And they all lived happily ever after

I’ve been thinking for a while about happy endings.  Years ago, a friend of mine said he was annoyed at a perceived trend in books of the time to refuse purely happy endings – he felt as if there always had to be some bittersweet element, some catch.  Which made me wonder: what makes an ending “happy”?  Personal closure/happiness/success for the main character(s)?  Justice for the bad guys?  (Which of course raises the question of how one defines “justice” and “bad guys.”)  And a related question: when is (sympathetic?) character death acceptable?

The thing is, of course, that it’s almost certainly possible to think of good books, books we like, books we find satisfying, that don’t fit whatever criteria we might come up with in response to those questions.  After all, one of the fantastic things about books is how varied they are.  In fact, that same friend later told me he was a little disappointed in the ending of a book he’d otherwise liked because it felt too happy, too neat and easy.  It didn’t seem plausible to him.  Which was, in fact, part of the issue he’d had with earlier, less happy endings: he felt that because of the trend, less-happy endings were often contrived.

It made me think that maybe what makes an ending happy isn’t the right question.  Maybe a better question would be what makes an ending satisfying.  An ending doesn’t have to be happy to be satisfying; if that were so, then tragedies wouldn’t be so perennially popular.  I think satisfaction basically comes down to one thing: reader expectations.  That’s true in any kind of writing, really.  I used to tutor essay-writing (still do, occasionally), and one of the necessities of that is guiding reader expectations, using structure and language cues so that readers can anticipate what you’ll discuss next.  It’s surprisingly painful when that’s done poorly.  Fiction is a little different because part of the point is to surprise readers with plot twists they didn’t expect, but even surprises must be properly staged, or they fail as surprises.

Obviously, a perfectly predictable ending would be boring.  But still, an ending needs to fit within the general spectrum of what readers anticipate from the book, or it fails to satisfy.  Thinking back, I can recognize a few times I’ve encountered this, with relatively varied books.  Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example.  The book is dark and threatening and horrifying and as the tension ratcheted higher I became more and more convinced that when the final cataclysm came everything would be blasted beyond recognition.  And then…it wasn’t.  The cataclysm never quite came.  The protagonists got a happy ending.  Everything was all right.  I was left feeling entirely nonplussed.  

I didn’t expect quite such a calamitous ending from Daughter of the Sword.  It’s a mystery story, and, as expected, the main character solves the mystery, defeats the bad guy, and gains some respect, all excellent.  But then, as if by magic, her sister suddenly, finally recognizes her addiction problem, and her blatantly sexist boss screws up spectacularly and gets not only fired but arrested?  You are straining my credulity, and it niggles like a splinter under my skin.  

Big Bad Wolf was a similar story – a mystery, a law enforcement officer trying to solve it, an assortment of criminal opponents, familial entanglements.  It went in the opposite direction, however.  After much lead-up, including secondary successes and plenty of challenge, the main character is finally closing in on the head bad guy.  He goes in…and fails utterly.  The bad guy put up someone else as a fall guy and escapes entirely.  The main character hits a dead end and has nothing to show for his efforts.  Not only that, but the familial subplot goes against him as well.  And of course, these things happen in real life.  They even happen in books.  But this, I was convinced, was not that kind of book.  My expectations were built and nothing occurred to contradict them until the ending, upon which they were totally wrecked.  “Dissatisfied” barely begins to describe my response.

On the other hand, sometimes endings that wouldn’t ordinarily work do, because they fit the book they’re in.  I’m thinking of Grace of Kings.  Its ending was one of the things I wanted to discuss in my previous post about it, but I couldn’t find a way to shoehorn it in.  Simply put, the very end of Grace of Kings doesn’t resolve plotlines, whether happily or not.  It creates them.  I’d never seen a book that did that, let alone one where it actually worked.  And yes, Grace of Kings is meant to be the first book in a trilogy, so you could just assume it’s done that way to lead into the next book.  Say, perhaps, that it’s a cliffhanger ending, like so many other trilogies.  But it’s not.  It doesn’t end mid-plot, at some climactic moment of great uncertainty.  It ends at the narrative hook, the sign that a new plot is just about to begin.  In most books, this would be bizarre beyond words.  But in this book, it fits.  One of the major themes of the book is history, how it’s always being made, always continuing – how it never truly ends.  Thus, neither does the book.  I was delighted.

How Literature Plays with the Brain* had much to say about this sort of thing – the balance between harmony and dissonance as we read.  Both are important, enjoyable even.  At different times, we desire differing degrees of each.  We can be satisfied with each.  What causes dissatisfaction with a book, I think, is when it too-suddenly shifts the balance between the two.  Happiness, per se, isn’t the issue.  It’s whether we expect happiness.


* That book I was so very interested in and found so very annoying.