by Helen E. H. MaddenI am not a big fan of happy endings. Or rather I should say I am not a big fan of publishers who only accept and publish stories with a happily-ever-after (HEA)ending. I don't even like it when they say they'll accept happily-ever-after-for-now (HEAFN). It's like these publishers think there's sometthing wrong with a perfectly good tragedy. Hello? Have you not heard of Romeo and Juliet, written by this guy called Shakespeare? It's kind of popular...
So I don't care for a publishing house that only wants the happy stuff. That's not to say I think all stories should end in tragedy. But I do think the happiest ending for any story is the ending that actually works best for a story, regardless of whether that ending is happy or not.I once spent ten weeks struggling to write a story. I would get about 20 pages into the tale, and slowly run out of things to say. It was because I didn't know how to end the story. I was shooting for a happy ending, one where the guy gets... well, the other guy (yeah, it was a m/m sort of thing). Every time I tried to write though, I could never get past page 20. I wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote those first 20 pages so many times I thought I was going to be sick. Then finally one day I sat down with my trusty ballpoint pen and my notebook and I determined that I would figure out how the story ended by the end of that day or I'd give up entirely and move on to something else.
It only took me twenty minutes of scribbling to realize that the reason I couldn't finish the story was because I was so damned insistent on that happy endinig. It was sort of an "A-ha!" moment, where I was throwing down all possible endings onto the paper, including the ones I thought I knew wouldn't work. The "A-ha!" came when I wrote, "So-and-so dies..."A-ha. A-HA! Someone dies! Suddenly, the entire story crystalized around that point. Knowing that the story would not have a happy ending changed everything. I threw out all previous drafts of the story and began typing in earnest. By the end of two weeks, I had written what I still consider to be the best (though sadly, still unpublished) story of my life. It was complex, moving, hot, and so forbidden.
And in the end, nobody in that tale lived happily ever after.It was the right ending for that story, and since then, I've learned that whenever I'm having problems writing a tale, it's usually because I don't understand the ending. It's not enough to say, "I'm going to have a happy (or tragic) ending." I have to understand the ending in order to make it come about. Here are a few rules I've learned since that first painful incident that may help you write your own fitting endings.
Rule #1 - the ending must flow naturally from the events occuring in the story. Deus Ex Machina is the worst way to end a story. It's a big fat cheat in my opinion, and it's just as bad as the old "it was all a dream" kind of ending. When you write your story, you arm your character at the very beginning with the things they will need to survive the challenges ahead - wits, bravery, a killer punch, the ability to perform magic, etc. These are the tools they use to tackle the problems you throw their way. They can always discover or develop new tools as they progress through the story, but don't ever, EVER let some random act of fate (or some random all powerful being) step in and save your hero's bacon. It's a cheat, and as a writer you can do better than that.Rule #2 - Endings need to show the consequences of the characters' actions, both for themselves and others. Characters will make all kinds of decisions and perform all kinds of deeds, both good and bad, in a story. Just as they should reap the benefits from their good actions, they should also suffer the consequences of their bad actions. And if not them, then someone else in the story should. Actions and decisions have consequences, and those consequences can make for damned interesting story endings. Let things come back to haunt your heroes, no matter how great they are or how much you love them. Need a good example? How about Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings? (SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE BOOK STOP READING HERE) Some readers complain that it's not fair that Frodo suffers so much after all he does to save the world. The wounds he receives during his quest to destroy the One Ring force him to abandon his beloved Bag End and sail into the West where he can finally be healed. Sucks, don't it? Frodo was such a great guy, he did such heroic deeds! It's not at all fair that he has to give up everything he cares about after all he's done. But consider that a true hero is someone who makes a sacrifice, and Frodo knew he might have to give up everything he loved to save it. His sacrifice, therefore, is appropriate to the story. (And if you really want to see consequences in action, read the appendices at the end of Return of the King. What happens to Arwen Undomiel is heartbreaking, to say the least, but again, a natural consequence of her decision to remain in the mortal world.)
Rule #3 - All problems don't have to be solved by the end of the story. In an HEA story, the problems encountered in the plot are resolved so that everyone is pleased with the results (well, everyone good is pleased; the villains are usually not so happy, but then villains don't get HEAs, do they?). When problems aren't solved, in spite of the characters actions (or else are made worse because of the characters actions), then you have a tragedy. Recall that Shakespear guy again. In Romeo and Juliet, the main character's biggest problem is how to be together even though their families are mortal enemies. Unfortunately, things go awry and they can't solve that problem. And yet in spite of this, Romeo and Juliet are pointed to as one of the greatest, most romantic love stories of all time. When a story ends with only part of the problems solved, or at least ends with the characters accepting that their problems can't be solved, that's good too. Ever watch Little Miss Sunshine? I tell ya, nobody gets what they want at the end of that movie, but everyone realizes they're going to be okay.Rule #4 - Don't assume that having sex means your characters must also have a HEA or HEAFN. All too often, I see stories in erotica and erotic romance that seem to imply that by having sex, two (or more) characters end up developing some deep spiritual bond that will allow them to overcome any obstacle in their path. NOT. Sometimes people have sex with people they shouldn't. Sometimes making love is making a mistake! And besides, wouldn't it be far more interesting to see how a relationship falls apart after the characters have sex, rather than just assume they're going to be together forever because they've done the nasty? Think about it.
Rule #5 - The last one I've got folks, and perhaps the most important. The best story endings don't really end the story. These are the endings that hook the reader into imagining how life might play out after the last page is turned. Yes, endings should provide answers, but they should also leave just enough questions in the mind of the reader to keep them wondering about your story late into the night. This little trick is accomplished by ending the story at the right moment. Think of Frank Stockton's The Lady or the Tiger. We have no idea how this story really ends, because of where the tale cuts off. But it makes things so much more intriguing, forcing us to contemplate the motivations of the Barbarian Princess and her lover's willingness to trust her decision. I wrote a story like this one, finishing the story before the final key moment where a character must make a decision. One reader came back and chewed me out for it. But everyone else loved it. They loved not knowing how things turned out, and they pondered the ending for themselves for a long time. Something similar to this happens in my all-time favorite chick flick, Thelma and Louise. We never actually see the Thunderbird land, do we? We only see that final image of a photo fluttering to the ground, showing the grinning faces of two friends who were willing to stick together no matter what. It's the perfect moment, the perfect ending to their wild ride, and it's both happy and sad.So keep these things in mind the next time you sit down to write a story. Pick the right ending for your story, the one that matters most to your characters and to you, and thumb your nose at all those guidelines that insist you write a HEA. You'll get your own HEA when you write a story that turns out ot be your very best.
And now here are a few samples of my not-so-happily-ever-afters:Swingers - a circus aerialist falls in love with two men, but will jealousy end more than just her love life?
The Unfair Maidens - a not so noble knight must deal with the consequences of his conquests.