A few weeks ago, a friend told me he didn’t like movies where the main character died. He felt this was just the writer’s way at trying to be realistic. It was early, so my writing brain hadn’t sufficiently kicked on to properly argue with him. So here is my response . . . albeit a couple weeks late.
As human beings, we look to fiction for a lot of different things – but realism isn’t one of them. We get plenty of that on the news. This isn’t to say gritty realism has no part in writing. No matter what the genre, a sense of realism helps ground the reader in the setting and plot. But it’s rarely the end-all-be-all driving the story. Instead, something else is at play.
Most people prefer happy endings.
I suspect most writers prefer happy endings
So why write otherwise?
It’s because, as Dave Wolverton once said, powerful trumps happy. Some of the most powerful moments in movie history are from otherwise unhappy endings. Just look at “Casablanca”. (Sorry for the seventy-four year spoiler, but if you haven’t seen it yet . . . shame on you). Bogart’s Rick Blaine ultimately does the right thing, even though it means saying farewell to the love of his life, Ingrid Bergman’s IIsa, leading to the one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history.
But this isn’t to say the powerful ending is always the right ending.
Any ending, happy or otherwise, has to be satisfying in order to be effective. A happy ending can be undermined if the main character hasn’t developed or the plot’s resolution seems forced. Similarly. the impact of a serious ending can be marginalized if the reader feels cheated by a twist or feels the resolution is lacking.
Maybe all of this is why many good endings are a bit of both. Often times a character must make a sacrifice to achieve his or her happy ending, whether it is the loss of a mentor, the loss of innocence, or something else entirely. Meanwhile some stories end without a clear view of the resolution, offering a sense of ambiguity that prompts responses which vary with every member of the audience.
Ultimately, an ending is an culmination of a collaboration between both the the writer and the audience. As such, the ending, whether it be happy, sad or all of the above, is up to what you – and the reader – make it.