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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » The happy ending

   
Author Topic: The happy ending
mayflower988
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I'm writing a novel about a young woman who has problems trusting men. I want to give her a happy ending, i.e. she meets a wonderful man and they marry, but I really don't want this novel to have a predictable ending. I want to write something good, not mediocre. Is there a way to write a happy ending without it being predictable? I think it would help if I could come up with a climax that will really grab my readers. As it is, I've got a lot of action happening early on in the story, then the MC is going to go on a journey back home, and once she gets there I'd like for her to be able to overcome her trust issues and find true love. But be honest with me - didn't that last sentence sound a bit ho-hum, "been there, done that"? Any advice?
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MattLeo
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quote:
Is there a way to write a happy ending without it being predictable?
Irony is your friend.

Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility gave both of the Dashwood sisters happy endings. For women of their time meant getting married, but recklesly romantic Marianne makes a brilliant match in wealthy but stodgy Colonel Brandon. Practical, hard-headed Elanor marries Edward, who is penniless because he's been disinherited by his family. Marianne eventually warms up to Colonel Brandon, despite his wearing flannel belts to ward of catarrh. Brandon appoints Edward parson of his village church, enabling him to support Elanor in genteel poverty.

I should say when Elanor's adamantine self-control breaks down, it's *very* satisfying.

The problem with many happy endings is that they drain the color out of characters. Think about just about every dramatization of *A Christmas Carol* you've ever seen. Scrooge is a compelling villain, but when he's reformed he suddenly becomes flat and lifeless despite his painful jolliness. The only actor I've ever seen pull off the reformed Scrooge is George C. Scott, who made Good Scrooge into a puckish prankster.

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extrinsic
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And they lived happily ever after outcomes are the stuff of fairy tales. They begin, too, with once upon a time openings. Okay for children's literature. Challenging willing suspension of disbelief for older audiences who have learned happy endings have consequences and cause downstream complications and don't ever really result in happy ever after lives. Tel est la vie, Such is life.

Overcoming the protagonist's trust issues sounds to me like the entire personal journey, a personal problem wanting satisfaction with private and public ramifications ripe for fiction. My experience says it is not possible to overcome trust issues, only cope with and come to an accommdation with them.

Rhetorical questions for opening scenes, what or who betrayed her trust in the first place? Her coping with trust issues asks for a reconciliation of or accommodation to that betrayal. She can't move on from crippling distrust until she does. Thus outcomes for the dramatic complication.

A narrative's climax is different from a reader emotional climax, which falls near the transformation crisis leading into the denouement act. Narrative climax falls roughly halfway in word count.

Five features mark a narrative climax: all import of the dramatic complication is revealed by the preceding action, efforts to satisfy the dramatic complication are greatest, dramatic complication opposing forces are at greatest odds, outcome of the dramatic complication is most in doubt, and a decision regarding satisfying the dramatic complication is immediately pending.

Since by my reckoning the protagonist wants a fulfulling relationship but can't have one without reconciling her trust issues, a climax might show her realization of that obstacle, her major problem wanting satisfaction, her main dramatic complication. After which, the falling action act is her continuing failed though progressing efforts to satisfy that want.

The transformation crisis is her revelation she is at most fault, driven home by realizing she is the one who has the power to change, not the persona who she blames. This is when reader emotions climax. The dramatic complication is satisfied and she can now expect to enjoy a healthier, fulfilling relationship with her love interest.

By the way, this is a Bildungsroman scenario, where personal, psychological growth is the final outcome.

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LDWriter2
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An intriguing question. I have thought about it also. A few years ago I started getting tired of happy endings. I didn't want the hero to die or fail but that type of ending was getting boring. I no longer feel that way part of that is because I think many of the new endings aren't completely happy. Maybe a friend dies or the hero fails in one area. The day is saved but it's not a complete victory.

I may end up agreeing with parts of extrinsic's comments just in different words and examples but that's okay.
Your story sounds more like a romance which is okay, but needs a less violent ending than what I usually read. [Smile]

Maybe they fight and break up but then he or she thinks it over and you end it as she drives off to see him...but that type of ending has been done a few times also.

Maybe something happens, she gets pregnant on the honeymoon and he says "Hey, we agreed you wouldn't get pregnant for another couple of years". So even though they work it out it's something that they both have to work through and even though they are still happy it changes things not always for the better.

Or she lusts after another guy and almost goes to bed with him. She stops herself in time but hubby finds out she seriously thought about for a while. He starts not to trust her. Again something they can work through but it changes their paradigm(?)

It's your story and you know the characters and how long you want it to be and these are suggestions but maybe they can inspire you. Or you can throw the whole idea out and come up with something else that is a twist on the happy ending. There probably are completely happy twists.

Maybe other things come along. Everything works out and they do have a happy ending wedding but it almost gets buried by all the other junk happening in their lives.

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rcmann
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Define happy.

Do you mean, satisfied with her life? Do you mean, blissfully overjoyed? Do you mean, thrilled with ever minute of every day? Or do you mean she finds someone that she can finally trust and learn to make a solid life with, who can learn to trust her?

Different people use different definitions for the word happy. To someone who grew up starving, cold, sick, and afraid of being shot by the dictator's patrols... a small cottage in a small town with a steady job and a solid marriage might sound pretty damn good. It all depends on your perspective. My parents grew up in the Great Depression. To them, having plenty of food, steady heat, electricity, and a regular paycheck was pure bliss. It depends on how your character defines it and what she's really looking for.

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MartinV
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Make your character want something. Then don't give her that, give her something else, something better or something different but still satisfying.

This can be done by an immature character having immature fantasies. Through the ordeal of the story, the character grows up and realizes how immature that fantasy was. Then reward your character by a mature version of that fantasy, something she worked for.

Plans should never come true. That's why they're called plans, not premonitions.

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MattLeo
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MartinV writes:
quote:
Make your character want something. Then don't give her that, give her something else, something better or something different but still satisfying.
And present her with a choice of mutually exclusive desires. That's a very useful technique; you can use it to slip a happy ending under the nose of cynical readers, or foist a tragic one on the incorrigibly sentimental.

This choice can cap the protagonist character arc; the events of the story prepare him to make a sound choice. Or, if you are going for more a wry ending, he makes an unsound choice and doesn't learn his lesson until it is too late.

There's two axes along which you can work this trick: good vs. bad alternatives, and sound vs. unsound choice. For example if the protagonist is presented with a choice of the lesser of two evils and foolishly chooses the greater, you get bad/unsound. If the protagonist successfully chooses the lesser of two evils you get bad/sound.

The sound choices (bad/sound, good/sound) produce bittersweet endings. The bad alternatives/sound decision combination is the most powerful choice for romantic stories. For example in Anthony Hope's *Prisoner of Zenda* the protagonist and his love interest choose personal honor and duty to country over their passion for each other. That's because romance isn't about sexual consummation; it's about *trust*, and mutual understanding. The romantic subplot is fully unwound when Rudolf and Flavia know each others' feelings and are of one mind as to the right thing to do.

Genre romances don't do this, because they aren't particularly romantic, at least as far as the story resolution is concerned. They're fantasies of female sexual power, so they end with the heroine getting everything she could reasonably want. In the final scene she stands in front of her Byronic mate, looking out over his domain with his brawny arm circling her swelling belly. In a well crafted genre romance this should be a satisfying ending for fans of the genre, but it is not in itself romantic, despite whatever romance that may have transpired before.

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extrinsic
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A happy ending in my book happens when there's a favorable outcome to a main dramatic complication. Fortunes go from bad to good. That's the very definition of a classic Aristotlean comedy. The transformation of the whole is a change in fortunes, not money but favorable outcomes.

A tragedy's fortunes go from good to bad or bad to worse. I don't know of a drama scenario where fortunes go from good to better. No meaningful problem wanting satisfaction, no cost, no stakes. Speaking of ho-hum.

Beautifully tragic stories have both a favorable and unfavorable outcome. A Pyrrhic victory is succeeding at excessive cost, to the point of negating favorable outcomes. An example might be striving for a material gain, an exterior life goal, but realizing in the end the addiction to material gain is a progress trap, and realizing the journey was the reward and personal growth is the favorable outcome, an interior life satisfaction.

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Owasm
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If you want a happy ending and non-colorless characters, end with no denouement. The union happens at the end or the hint of a happy ending. Many readers are reading to expect a happy ending and that fulfills their expectation. Most of my romantically inclined works end that way.

My current WIP is a trilogy. The first two endings end with the two romantic leads parting because of obligations to other people (non-romantic). The last has him walk up to her and offer to help her, intimating that their on-again off-again relationship is finally going to happen.

That's my technique. I leave it up to the reader to provide the rest of the details. If that's a trope, then it's a trope. Your left with that, unrequited love, or a tragedy. Take your pick.

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Meredith
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If what you're writing is a romance, a happy-ever-after or, at minimum, happy-for-now ending is a requirement of the genre. If it's women's fiction, you may have a little more choice.

For me, the whole thing hinges on whether you can make her transformation convincing. If her growth is convincing enough, the pay off will feel satisfying. If it's not, the pay off will feel predictable and unsatisfying.

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Robert Nowall
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"And they lived happily ever after, but it wasn't easy." (Quoting from the end of an SF story, I forget who wrote it.)

That's a problem these days with these multi-sequel book series. If they characters "lived happily ever after," what do you do for the next book? Tolkien found that so insurmountable that he had to have some new character as the lead character of his sequel...

On mayflower988's specific problem...well, how about the young woman overcoming her trust problem, but being unable to admit it or express it (for whatever reason) to the man she's come to trust?

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GreatNovus
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I like it when the happy ending takes a step sideways form what you expect and the character finds resolution to their problem and happiness in a place you don't expect. It's best for there to be some foreshadowing, because doing the opposite of what everyone expects at the end for shock value is a little off-putting to most.
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Foste
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Pure happy endings are a bit meh imho.

Bittersweet is the way to go if you ask me. Victory has to come at a certain price.

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mayflower988
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Wow, thanks everyone. It may take some time for me to digest all the helpful tips. Right now I'm trying to learn more about writing. I've never taken any writing classes (well, unless you count Lit classes in high school and Comp 1 and 2 in college), so I've got a hold on a James Scott Bell book at the library. It's the one called Plot and Structure. I think it will be the most helpful one of his books right now.

So basically what I'm getting from yall's comments is:
- irony
- bittersweet
- two mutually exclusive happy endings

And yes, by "happy ending" I meant my MC would find someone she can trust and have a happy life with. Not total rainbows and sunshine all the time, but a real, genuine life. Like they get married and have normal ups and downs, but it's a happy ending because they have each other. And more importantly, because MC has found a way to overcome her fears.

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MattLeo
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A happy ending is not intrinsically less credible or satisfying than an unhappy one. What is unsatisfying and unbelievable is an ending which doesn't seem to follow logically from the story.

Authors err when they try to pull a fast one to get the kind of ending they want, whether that is a happy or a sad one. They also err in making the ending too obvious.

In a happy ending, you want the protagonist's choice to be in retrospect the right one; it's only before the point that it has to seem like a difficult dilemma, and it's only to the protagonist, not the reader.

For example, suppose we have a love triangle between Alice, Bob, and Chuck. Alice must choose between Bob and Chuck, she can't have both (or can she?). Let's say you decide she'll end up with Chuck. One way you can handle this is to make Bob look better to her, but make the reader root for Chuck (the reader may be privy to facts about Bob and Chuck Alice is not). You bring them up to the climax where Alice seems about to choose Bob, but suddenly she realizes Chuck is the man for her.

Now a sophisticated reader with his critical hat on is going to see through this right away; the uncertainty is in how you're going to manage this process. In a detective story you know the detective is going to figure it out, the reader reads on to find out *how*. You need a *good reason* for Bob to seem better, and an equally good reason for Alice to see the error of her ways. And you need a good reason for Alice to see that error when she does, instead of earlier or later.

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mayflower988
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That makes sense. The ending just needs to naturally result from the story.
And you said before the MC makes her choice, it needs to seem like a difficult decision for her, but not so to the reader? And then afterward there needs to be a reason that the protagonist's choice is the right one?
So a good reason for Choice A to seem better, then a good reason for MC to realize that Choice B is actually better? And a good reason for MC to realize that at the time that she does?

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MattLeo
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quote:
So a good reason for Choice A to seem better, then a good reason for MC to realize that Choice B is actually better? And a good reason for MC to realize that at the time that she does?
Yep. Everything should happen for what seems like a good in-story reason at a time that seems reasonable for it to happen. In a nutshell, you don't want the reader ever to suspect there's a Man Behind the Curtain pulling the levers, because that's *you*.
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mayflower988
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Right. Thanks!
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