Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, October 5, 2012

Happy Ending or Tragic Ending: The Great Story Divide

Happily ever after, or HEA in writer shorthand, is one of the most defining and, sometimes, divisive elements of stories. Particularly in America, happy endings are sought after with a desperate urgency as if to deny a hero all his heart’s desires is to cheat him. Some genres, such as romance, in fact, demand the happy ending. Yet some of the greatest works of fiction end in tragedy.

Many of Shakespeare’s most famous plays are among this group: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and Julius Caesar. Other great works of fiction end with tragedy: The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, and practically everything Edgar Allan Poe ever penned. Even some of our most defining mythologies end in sorrow, King Arthur and innumerable Greco-Roman tales, for example.

Yet somehow, we are often leery of a tragic ending. I suspect there’s more to this than simply being forced to read books in high school that were full of tragedy.

When you really come down to it, the only essential element of a story’s ending is that the primary plot arc be resolved. This does not mean it must be completed in overwhelming triumph, nor need it conclude on utter loss. Romeo and Juliet might perish out of love and the divide between their families, but out of their deaths comes peace between the Capulets and Montagues. Practically everyone might die at the end of Hamlet, but vengeance for the old king’s murder is achieved as well as peace for the kingdom.

I recently finished TheSoldier’s Wife by Margaret Leroy, the book that got me thinking about this whole topic. It is an excellent book, one of those that will remain with me long after I set it aside. But, (*spoiler alert*) it ends with tragedy and just a small ray of peace. But, much as I loved the book, I would not recommend it to everyone. Not everyone likes a story that doesn’t end in an upbeat, happy way.

Let us return to why readers have such strong opinions on this issue. To answer this, let’s look at the advantages to the happy ending and the advantages to the tragic ending.

The Happily Ever After Ending:

This is the feel good ending. It’s nice to close a book with a contented smile and feel a little more hopeful about the prospects of life. It’s a reassurance that, though we might struggle mightily, in the end, it’s all worth it. In essence, it’s a glimpse or an image of what we hope to achieve: success, prosperity, true love.

The Tragic Ending:

Tragedy, or ending a book with loss, more mirrors how life often goes. We lose loved ones, we lose jobs and opportunities, and we rarely see life spin out in the manner we imagine. We can, of course, achieve great success or happiness, but these often require struggle and sacrifice to gain. There’s a certain kinship in a tragedy because it’s something everyone can relate to. Happiness is more elusive. Additionally, if a tragedy is written well, there will be some small victory in the end: the Capulets and Montagues make peace. There’s a certain comfort in the idea that something good will come out of our suffering, that it’s not all for nothing.

From people I’ve talked to, there seem to be three main camps on the concept of how a book should end.

1. The first, the HEA people, don’t like books that make them feel down at the end. They read to escape and, I suspect, find hope and light in life. Tragic endings are too dark and depressing and leave them unfulfilled. They want to feel better at the end of a book than they did going into it.

2. These people crave “weighty” books. They want stories that are more realistic. Many tend to view books with HEA as too easy or “light.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll refuse to read a book with an HEA, but they often avoid genres, subgenres, and authors that insist upon that happy ending.

3. People like me who don’t care which ending a book has. As long as it’s a good story, they’ll appreciate it. I suspect this is the smallest group.

Basically, I think that a person’s preference for a certain type of ending comes down to why they read and what messages they’ve absorbed about fiction and literature. If I’m reading to feel better, I’ll want a HEA. If I’m reading to really explore the human condition, I’m more likely to pick up a book with a tragedy.

What are your thoughts on happy endings vs. tragic endings? Why do you prefer the type of ending you do?


  1. I admit I prefer happy/happy for now/slightly more positive endings than doom and gloom endings. I've managed those for my novels, but short stories are where I tend to have pyrrhic victories.

    I'm not sure why that is. Maybe because I view short stories as a more experimental format compared to novels. Because novels come with market expectations, you have to succeed in a lot of different aspects to still maintain reader goodwill with a downer ending. In a cost-benefit analysis, I suspect a sad ending often doesn't cut it.

    1. You make two good points here. Short stories and novels often follow somewhat different rules. And, it's important to consider cost-benefit, which will change somewhat based on genre and sales location.

  2. Most genres books have a certain expectation for their ending. Romances must end in HEA. Mysteries must end with the mystery solved. Fantasy novels generally have to end with the good guys winning (although they can take the whole series to do it, so a book in the middle of the series can end on a setback). Horror novels, however, can end badly. I'm not sure about women's fiction--is that another genre that's permitted an unhappy ending? I like the predictability of genre books because they allow me to experience the emotional trip I want to take. And I tend to pick the happy-ending genres, both to read and to write.

    1. Yes, different genres have specific expectations for their endings. Literary fiction is more open to the tragic ending as long as it says something about the human condition. As most of what's taught in schools falls under this category, perhaps that's why we see more tragedy in the selections for literature classes.