Who Wants Happily Ever After?

I’ve been wondering lately who prefers happily ever after endings.

In real life, we probably all do. But that’s fantasy. I’m talking stories here. As a reader, I generally go for stories that are messy and complicated and realistic, with messy and complicated and realistic endings. But I know there are lots of people who like endings to be clean, crisp, and joyful. My question is: who are these people? And are any of them my readers?

BEWARE: Spoiler alerts throughout

Is it the genre reader and film fan who prefers happily ever after?

Maybe.

Romance fans certainly expect an ending in which the two primary paramours ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after, thus providing emotionally satisfying and optimistic resolution to their story. Likewise, mysteries are puzzles that are meant to be solved, and although they might sometimes end with a teaser thread hanging, there is almost always a clear conclusion about whodunit.

Other genre categories (science fiction, fantasy, horror, and so on), are less formulaic. But I’d venture to say that the more literary they are, the less resolved they might be. Which brings up the question of what the heck the difference is between literary and genre, anyway.

Blogger Steven Petite defines the difference between literary and genre fiction this way: the goal of telling a genre story is to allow the reader to escape from reality. Literary fiction is a work that invites the reader onto a journey “into reality…[after which the] reader reflects on the words after the last page is turned…for days, weeks, months, even years.”

What this means to me is that a literary novel is more likely to embrace the pain, loss, tragedy, and all the uncertainty that life offers not only throughout the story but in its inevitable conclusion as well, and thus literary readers are more likely to be left with a lingering tension, a sense of unresolvedness, and/or a fading bruise from the emotional ride.

Readers: if you lean toward literary, you’ll love my endings. If you’re more genre-oriented, maybe not so much.

Is it the female reader or film fan, or the male one, that prefers happily ever after?

Now that’s complicated.

Women are, arguably, the primary fans of romance novels and romantic comedies in film, both of which by definition must end happily, so one could draw the conclusion that women want the happy ending. Even outside of the romance genre, such a conclusion could be drawn based on what happened in the saccharin series finale for Downton Abbey—the Masterpiece Theater series that was one of the top three drama series watched by women in 2014.  Especially since the series finale for Desperate Housewives grossly disappointed fans and critics for not signing off with a Hallmark ending.

Now, as for the men: first, I have to put in a disclaimer here–it’s hard to figure out what men are doing when it comes to books. “Men are more likely to read nonfiction books than fiction,” says Market Watch news editor Quentin Fottrell. If you try to Google what novels men like to read, you get a gazillion lists of what they should read, not what they are reading. So admittedly I’m going on anecdotal evidence, but it seems a lot of men are drawn to the Lee Child action-oriented types of books or political thrillers (when they’re reading novels and not nonfiction), which usually end up with the good guy catching the bad guy after a fair amount of violence and some death and thus a happily ever after ending, sort of, even if there’s no horses-riding-into-the-sunset imagery on the last page.

Likewise, guys go for action and violence in film, right? And these endings can be a little more complex. Sure, Leo’s character pretty much gets his revenge in The Revenant, for example, and makes some weird sort of final connection with the specter of his deceased wife, but he’s not exactly wearing a Life is Good t-shirt when the credits roll. He’s just breathing. Similarly, in the recent Johnny Depp film Black Mass, Whitey Bulger gets away for a while, but eventually he’s got to give up those mojitos and head off to prison.

Readers: I reluctantly confess my endings are more along the lines of The Revenant than Downton Abbey, even though the protagonists are ALWAYS female and the themes are generally appreciated by women readers. Like I said, it gets complicated.

Are older readers and film fans more likely to go for the happily ever after?

I kinda think that’s the case.

One of the reasons I started to wonder about this whole dilemma about endings in the first place was that some book club readers I’ve visited with made it clear they prefer happy endings, and book club members tend to be, relatively speaking, older. In fact, one survey said that 67% of women over 75 are in a book club compared to only 43% of women aged 25-34.

So, yeah, maybe older readers, who have already lived a long life of chaos, might want to settle down and read happy stories. Conversely, maybe the millennials, who are embracing life’s complexities every day, and who are still reading novels even if they aren’t in book clubs, are willing to accept less satisfying and/or more complicated endings.

Based on some of the latest popular TV shows, which have been hits with the younger crowd, this tendency toward complicated endings seems to be the case. Dexter and Sons of Anarchy both ended with scenes that were unsettling, perhaps depressing, but made absolute sense. The finale for Breaking Bad brought satisfaction for many viewers; even thought the protagonist doesn’t survive, the beloved Jesse Pinkman does. And in literature, the ending to the Harry Potter series that many of the millennials grew up with ended with joy and triumph but also with tragic death.

Readers: if you’re willing to accept complexity and open endings, and maybe a bit of tragedy now and then, my stories might be for you.

Does the medium influence whether or not the ending is happy?

Yes. Definitely.

Poets and writers have known since the beginning of time that pathos, or appeal to emotion, is fundamental to an underlying drive to express the self, connect with readers, and comment on the human condition. In Maya Angelou’s poem I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, she writes:

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

She is describing desperation, yes, but she is also writing about hope.

Hollywood, however, doesn’t want unsettling pathos to enter into final scenes because directors, producers, and writers there believe we need to focus on uplifting emotion. Psychologist Dr. Jonathan Young of the Center for Story and Symbol says “we live in a ‘grief-denying culture,’ [so] films that deal with loss often cheat at the end and suggest a level of closure that is not realistic.” This is too bad because studies show that tragic or sad stories can “actually make people happier because it brings attention to the more positive aspects of their own lives. It tends to make them reflect on their relationships in a ‘count your blessings’ kind of way.”

Examples of Hollywood’s campaign to sanitize stories for the happiness of mankind include:

  • Frankenstein: in Mary Shelley’s book, wife Elizabeth is killed in the end, but in the 1931 film the doctor and his wife live happily ever after.
  • In 1939, The Hunchback of Notre Dame movie ended with Esmeralda and Quasimodo living, even though she is hanged and he dies in Victor Hugos’ novel.
  • At the end of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 17th-century New England story, Reverend Dimmesdale (the father of Hester Prynne’s baby) dies from guilt, but in the 1995 Hollywood version, the good Reverend and Prynne leave town to build a new life together.
  • In Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly loses her cat and runs away to Argentina, but in the 1961 Hollywood version, she’s not only reunited with her cat but also hooks up with neighbor Paul.
  • In The Princess Bride, all’s well that ends well in the 1987 movie even though the book ends by telling us that “this was before Inigo’s wound reopened, and Westley relapsed again, and Fezzik took the wrong turn, and Buttercup’s horse threw a shoe. And the night behind them was filled with the crescendoing sound of pursuit…”

Readers: Lucky for you, my stories have thus far avoided Hollywood. So you’ll get the full pathos-filled endings.

Does the economy or overall sociopolitical environment sometimes drive us toward happier endings?

Now this gets deep.

Candy, cosmetics, and contraceptives have always done well in economic downturns, and actually “many of today’s most popular candy bars were invented during the Great Depression.”  People are always looking for things to make them feel good when times are tough, so it’s understandable that Hollywood and even normal people wanted happy endings, for example, during the Great Recession from 2007-2009. And that they might even want happily-ever-after endings now, during these particularly turbulent political times.

On the other hand:

  • Blogger and poet Robbie Blair maintains that “the unhappy ending…provides a sense of honesty and connection with readers. To acknowledge the unspoken pain of the reader and bear witness to the shallow isolation of mainstream life lets readers know they are not alone.”
  • Columnist Jessica Alexander says, “Aristotle believed that happiness was more related to the virtue of our character and striving for human good. This involves being in touch with our authentic selves and not numbing ourselves or escaping into false realities.”
  • And back to Blair: “This is the 21st century: We may be hungry for joy, but we are starving for that morsel of authentic human connection.”

Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, says we won’t all be millionaires, movie gods, or rock stars. And therefore, “we’re very, very pissed off.”  And he said this even before Donald Trump entered the political scene! Many, many of us are pissed off for all sorts of reasons, and while some might say that’s all the more reason to escape into a happy place, I’m in the authenticity camp.

Let’s acknowledge our woes and sorrows, and celebrate our joys, but let's also honor authenticity in realistic endings. Click To Tweet

Readers: So all this is to say that I may not change my endings just for you. At least not a whole lot. This doesn’t mean you’re not valuable to me; you are far more important to me than you could possibly know. And your feedback to me is both enlightening and empowering. Keep letting me know your thoughts. But in the meantime, please accept my drive for authenticity as you give thought to why you like those happily-ever-after endings. Maybe I’ve missed something here. If I have, I’d love to hear from you.

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