Are We Ruled by Happy Endings?
For much of my life, I’ve been a fan of ambiguous and dark endings: The Giver, Z for Zachariah, Feed. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good happy ending once in a while, but I also appreciate endings that make me think and that encourage me to draw my own conclusions.
That’s why I was as surprised as anyone when the YA fairy tale retelling I was working on suddenly decided it wanted a happy ending. While the original tale had ended tragically, the closer I got to the ending of my retelling, the more I couldn’t bear to make my characters suffer any longer. Had I gone soft? Was I caving to the pressure of happy endings? Or was the happy ending simply what the story needed?
There is no doubt that some stories earn their happy endings. In the Harry Potter books, the characters go through so much in the series that it’s a relief to see things wrapped up nicely in the end. After all that turmoil, the characters can finally get some rest! In real life, however, those who suffer the most often don’t have a lot to be hopeful about. Should that reality be reflected in literature? Or should we focus on hope in books because it can be so rare in real life?
Often our reactions to stories are shaped by our expectations. Not too long ago, for example, I went to see Up in the Air. I loved the film and appreciated its realistic, fairly ambiguous ending. On the way out, I heard a woman complain, “That was so sad!” I was surprised by her reaction until I realized she’d come to the theater expecting a romantic comedy; she wasn’t prepared for a dose of reality. If stories are established as dark from the beginning, readers can anticipate the possibility of an equally dark ending and decide whether or not they want to read on.
Is there a danger in becoming too dependent on happy endings? I believe there might be. Last summer I heard Kristin Cashore give a great talk on her first novel, Graceling. At the end of her speech, someone in the audience asked, “Are you going to write a sequel about Katsa and Po?” Kristin looked slightly confused. “I think I wrapped things up pretty well,” she said. “What more would you want to know?” The woman responded, “I want to know what happened to Po and Katsa after the book ended.” Clearly this reader wasn’t satisfied with the story ending as it was. She wanted more. A slide show? The characters’ medical histories? This?
She wanted complete and total closure, which is, of course, impossible. But can we really blame her? With the YA market flooded with series that let us live alongside characters for years, is it any wonder that readers not only want to know what happens next, they also want every single loose end tied up? After you’ve invested so much time in characters, when they feel like real people, you want to know that everything turns out all right for them. This is a nice idea, but what kind of pressure does that put on stories and their creators? And might we be selling ourselves short if all our endings aim at the same thing?
It used to be that YA was a land of anything-goes. Books could be as dark and hopeless as they wanted to be, with no obligation to end happily, or even hopefully. (Just read The Chocolate War to see what I mean.) But these days, YA is expected to give us at least a hopeful, if not a full-out happy, ending. Given the ongoing influence of TV and film (which often rely on formulaic endings) I wonder if this trend will only continue to grow. If that is the case, where does that leave writers and readers? Should we go with the trend, or is there value in having a bit of reality in our endings once in a while?
Bio: Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna grew up enjoying stories in both Polish and English. After studying theater in college, she worked at the Eric Carle Museum where she rediscovered her love of children’s books. She’s been scribbling furiously ever since. Anna lives south of Boston and teaches at Simmons College. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can visit her at www.annastan.com.