Endgame Part 3 - The Happily Ever After Ending

>> Sunday, May 1, 2011

The denouement ending is hardly the only one that's cliche. In fact, most type of endings tend to get done to bits because, let's face it, there are only so many ways to end something. But there are variations within those types of endings that make them suitable to certain types of stories and certain story resolutions.

For instance, the "happy ever after" ending (and variations thereof) is ubiquitous to romance novels but you can find them in all kinds of novels that (a) end happily and (b) aren't in a series. Although it's as cliché as possible, it's also effective and satisfying if done properly (more on that later), but it's also not appropriate for dealing with stories that have ugly or tragic endings or stories that are part of a larger saga where we'll be revisiting our characters elsewhere. A happily-ever-after ending is well suited to romance or adventure or character-driven stories where our characters end up in a happy place.

Happily-ever-after endings have tremendous variations. Some follow so closely on the climax or revelation ("I love you!") they could look like a climax/revelation ending, but there are several key factors that makes them different.

First, the relationship situation must be resolved—love confessions made and accepted, friendships, partnerships, and familial relationships clarified and perhaps celebrated. Generally, the action/excitement climax has happened before we clean up the relationship aspect. So, though the relationship climax may be on the last page, chances are good the action/danger aspects have generally already been resolved. This relationship resolution can be simple and straightforward ("I love you, you know." "I know.") or complicated as one likes, taking paragraphs or whole chapters. Note that all relationships don't have to be resolved, but the key relationships of the main characters (including with each other) need to be.

The situation of the main characters have to be in a good position for the long haul. That means they're not dealing with horrible tragedy to struggle through or left in a situation where the end result is in question. That means, if they're left stranded in a lifeboat, we need to be certain rescue is coming. That means that one can't be dying of cancer unless a miracle cure is on the horizon. However, it does not mean the hero and heroine are a couple, or married, or even romantically involved in any way, just that they're both satisfied with the relationship as it has become. It does not mean that all their problems are solved—they don't have to win the lottery or have their dream jobs or make their business a success. Asthma doesn't have to be cured or the pegleg regrown, as long as the characters are content with the lives that face them. It doesn't mean that the main characters got what the wanted (gold metal), just that they're happy anyway.

All of this doesn't have to be overt either. Our main characters can just resolve/clarify the relationship, with the reader left to conclude that all is well. ("And they lived happily ever after." Or "Let's go home." etc).

Or it can be overt (even exhaustingly so). There are a whole slew of options on how to show this, including considerable time with characters post "resolution" that allow both relationship/future to be further clarified and some/all of side threads tied up. Or, there's the ever-popular foreshadowing of the future with glimpses of near or far future with situations that clarify long-term success either with walks down the aisle, watching a child graduate or the infamous old couple celebrating their umpteenth anniversary.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the happily-ever-after ending in my opinion. I've used it for three out of five novels. It's well suited, particularly, to character-driven novels when, even when the story's effectively ended, you're not quite ready to let the characters go. But, there are dangers and a reader should be aware of them.

Making everything too happy. If everything tidies itself up perfectly, with all conflicts resolved to the best possible outcome and our main characters cooing at each other incessantly, I won't be the only reader with his or her stomach turning. Life isn't that tidy and having everything too rosy is a good way to alienate the reader or to make even a very believable appealing story come off sounding false. Nor am I the only one who tends to think idealized relationships are probably doomed.

Dragging it out too long. It's hard, when you have characters you love, not to add bits and pieces to share with readers you hope love them too. Still, once the story arc is ended and the crisis is past, there's only so long you can drag out the thread-tying and relationship clarifying/reveling without boring the reader to death. Happy relationships, I might add, are boring relationships to the outside most of the time. Set up what you need to so the reader is comfortable with where they are and where they're going, then leave the rest for the reader's imagination. I have a rule of thumb that, post climax, the book should end within two chapters (and only that long if you have some big pieces that still need to be put into place). Not saying that has to be your rule, but if you look back and see the story climax happening nine chapters back, you might want to ask yourself if (a) you need everything afterwards and (b) what resolutions you might be able to clear up before the climax so that it can wind down a bit faster.

Happy endings fall in and out of fashion, even if there are some genres where they are de rigeur, but there's nothing wrong with one as long as it's not too sugary and not dragged out too long. End it when you have the resolution you need and not beyond that point. Keep the characters as charming and entertaining as they need to be until the end.

The goal is to leave the reader satisfied, not bored, not anxious.

More endings to come.


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