Happy Endings?

How do you go about ensuring that your novel has a suitable resolution at the end of your story? Is it a case of all problems solved and the protagonist is left with their ‘happy ending’? Or can it be more complex than that, leaving your characters in a state of flux: no longer following their complicated lives having delivered what the opening chapters promised?

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Although I have not yet completed writing NaNo #2, I am beginning to ask myself some of the questions that I hadn’t planned for in my original outline. For example, does my main character – Tishtar – find romance with her old village friend, or with the companion she made travelling, or even possibly with the young weather twin who controls the wind? There is even the possibility that she does not find happiness with any of them because she is a young woman with a heart for adventure and no time yet for settling down or being rooted in a relationship!

This is a choice I did not consider at the start of my novel. Yet, as I write the final ten chapters or so I am becoming aware of the various men of Tishtar’s age and their potential for her suitor. I can not decide if Tishtar would want any of them, or even if she did which one would be best suited to her. This is a facet of her character that I did not reckon with when I created her- but, like so many written characters, her personality has now come to life and she deserves any future choice to be made based on the idiosyncrasies of her own, rather than by an external force trying to make the decision just to have it be done.

This conundrum of endings has also got me thinking  about NaNo #1: the story that begins with the reader discovering that Madeline is going to die and, as promised, she does depart the world of the living in the final chapter. However, I’m starting to wonder if that is enough.

The entire premise of the novel is based on the fact that Madeline has done some terrible things in her life that has affected all the people that return to see her during her fatal illness in some way or another.Yet, not once in the story is Madeline’s internal voice heard. The reader discovers those actions of hers through the rest of the characters – the people she wronged – and the novel ends without one reference to why Madeline did what she has done, nor how she became such an individual that could do those things. There is, I admit, a glimmer of possibility in understanding Madeline, through the diaries that she leaves to her daughter – but I’ve always believed that to be the tale of another book. Not this one.

Now I’m concerned that I’ve cheated my readers somehow – that by not revealing Madeline’s character for who she really is, any reader will feel dissatisfied and the promise of the opening may not be fulfilled by the ending I’ve written. Of course, I haven’t yet re-read my first draft, so I have no idea how I may feel about it myself after reading it. But, it may be a problem I have to address, or at least rigorously defend, when it comes around to editing.

And isn’t the problem of happy endings really a question of editing? Write the conclusion as it comes and then fix it when you truly understand the meaning of the text. How can an ending be climatic if you don’t know what the central issues of your story are? How can the conclusion be satisfying if the theme of story changes half way through and then back again without clearly answering any of the questions posed?

My NaNo #1 is not about why Madeline did what she did, it’s about what Madeline did and how it shaped the lives of those around her. Perhaps that won’t work in the second draft – but I need to give it a chance before I dismiss it.

Likewise with Tishtar in NaNo#2: the main storyline is not geared toward finding her a happy, neat ending where all is good and rosy. It’s about the journey she makes during the upheaval of revolution and what she discovers about herself. Until this journey is done, not even I can dictate which other character, if any, might be right for her. That is a question for draft two: when I better understand Tishtar herself.

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I’ve never been a big fan of ‘happily ever ever’. I much prefer the idea of suspension: telling a story is a part of someone’s life, not in entirety but for a particular reason. The author’s job, I think, is to provide a sense of cohesion to one aspect of a character’s life and how it impacts on the world, or themselves, sufficiently to create an understanding of what that means to that particular character. A story can be as short as a second in time, if it is great enough to cause a shift in someone’s perception, or it can be an entire lifetime told in a thousand pages, yet you would still only see a glimpse of the significant events that make up that lifetime.

All in all, I don’t really believe in ‘happily ever after’ because life persists, somewhere, even after the death of an individual there is the memory and the legacy of that person in the world – fictional or real – that creates ripples that still has an effect on others. The story doesn’t just end there, it might do for a reader or an author, but there is always the potential for continuity so long as the art of storytelling still exists.

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5 responses to “Happy Endings?

  1. “Only bad books have good endings.
    If a book is any good, it’s ending is always bad – because you don’t want the book to end.” I agree with you and this is one of my favourite quotes (quite fitting).
    I think there does need to be a sense of reality and not just this fake happiness. Even if they get there ending there has to be some big revelation that makes it all worthwhile and deserved. Not just there.

    • Whose quote is that? It does appear to fit quite well doesn’t it!?
      You’re right about the ending needing to be worthwhile and logical for the character. You can’t just suddenly change the rules at the last minute just to say ‘the end’.

      I’m reminded of the old shorts at cinemas where the hero is killed for suspense at the end of the episode, only for it to be explained away at the start of the next by having the hero scramble out of the flaming car heading over a cliff from previously, even though – as a viewer – you know that couldn’t have happened in the previous episode’s scene.

      Thanks for dropping by with the quote.
      Take Care, Cat

      • It was a quote from Pseudonymous Bosch. The ending needs to be logical. Especially to the reader it has to make sense and not feel as of they have wasted their time. Good luck on the ending 🙂 best wishes

  2. I don’t usually end my stories with “happily ever after” either, Cat. I usually have something that is more along the lines of bitter sweet. My characters usually have lost something important to them along the way. By the end, they have been badly hurt, but have learned something and overall will be ok for their next adventure whatever it may be.

    • Lessons to be learnt, that’s always a good motivation for a story. I really liked the way you ended your Swan story (sorry – forget the actual title) with the brothers and sisters reunited just before their time runs out. Very poignant.
      Thanks for always commenting – I find your words very reassuring and they remind me I’m not the only one wondering these things sometimes!
      Take Care, Cat

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