Happy Endings

Let me talk in praise of the ridiculously happy ending.

I was once in a fiction writing class in college.  It was a decent enough course, but one thing I noticed was that all the published short stories we read and discussed for class had one thing in common—or, should I say, one common thing missing.  There were no happy endings.  The endings were evasive, inconclusive, quietly tragic.  Not even bittersweet, just…bitter.  I couldn’t find a single story in the lot that ended well, that ended with even a suggestion of the possibility of hope.

As if the only stories worth valuing are the ones told with bleak cynicism.

I’m a sucker for a good happy ending.  And admittedly, happy endings can be a hard sell.  The pervasive perception is that they are simplistic, saccharine, and/or intended for children.  But I keep coming back to them, sucking them up like I’m some kind of story-Roomba.

Happy endings aren’t simplistic just because they’re happy.  Any sort of ending, happy or tragic, can be flat and unsatisfying if done poorly.  The question is, does the story SELL the ending?  Does the ending make sense as a natural extension of what’s come before and the overall theme it’s been communicating?  A well-earned happy ending is far from shallow; it can be a deep wellspring of renewing and revitalizing joy.  It can be transcendent.  Hope is not always an easy answer; but one can be clear-eyed and wise and still choose hope.

And sometimes a happy ending goes so over-the-top it breaks free of Earth’s gravity.  The storyteller hands out Happily Ever Afters like Oprah shouting “You get a car!  You get a car!” at a screaming TV audience.  The Power of Love and/or Friendship comes through.  The world is united and inspired by a song.  The world of the story ends up a noticeably better place because the heroes decide to Give a Damn.   And I’m sitting somewhere with a big goofy grin on my face and a knot in my throat because the story I’m experiencing is genuinely moving to me.

A world where stories always end tragically is just as misleading, I think, as a world where stories always end happily.  The truth is that life is a mix of both, and the world of Story is broad enough to encompass that.  It SHOULD be broad enough to encompass that.  Both have value to us; both comedy and tragedy have lessons to impart.  And sometimes you need to cry and sometimes you need to laugh, and sometimes you need to push through the crying to get to the laughing.

Sometimes, you just need to see some sunlight.


One thought on “Happy Endings”

  1. Hi Jennifer, I agree with you that happy endings are a good thing at least some of the time. I am reading a book of short stories by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees. The last story I read didn’t seem to have an ending at all. I actually went back thinking I had missed something. It was excellent in many ways, but the ending was not at all satisfying. Nevertheless, I am enjoying the stories.


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