Friday, 29 April 2011

Happy Endings

Edge Author Katie Dale considers whether teen fiction should end "happily ever after"...                                             .             There’s no denying that the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton is straight out of a fairytale. The story of a normal girl marrying her handsome prince has captivated the world with its magic and romance, as millions gathered round their televisions, camped out on the streets of London, and organized street parties and communal celebrations – a show of national spirit and goodwill seen all-too-rarely these days – to watch and celebrate as the happy couple took their vows before sailing off in their horse-drawn coach (and later a convertible Aston Martin) to their happily ever after. 
A fairytale come true.

As children, all our stories had similarly blissful fairytale endings – the heroine always married a prince and the bad guys were always punished. We needed a happy ending to our bedtime stories in order to drift off to pleasant, peaceful dreams. But what about as we grow up, enter our teens, become young adults? Do we still need our stories to end happily?
Should reading continue to be a form of escapism? A chance to get away from the humdrum problems of our own lives for a few hours and enter a world where everything is happily resolved, leaving us feeling good?

Or, as the settings of our books leave fairyland and enter the real world, is it actually more realistic if they don’t end quite so neatly? Indeed, even the original versions of many of our most beloved fairytales have much grizzlier ends – the Little Mermaid ends up committing suicide when her prince marries another, and Sleeping Beauty finally wakes to find herself raped, and the mother of twins – so as we grow up is it time to stop sugar-coating our stories, and leave the cocoon of happily-ever-afters and false expectations behind, and instead read fiction which better prepares us for the complexities and rollercoasters of real life?

After all, current teen and YA fiction deals honestly and unflinchingly with real, gritty, issues – knife crime, murder, rape, abuse and abortion to name but a few – so shouldn’t the endings be equally realistic and honest? We know that the justice system isn’t infallible, that bad guys are not always adequately punished (if at all), that good people are not always rewarded, that actually people are seldom either all good or all bad, and that even a fairytale wedding does not guarantee a happily ever after. So shouldn’t fiction reflect the real world we live in?

I don’t mean that books should leave you feeling utterly depressed and despairing at the state of the world, but can an ending be satisfying without being “happy”? Indeed, is it sometimes more fulfilling to read a story that doesn’t end quite so neatly and predictably – perhaps the hero doesn’t get the girl, a bad guy gets away, or the heroine dies – but instead leaves us with food for thought and a new perspective on our own, real, lives?

Certainly, some of the most memorable and impactful modern teen novels have endings which are not conventionally “happy”: Before I Die, Before I Fall, Noughts and Crosses, The Lovely Bones, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and after all, the greatest love story of all time is about two teenagers who end up dead.

Would Romeo and Juliet be as romantic if they’d both survived? What about if Titanic hadn’t sunk, or if John Coffey had got a stay of execution in The Green Mile? Would those stories have had the same impact? What about Casablanca, Love Story, Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, The Crucible or Gone with the Wind?

Are happy endings in fact stories that just haven’t ended yet? Have you ever wondered what happens to the characters after their happily ever after? Do they live blissfully forever more? How realistic is that? And actually, how boring? Even if the heroine ends up with her dream guy in a teen romance, how many of us end up marrying our first love?

And in hindsight, how many of us are actually glad we didn’t…?

What do you think? Do you prefer more realistic conclusions to the books you read? Or do you like your endings happily ever after?

After all, as today proves, every once in a while some of us do end up marrying our handsome prince…


  1. Great post Katie. As I dipped in and out of the TV coverage today of the Royal Wedding I couldn’t help thinking of the same, almost, universal euphoria displayed on the wedding day of Charles and Diana and how, history has revealed that we were all made fools of by The Prince Of Wales. The storyteller in me can’t help but appreciate the great opener that day provided, a day that seemed to be a ‘Happy Ever After’ but, in fact, was a tale of a naive young woman deceived and betrayed from the outset - now that’s an interesting premise - and during the years of marriage that followed an epic, complex story unfolded with incredible ingredients and a tragic ending to boot –you couldn’t make it up! Although it can be much more interesting when stories are twisted and tragic, I hope for William and Kate’s sake, that their marriage turns out to be like the more sanitised versions of the fairytales.

    You posed the question- Can an ending be satisfying without being happy? Of course it can. Happiness isn’t essential at the end of a story but, for me, at least a glimmer of HOPE is.

  2. I quite agree and in fact, although i do feel there has to be some sort of positive feeling at the end of a book for young people, we should not compromise our work for a so called 'happy ending.
    At the end of HIDDEN there is no happy and easy resolution for the asylum seeker Alix and Samir save from the sea. Because for asylum seekers there is no easy road to gaining refugee status and permission to stay in this country. All I do in HIDDEN is raise the issues, challenge some of the myths and throw down the gauntlet for the reader to decide. Ultimately, the asylum seeker has to present himself to the Home Office, with the help of a refugee organisation and throw himself on their mercy. Less than 50 % of asylum seekers are currently granted permission to stay and take their case forward in the UK. Young people need to know this - as do all our readers.

  3. First of all, this isn't from Andy, it's from Bryony - for some reason, although I've been trying to post all day, Blogger won't let me. It will let Andy though - weird.

    Anyway, that was a great post, thanks Katie.

    I agree that some of the most memorable literature is tragic. My favourite Shakespearean plays are the tragedies.

    But I have a confession to make - if a film says 'based on a true life story' I avoid it like the plague, because I've found that 'based on a true life story' is film-maker short hand for 'doesn't have a happy ending'.

    If I know a book has a sad ending, it's very rare that I'll pick it up and read it.
    I was even put off watching Disney's 'The Little Mermaid' because I was worried Disney might have stuck to the original story (clearly I was very naive in those days - don't know what I was thinking!).

    The fact is I don't like to read or watch things that will depress me. I like escapism. I need a happy or at least hopeful ending.

    It's not as if I advocate the adage 'always leave em laughing' but if it was 'always leave em with hope', that would be my mantra.

    People aren't stupid. We know that most of the time the bad guys do win. Man does horrible, unspeakable things to his fellow man (and woman). Hope is often the first casualty nowadays, not just in war, but in lives stunted by poverty and repression. Good guys do come last.

    But at the end of the day I write fiction. It isn't meant to be real. It is meant to be escapist, and hopefully to teach a little - and how can you teach if you leave the student asking 'what is the point of it all'? It would be great if we authors can make the reader jump up and shout ‘we must change this’, but for that, doesn’t the reader need hope? If there was no hope, they wouldn’t be galvanised for change, they’d be too depressed to get out of their chairs.

    And as a reader if I wanted to watch / read things based on real life ... well I'd watch the news, read a paper, look at what the current Government is planning to take away next ...

    I want a reader to pick up my book, read it fearfully and frantically, because they want the protagonist to get away happy, and close the book satisfied and hopefully thoughtful. I don’t want my book to take away from the reader (and that includes hope and happiness), I want it to give, and for me that means a happy ending.

    I’ll just have to accept that I’m never going to be Shakespeare.

  4. Of course, my own book has a lot of content based on real life ... so I'm hoping that not everyone has my taste in literature!


  5. Interesting post, Katie. All I ask from a book is a satisfying ending -- which doesn't always mean happy. The ending needs to be believable and organically evolve from the story. I like to be surprised but not in a the-butler's-best-friend's-next-door-neighbor's-dog-did-it kind of way. I don't judge a book until I've read the final word. I've loved books up until the ending. I've also thought a book was mediocre but been blown away by the ending. My biggest pet peeve is a 'to be continued' ending -- which I've experienced in a few recent trilogies. I want a complete story in each book -- not a cliffhanger to blackmail me to buy the next book. But I digress...Great endings aren't always happy but they feel appropriate for the story and satisfying to the reader.

  6. I always find the endings the hardest part to write - partly because I don't really believe in endings. Crafting an ending to a book is difficult when writing realistic fiction - because life is never as neat as fiction. So I believe in loose ends and questions - but never complete despair.

  7. A good question, Katie, and very topical. Lots of teen and young adult writers are talking about the same question.
    Whatever a writer's motivation for writing a book, the book they have crafted must at the end of the day be an absorbing and satisfying read, and that includes the ending.
    From talking to lots of teens, what I learnt was that a depressing ending is to be avoided - they don't like it, and actually neither do I. Teen readers want some kind of hope, a light, even a glimmer, at the end of the tunnel - particularly if that tunnel has been edgy, dark or downright terrifying.

  8. Thanks for all your great comments, guys. I agree, complete despair is never the way to go - a contrived bleak/tear-jerker ending is as bad as a contrived happy one, but I think there's lots of ways to end a story both satisfactorily and realistically, and that's the kind of ending I like best.

  9. That's interesting, Savita - good to know that many teens are on the same wavelength as we are. Especially with all the dystopian fiction coming out.
    And, Sara, I agree about the 'to be continued' ending - I HATE that. It makes me feel conned. I just read the first book in the new Kelley Armstrong YA series (The Gathering) and it literally feels as if it's been cut off in the middle of the story (the middle of the chapter even) - there is not one SINGLE bit of resolution. I usually love Kelley Armstrong and I've read all her 'women of the otherworld' books and her first YA series (Darkest Powers), but this has actually put me off reading the rest of this series - major backfire. I can only assume that she had some really bad advice from a publisher out to make as much money as possible ...

  10. My two (or three) cents. For me, as both writer and reader, the issue is not necessarily the "sadness" or "happiness" of an ending, but whether or not the ending has made the characters'(and reader's)journey worthwhile. There should also be a sense (esp as we are writing for young people) that the ending offers a glimpse into the imagined (or real) "next chapter" in the lives of our characters...

  11. What I've noticed is that young adults like to make their own minds up, so I think endigs that are a little open work well. I do think there needs to be hope, though, and the possibility of a future good outcome.