Do Happy Endings Exist?

 

IMG_1486For the most part, I prefer books with happy endings. I’m not opposed to a sad ending, but it has to be the right one.

I recently had a friend say to me that they prefer “hopeful” endings, and that makes a lot of sense. What’s the point if we don’t have hope?

A while ago, I read A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. It is an amazing book, but it’s also horrifically sad. That’s not to say that it’s unrelentingly sad, but the ending is not a happy one.

It got me to thinking that where authors end the book makes the difference between a happy, hopeful ending, or a sad one.

A Little Life ebbs and flows with happiness and hope, where it seems like Jude will finally get the life he wanted, and devestatingly sad parts, the kind of sticky sad that stays with you and makes you question your own life.

If Yanagihara had ended the book during one of those upbeat, hopeful moments, it would be an entirely different book with a whole different meaning.

Books only tell the story of a slice of time. They don’t tell you what happens after, if the character suffered a tragedy. Romance novels often end with a marriage or proposal, but they don’t tell you if someone got cancer after they were married for a few years or if someone had an affair with an ex. Mystery novels end with the detective finding the criminal, but they don’t talk about the detective descending into alcoholism  or having a car accident which causes them never-ending back pain.

My point is that anything can happen when a story continues, and it won’t exclusively be happy or sad. Life is about the whole spectrum of emotional experience. My life is just a series of stories I tell myself (and others). Sometimes I don’t get to pick what happens in the story because sometimes life happens to me, but I get to pick the frame.

For example, I was recently supposed to go to a Taylor Swift concert in Arizona (I live in Texas). I didn’t get to go because I had a sick 17-year-old cat, and I was worried what would happen if I left. So I stayed, and my friends went to the concert without me. I looked at their pictures on Facebook and imagined what a great time I would have had with them. 😥

If the story ends there, it’s kind of a downer, right? But what if the end of the story has the sick cat making a full recovery? And knowing that my elderly cat is healthy today because I missed a concert? And that my husband agreed to go see Taylor Swift with me when she comes to Texas? Does it change the story?

I think it does. I like happy endings in fiction; I prefer them in real life too. Life has its ups and downs, just like fiction does. And just like in fiction, I can usually choose where to end that particular short story.

Related post: 10 Reasons I Love Happy Endings

10 Reasons I Love Happy Endings

This post applies to all book types EXCEPT horror. I’m fine with everyone being dead at the end of a horror book/ movie.

  1. I read to take a break from real life. While I don’t mind a good depressing book, life is difficult enough without reality intruding in my entertainment. A lot of bad things happen in real life, and we can’t always count on them ending well. It’s important that books end on a hopeful note.
  2. When I live with a character in my head for several hundred pages, I want good things to happen for them. I start to enjoy spending time with a character as if they were my friend. Therefore, I prefer that things work out for them.
  3. Sad endings can make me introspective, but happy endings are uplifting. When I’ve read a book with a roller coaster ride between the pages and then a happy ending that feels right (not forced), it can make me feel cheerful the rest of the day.
  4. I believe that most problems have solutions. What I mean by that is that often when there’s a depressing ending, it happens, not exclusively because of circumstance, but also because of people’s choices. I like it when a character engages in problem solving to find a solution to a problem, and I think it sets an excellent example for readers.
  5. I believe that people can be happy in spite of circumstances. What do lottery winners have in common with paralyzed accident victims? This is not a joke.  ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… One year after the incident, they both tend to return to baseline levels of happiness. When a book has a happy ending despite bad things that happen, it means that people can triumph over anything. Happiness has to do with the individual, not the circumstances.
  6. They combat the negativity that seems to get the most airtime. I can’t get on social media without seeing something about some celebrity feud, someone complaining that someone is talking about them behind their back, arguing over politics. And don’t even get me started on the news. Ugh. If we believe the information we’re inundated with, we’re all the wrong shape or size, everyone is mean and wouldn’t give a glass of water to a dying man, and if you’re not “with” my politician, it must mean you hate me and everything I stand for. I don’t believe any of that BS. It’s nice to read about relationships working out, people talking through their differences, and people lending helping hands. It’s even nice to occasionally read about people discussing politics without creating Hatfield/ McCoy feuds.
  7. Hope matters. For those of you who don’t know about 13 Reasons Why, it’s a book about a girl who leaves a tape behind to be passed to the thirteen people she feels contributed to her suicide. It’s both a book and later became a Netflix series. It was under controversy because many teens cited the book as triggering them to attempt (or in some cases, tragically complete) suicide. If books can have such a negative impact, why can’t they also have positive ones?
  8. Happy does not equal shallow. I think that sometimes people equate depressing books with emotional richness and thought provoking, while dismissing books with happy endings. Do you know how much harder it is to be positive than to be negative? Try it sometime. Go forth in the world with a smile and a kind word for everyone, and see how difficult it can be. I love books that put a character through a difficult struggle and end up deserving the happy ending.
  9. Heroes should always triumph over villains. If we don’t believe that the light side of the force will always ultimately triumph over the dark side, then what’s the point? Maybe good doesn’t always triumph over evil in real life, but it should. Maybe the detective doesn’t always catch the murderer or find the kidnapping victim in real life, but he should.
  10. I want to feel like there’s a point. When I read a book that’s depressing for hundreds of pages, and then ends on a bleak note, I often feel like, “Well, what was the point of that?” We all know that bad things happen and that sometimes people never recover. It seems meaningless. When I see people suffer for hundreds of pages but ultimately triumph, I often feel like, “Wow, that person didn’t let anything stop them from reaching their goal.” When I did therapy, I used to ask my groups a question: What’s the difference between success and failure? There’s only one difference… the successful people never quit. If you try something 1,000 times, fail 999 of those times but only succeed once, people will call you a success. I like books that show that.

What do you think? Do you prefer happy endings or endings when things don’t work out? Do you agree or disagree with any of my reasoning?