Thursday, 8 March 2012

A coating of sugar

It's always a let-down when a well-written and believable novel finishes with a totally contrived "happy ending". Probably because that's what the publisher wanted.

A book full of adultery, accidents, abortions and animosities magically terminates with all the festering problems conveniently resolved and everyone sailing on serenely. Pull the other one, it's got bells on.

The writer Winifred Holtby once said her idea of a happy ending wasn't one where everything comes right but one where the hero or heroine remains undaunted by things going wrong. I couldn't agree more.

The logic of the "happy ending" is fundamentally flawed. If the point is to encourage your readers and fill them with optimism, well, it may do that for five minutes, but then anyone with any intelligence will realise the contrivance and reflect that of course real-life is different.

If you want to encourage your readers, far better to depict someone who's been thrown the worst life can offer and has found the inner resources to deal with it and emerge stronger and more capable. Isn't that more inspiring than a bogus "all's well that ends well"?

A couple of months ago I read a typical "happy ending" novel. A women who's desperate for a child but can't get pregnant with her husband goes to bed with another man (married) and has his child. I assumed that once the truth got out (as it did) all hell would break loose and both marriages would be on the rocks.

But no. Very fortuitously the woman's husband doesn't mind a bit. And the other man happens to get killed. Everything wrapped up very neatly - except for the grieving widow, that is.

I'm sorry but a tricksy finale like that simply spoils the whole book for me. Life just isn't like that. If only they'd asked Winifred Holtby for the ending.

25 comments:

kylie said...

i want to believe in happy endings, nick.
,i for one, am sick of learning, growing, prevailing and just want things to be easy for a little bit

Nick said...

Kylie - Oh, don't we all want it easier for a bit! But don't you feel some satisfaction when you've got through something difficult and feel you're stronger for it?

nursemyra said...

Read some Henry James or Edith Wharton. They both knew there was no such thing as a happy ending

Bijoux said...

I agree with you, Nick, that the ending should generally match the tone of the book. There are weeks I only want to read happy ending books, so I purposefully choose books that are uplifting. But if I choose to read a book about hardships, etc., I certainly don't expect a pat, happy ending. And I think I'd be annoyed if one was given.

Nick said...

Myra - I've never read any Edith Wharton. Must give her a try.

Bijoux - What I'm saying, though, is that if someone triumphs over adversity that's ultimately a happier ending than a contrived melting away of every problem.

John Gray said...

oh nick
I am a sucker of a happy ending
we all need to believe that they are possible no matter what xxxx

kylie said...

john, i may love you!

Secret Agent Woman said...

That particular example is absurd. But in general, I like a happy ending in a book or movie. I can't help it. I want to believe it's possible.

Wisewebwoman said...

Aren't good gripping books all about suspending reality for a day or two????
XO
WWW

Wisewebwoman said...

PS Your fixed comments is awesome! Thank you!
XO
WWW

Nick said...

Goodness, I'm completely outnumbered on this one! What a sentimental lot you all are!

John - But surely we can believe in a happy ending anyway, whether or not we get one in a book?

Kylie, Agent, www - As I said to John! Am I the only one who finds triumph over adversity both more interesting and more satisfying?

Jenny Woolf said...

But life isn't EVER like fiction anyway. Even the most naturalistic fiction is totally contrived. I think we must secretly know this because on the very, very, very rare occasions when life IS like fiction, by pure coincidence, we are always so amazed.

So a happy ending is no less unrealistic than the rest of it, really.

I speak as one who is constantly puzzling about the ending I've put on a piece of fiction. I feel it's not quite right. But for me it's a technical matter of whether I have written it the right way, not whether it is true to life.

Interesting post.

Rummuser said...

Why is not possible to have happy endings? I know a real life story which more or less corresponds to the gist of the story told by you. Only the actors were two brothers married to two sisters. Exact problem, exact solution, exact ending.

Fiction can and usually does reflect reality.

Suburbia said...

Totally agree Nick, the book has to have a satisfying end but this doesn't necessarily mean happy.

Nick said...

Jenny - I don't think I agree that fiction is always contrived. If it were that contrived, people would find it so absurd they'd stop reading it.

We may be amazed by the odd real-life resemblance to a very unlikely bit of fiction but we take for granted all the other bits that are instantly recognisable.

In which case a happy ending can very easily be jarringly unrealistic.

Nick said...

Ramana - Now that's extraordinary that you know a real-life situation exactly like the plot I mentioned. How amazing is that? I'm glad you agree fiction usually reflects reality.

Suburbia - Hoorah, a sympathiser! I was beginning to think I was totally out on a limb here.

Nick said...

Suburbia - It just occurred to me that you're an excellent example of triumph over adversity!

blackwatertown said...

Yes - I very much like Winifred Holtby's approach. Stoical maybe. Unbowed perhaps. Surviving anyway.

Nick said...

Blackwater - That's it, being up against it but emerging victorious seems like a happy ending to me.

Liz said...

You'd like my novel number 2 then, nick.

Nick said...

Liz - Is that so? Must check it out then....

Jay at The Depp Effect said...

I love happy endings, but they have to be believable! Otherwise I feel I've been cheated. They don't have to be the conventional 'happy ever after' either, just so long as there's hope.

I have been known to throw a book with a 'cheat' ending straight in the bin .. although these days it's more likely to be the charity bag!

Nick said...

Jay - Yes, I guess hope is the key to it. If someone has triumphed over the odds and found unexpected resources, it leaves you with a sense of hope. Contrariwise, in the conventional happy ending if everything turns out right but not through personal effort, it doesn't leave you with hope, only a sense of being lucky.

speccy said...

Sometimes I want frivolity and I expect a happy ending there. I read lots of crime, where there's some sort of resolution (not always happy). The last book club book I read had a totally unbelievable happy ending, and it was really annoying. Good fiction has to contain some truth!

Nick said...

Speccy - Absolutely, fiction has to contain enough truth for the reader to connect with it and identify with the characters.