My friend Sarah wrote a blog post about Happily Ever Afters or HEAs. I wrote a response to that, but she said it was lost in the ether and it never posted. Anyway, I figured my response would be a good blog post so here are my thoughts about endings and happily ever afters.
Do all books need one? While I write romance, and I’m required to give one in my books, maybe you’d be surprised when I tell you that not all books need a happily ever after.
But there needs to be some kind of ending that offers a sense of satisfaction to your reader. Something that offers closure.
We do this for a couple of reasons:
- Because readers have spent quite a few hours with you by the time they reached the end of your book.
Look, reading a book takes a few hours, if not a few days. Maybe a couple of weeks. Anytime a person gives you that time, and pays you for the privilege on top of it, they deserve a little respect, don’t you think? Life is busy. We have jobs, kids, pets, spouses, and other responsibilities. When a reader sits down with your book, that’s an honor. And one you as a writer shouldn’t take lightly.
Authors do, though.
We see it in the way they offer books that haven’t been edited, or are formatted incorrectly. We see it in the way they offer stories with flat characters, plot holes, and endings that don’t make sense. And I have to ask, why would a writer disrespect their readers that way? It happens way too often, and readers don’t have time for it. With so much content out there now, and free, too, readers don’t have to waste time with you. Yet writers get offended when a reader points out a book’s flaws. This includes an unsatisfactory ending.
- A reader has just spent 10 plus hours going through hell with your characters, and readers want to know that through all that, at least they are on the right track to a better life.
When readers go through hell and back, it’s nice to know that meant something. Otherwise, what is all the pain for? Your characters can’t go through 250+ pages of fire and brimstone without getting something out of it, right?
What’s the point of the pain and the suffering without the offer of hope?
That was something I heard when I listen to a couple people talk about The Walking Dead. I’ve never watched it; zombies aren’t my thing. But the woman said she stopped watching it because there wasn’t any hope, and the despair week after week brought her down.
Humans need hope.
Prisoners of war survive for years with the hope that one day they will be rescued. I just finished watching the documentary series about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Her parents have to have hope that one day their daughter will be found or they would just shrivel into a ball and die. Is the offer of hope enough for your book? That depends on your plot and the journey your characters have gone through. But your readers need the promise that there is a very good chance your characters will be okay because they learned enough on their journey to make better choices.
- Life is hard enough as it is.
Readers read to escape. That doesn’t mean you have to give them rainbows and sunshine, but our lives don’t end on page 305. Real life consists of good days, bad days, super great days, an horrific days. But we keep on. When a reader reads a book, they expect, I’d venture to say, a happily ever after, even if there isn’t much happy. In a kidnapping case, maybe the child is never found–but the kidnapper is. The parents will never find closure, but the detective working the case had, technically, done his job. Would you be happy with such a book? Or would you be happier if the child is found as well? In real life, missing children stay missing. Sometimes their abductors are found and punished. A plot like that is realistic. My friend says she writes realistic fiction, so a plot like that would be acceptable to her, more than likely.
But does it belong in a book? Do the parents deserve closure? What about the detective? He’ll carry that burden for the rest of his life. What feels right for the story? What feels right for the characters? What feels right to the reader? As the author, you are in control. What feels right to you?
There is a saying out there that a story is never-ending, the author just chooses to stop writing. I suppose this is true, and it amuses me to think about my characters living life without me, maybe breaking up when I fought with my laptop so hard to push them together. Maybe this is why series are so popular. We get attached to characters and want to keep reading. Does that happily engaged couple really get married, or do they break up after all? Does that detective finally find love despite his long hours and alcoholism? Does that one serial killer who got away finally get caught? Or in the case of that missing child, is she finally found and reunited with her parents?
Humans are hardwired to find the happy. There are a lot of trite sayings about happiness. Happiness is a journey, not a destination. Learn to be happy with what you have. Happiness is a state of mind. The list goes on, but with books, I think we can say that yes, happiness is a journey and it starts on page one, but it is also a destination and it’s found on the last page of your book.
Here’s the thing. If your reader comes away mad at you, not only do you risk losing them as a future reader, you risk losing the next sale. Writers don’t write for money, but authors publish books for the sale. Why would you leave money on the table offering or reader a mediocre ending at best?
Think of any TV show that wasn’t ended properly. Castle, Lost, Seinfeld. Think of how you felt when you invested years of your life to be rewarded with a lukewarm ending. Now think of shows that weren’t ended at all, just cut off because they didn’t bring in the ratings.
You feel cheated.
And then you wonder, as an author, why people would be angry at you if you didn’t deliver a satisfactory ending.
Writers, readers, and TV watchers aren’t different. We want the hope, we want the idea these characters can make something of their lives despite the hell they just went through. Is why Scarlett O’Hara makes such an imposing figure on that hill, her family soil clutched in her fist. She’d lost Rhett. But she wanted him back. She fought for Tara and won.
“Tomorrow is another day,” she said.
Your characters won’t have another day.
Unless you write the sequel.
Scarlett did have a sequel. Alexandra Ripley wrote her one. Scarlett’s happily ever after was hard-won.
But she did it.
How will your characters find theirs?
There are a lot of resources about endings. James Scott Bell just came out with The 50 Last Pages. Check it out here.
Happy for Now? You Decide:
Still writing my Wedding Party series! Check back often for an update!
all pictures except Mickey Spillane were found on pixabay.com and made with canva.com. Mickey was found in a Google search and taken from https://www.azquotes.com/author/13953-Mickey_Spillane