saw every day. To me, a fairy tale ending tends to be something unlikely to happen, whereas a happy ending might be a fairy tale ending, but might be quite realistic. Probably just semantics. But you got my thought processes going here and that was good.


    • Thanks Janet, always looking to get people thinking, and connect with whether they think the same way as me or not. Re-reading, I’m not sure I was clear, but I agree there’s a difference between happy and fairy-tale endings, but even a normal happy ending can seem a bit too tidy for me.

      • I know lots of stories with happy endings, but “norma”l happy endings often have plenty of non-happy moments before them. The length of the story determines how much of those often defining non-happy moments can be seen.

  2. MM Jaye

    True words. I’m a romance writer, and I’ve discussed the matter both with same genre writers and readers. Happy endings (or HEA in our world) are a one-way street. However, a trend I see in series (which I support, and which is close to what you describe in your article) is for a couple that got together in, let’s say, Book One to hit a rocky patch in Book Three (where they’ll be secondary characters of course) going through very relatable problems (career struggles, family planning issues) and, well, patch things up eventually. So I guess that’s romance trying to veer off the fairy tale ending cliche. I loved your FF story, by the way.

    Greetings from Greece!
    Maria (MM Jaye)

  3. Jen, You have become one of my favorite writers to read about writing. I enjoy your insights.

    My endings often surprise me. Sometimes, I have a long tale planned and realize that the ending comes much earlier because more story would give the reader too much. Other times, my characters get out of control and run off with the plot, leaving me to cry over the heart-rending finale. Seldom do my endings turn out the way I thought they would when I began writing, and that makes for a lot of fun for this writer.

    All my best,
    Marie Gail

    • I love it when a story picks itself up and runs off in a different direction from the one I planned! Somehow the muse (or whatever you call it) seems to trump my ideas whenever that happens.
      And thank you so much for that first paragraph – that’s going to make me smile all day!

  4. Juan Zung

    Great post! Ever since I was a kid, it always bothered me that every story, movie, tv show I came in contact with had to end with a fairytale ending. I think that’s why I developed this impulse to have all my protagonist’s die a tragic death at the end of my stories.

  5. Steve

    That’s a very thought-provoking post, thank you.

    Happy endings also have the problem that they create a problem if you want to return to the characters for a later story (a problem many unplanned film sequels have) because you often have to undo progress made.

    Personally I like stories that wrap everything up neatly (even if it isn’t thoroughly happy) – I guess it appeals to a desire for completeness. I think that most people have some sort of yearning for a satisfying ending – I think that’s partly because it gives a sense of catharsis.

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