Personally, I like fitting endings even more than happy ones. Sure, it’s nice to know that the characters you’ve read about succeed. When you’ve invested time and emotional energy, you enjoy it when they make it out of their troubles and gain the victory they’ve sought for so long, but I don’t like false endings. I don’t like endings that feel fake, as though the author pulled some strings with the fictional higher powers to give the characters the ending they wanted, rather than what they deserved.
And not all happy endings are created equal (just as not all sad ones are completely tragic and awful). A fitting ending, though sad, can be better than a happy ending that doesn’t fit, and an imperfectly happy ending can be better than a flawless one. A story is like a skyscraper. If the first two-thirds doesn’t create a solid foundation, you can’t reach the pinnacle properly, no matter how hard you try.
Here are some examples (and there will be spoilers–we’re talking about endings here, people): 🙂
Sad Endings that Fit: In A Tale of Two Cities, we have a fairly sad ending. Sydney Carton, who has long loved Lucie Manette, ends up taking her husband’s place at the guillotine so she and her family can escape. But it isn’t wholly sad because of how it’s set up. We know she will never love Sydney, not the way he hopes, and while she’s slowly given him something to live for, he’s never had a chance to truly live, truly do anything, until that glorious ending.
If the ending had been changed to where Sydney had somehow made it out alive–managing to pretend to be her husband and then escape–it would’ve felt contrived. He would’ve ran the risk of death, but then gone back to his half-life. What else was there for him to do for Lucie? There were no further dangers to help her with, and she had her husband, her family, while Sydney had nothing. Because of the story’s setup, he either had to change and die or remain as he’d been and let Lucie suffer. No other option fit.
Moderately Happy Endings that Fit: I feel like The Lord of the Rings fits this class. The ending isn’t perfectly happy–the Shire has been affected, trees cut down, the beauty of the realms of the elves diminished, the world changed, and Frodo has been forced to seek his healing across the sea–but the ending is happy. The ring has been destroyed, the king returned and his reign established, and the romances have all gotten their happily ever after. It feels realistic because great evil broke out, and everything and everyone was affected by it in some way, and yet the evil didn’t win.
But I don’t know that more sadness in the story would’ve worked that well. As it is, the only main characters who die are those who succumbed to evil, despair, or the ring, or those for whom this last glorious fight is the climax for their life (as it is with Théoden, who is much older in the book than in the movie). Many minor characters die in battle, but if we’d lost Éowyn, or Faramir, or Frodo, or Sam or Pippin or Gandalf or any of the others, it would’ve undercut the message that those who fight evil to the very end, no matter how injured, stand a chance at life and happiness again while those who succumb and give up have no chance at all.
Gloriously Happy Endings that Don’t Fit: I’m going to use The Lord of the Rings for this one again, but as the movie this time. As much as I enjoy the beauty of the Shire, not having it affected felt false. The four hobbits went through horrible things, and yet their home was unaffected. Their world went on without them, and while the quest and the terror may have affected everyone else, their corner of the world was fine–and that didn’t feel right. The whole point of the quest felt like it was about how evil couldn’t always be avoided, how if they waited in their home, the change and horror would still come. They could either face it and hope to defeat it, or stay home and wait for it to assault them anyways.
Now, the book (or movie) could’ve been written to make a gloriously happy ending fit, at least for the Shire. It could emphasis how sometimes, danger and difficulties must be faced by a few even while their neighbors are unaware, but to me, that would be a story best suited to some kind of secret operation, where not many know what happened, and the point is that that’s okay.(Can you imagine The Lord of the Rings: Mission Impossible Style? Secret meetings, Orcs in disguise, and Frodo having to come up with some wild explanation why he’s vacationing all over the world…it’d be fun, but it’d be completely different story.)
Sad Endings that Don’t Fit: Honestly, I usually pull out of a book before I hit a sad ending that doesn’t fit, where it feels like characters suffer for no reason. Still, I can think of many endings that could’ve been made sad: Emma could’ve lost Mr. Knightley to Harriet, Elizabeth Bennett could’ve never ended up with Darcy because of her sister’s indiscretion (though I could picture that one working, if the story was written to emphasize the importance of one’s decisions and how first chances might be all one gets), or the whole fellowship could’ve died, in battle or on Mount Doom, or Aragorn could become king but not get Arwen. Fake sad endings aren’t hard to create, as you just have to make the worse case scenario come to life on the page.
Overall, the lessons to learn from these stories is that almost ending can fit, but that you have to set it up before you reach the last few chapters. If death is coming, you need to hint at that possibility and make it not only believable but fitting (unless of course, your goal is to write about how death can be pointless, unexpected, and harsh, but even then, your narration should hint at this long before anyone dies). And if happiness is in store for the characters, you need to establish this in the story by the lightness of tone, the overall hope of the narration. Otherwise, readers will be jolted by your ending and will likely complain.
Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by clconroy, Creative Commons