The Difference Between a Happy and Unhappy Ending

I had a thought yesterday about the nature of the unhappy ending. The thought was this: The only stories that end unhappily are the ones that end too soon.

Now, I was thinking specifically of memoir, but I think the idea mostly holds true in life and other stories as well. I think we’re on this Earth for our benefit and if we wait long enough we’ll see that things get better, with the ultimate reward after this life being greater than we can even imagine. To me, the statement above is a theological one. And true.

Of course, there are other, more philosophical schools of though. A friend on Twitter, the great, golden-toned podcaster Tom Racine, told me his feeling was the opposite. He cited the movie The Graduate as an example. If that movie had ended 15 seconds earlier then it would have a straight up happy ending. As it is, The Graduate has one of the all-time great, ambiguous, where-do-we-go-from-here endings as the two leads sit on a bus together and their smiles fade and and the movie cuts to black. Fantastic, but not at all happy.

But what if the story continued and we saw the couple 20 years later? Maybe they’re not even together anymore, but who’s to say they’re not happy then?

The point is, I think the unhappy state is largely one of impermanence. The potential for  happiness is always greater and, what’s more, constantly achievable. People are always free to choose otherwise, but I like to think most roads to lead to happiness. We just gotta follow them all the way.

What’s your take? Do you think most endings are happy or unhappy?

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13 comments

  1. Very interesting! Great to see your writing blog out in the world!

    Here are my two cents on the subject: Theological concerns aside, I think the happy ending of one’s life depends on your outlook. Eventually, everyone’s Earthly tale ends up the same – we die. So for every drama in which the hero struggles to stay alive in the face of overwhelming odds, the optimist sees every obstacle overcome along the way as a success. The pessimist, and the realist, see that he is only postponing the inevitable.

    Luckily, in narrative, we can end the story where it makes the most narrative sense. We get to frame the story so that we present the rules by which we expect the audience will judge the outcome. We as authors get to define the “happy” ending, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a Disney-esque ending where the boy gets the girl, the hero is victorious and all is well in the world. If we frame a story so that the “happy” ending is the protagonist killing himself because he’s dying of some terrible disease, or to sacrifice himself for some greater good, then it’s happy because we defined that way – the hero has avoided the worse alternative.

    At least, I’ve begun seeing it that way. It’s incumbent on us to define the expectation of the tale for our audience. Once you’ve done that, you then get to decide whether to play to, or defy, that expectation.

    Love seeing your thoughts on writing, Brock. What a great blog!

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    1. Steve, you make a great point about the role the writer plays in setting up the reader’s expectation. No, not “role.” Responsibility. If we do it right, just about any ending can be seen as a positive one.

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      1. Right on. Another thought occurs to me as I re-read my ramblings above. As I’ve been trying to mature as a writer, I’ve been focusing more on what I call “satisfying” endings, rather than “happy” endings. It makes it easier to evaluate when you’re not thinking in terms of happiness but in terms of resolution.

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        1. And maybe “satisfying” is a better word than “positive.” I agree completely.

          Finding the right ending for my memoir was tricky and never really revealed itself until I was pressed to write an epilogue and then refined it properly. I believe my original ending was described as “It’s like… buh.” Now, it ends on a bittersweet note that’s already elicited a tear or two from those who have read it. It’s the right ending for the right book. And completely satisfying and not entirely happy.

          But… part of that is because the book ends in November of 1996. I’ve done a lot of living since then.

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          1. Love me some bittersweet ending. Elicit that tear, man. Do it without shame. The man said “Make ’em laugh”. I believe it’s important to do that. But make ’em cry as well, and they’re yours forever.

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  2. I feel we all desire the happy ending, but we find that the unhappy ending causes us to accept the fate and reflect more on where we’ve been with the story versus what will be.

    Most endings that we experience we long to take us to a happy conclusion, and we work hard to see it that way. However I feel the unhappy endings do not detract from the trip we took to get there. Not all endings are going to be happy, and that’s just a fact of life. It doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy the trip, and the memories of what was before and the joy you felt then helps to carry you through. Every chapter has a beginning and end, and sometimes the endings are brought on by unhappy events whether we long for them or not. To think of life you have to view it as multiple stories (chapters) in one large book. Your going to have your share of happy and unhappy endings, and that’s what makes life such a joy to live. You grow with each experience.

    Such is the same with stories, the unhappy endings create an emotional feel in us that leaves us thinking back and really reflecting on things. Sometimes the best ending is an unhappy one just to create that emotion; it doesn’t cause us to dislike the author or the tale, it creates a feeling of reality that resonates with us and keeps us grounded.

    One of the best movies I ever watched with this same approach was No Country for Old Men. The ending brings everything to such a gritty unhappy ending that you realize once it’s done there was no other way for this to end. it couldn’t have gone out with a happy ending but the unhappy conclusion was the only reality that worked. You don’t go away hating the film for this, instead you reflect back and try to find ways in your mind that the characters could have led a different course and actually survived, but you always come back to the fact that the unhappy ending was the only way it was ever going to end.

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    1. You’re right–an unhappy ending doesn’t work for all stories. I think fiction gets away with this more, and it rightly should. I’m trying to imagine a memoir with an unhappy ending and I don’t think I or anyone else would want to read that story. When the people are real, I want to know they learned something and got better. Otherwise… what’s the point of writing the story?

      Huh. I wonder why we hold memoir to that strict a standard (if you think I’m wrong on that, please tell me–but I honestly can’t think of a memoir with an unhappy ending). But I think we do. We want the catharsis.

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  3. Since you invoked my name, I must respond. 🙂 I agree with what the wonderful gentlemen above said…that “unhappy” and “happy” endings are inexorably intertwined, and much of it is your point of view. I am not a religious man, but if I had to sum up my philosophy, it’s sort of a zen approach to finding balance. People say “things happen for a reason.” I don’t believe that. I believe things happen…and we assign them reasons.

    You can look at anything and find the good or bad in it. I was in NYC on 9/11…what a terrible day. Did good things come from it? Of course they did. I’ve also seen days of great triumph…did bad things come from them? Of course they did. Basically, I think we have to choose simply to focus on the good or the bad…it’s our choice. Focusing on the pessimistic side is just no way to live. They can say “see, I told you it would end bad!” But they never stop when things are good and say “see, I told you it could be good!”

    As Steve said, we all will die one day. Some of us will get cancer. Some of us will die of old age. Some will die surrounded by family. Some alone. Some tragically. Some heroically. But how we leave this world isn’t what’s important…it’s how those around us choose to perceive it. I personally choose to celebrate someone’s life when they pass…try to focus on the good times, the laughter, the friendship. My brother Bill died four years ago from excessive drinking, and there are times I’m still angry at him for doing what he did to himself. But, mostly, I remember his positive influences on me, his infectious laughter, his love of movies. Because I choose to.

    You say “what if we pick up the Graduate 20 years later.” Well…they could have four kids and be happy. They might be divorced and bitter. They might have had medical issues that have brought them closer. Or divided them. I don’t think any situation is inherently “happy” or “sad.” You just have to look for what means something to you, and what lessons you can learn. Finding that balance.

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    1. Tom, I could not agree more with every single thing you’ve said here. How about that?

      I don’t think everything happens for a reason either. I hate that saying. But I think everything can have happened for a reason–which is a variation on what you said. Great thoughts, man.

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  4. This discussion reminds me: there’s a line in the documentary-style British version of The Office, right at the end. Tim’s love interest Pam has left for the US, apparently never to be seen again. He says this:

    “Dawn was a ray of sunshine in my life and it meant a lot. But, if I’m really being honest I never really thought it would have a happy ending. I don’t know what a happy ending is. Life isn’t about endings, is it? It’s a series of moments. And if you turn the camera off, it’s not an ending, is it? I’m still here, my life’s not over. Come back here in 10 years, see how I’m doing then. Cause I could be married with kids, you don’t know. Life just goes on.”

    It dawns on me that part of our job is knowing when to “turn the cameras off”.

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    1. HUGE part of the job. And one I wrestle with a great. In fact, there’s a great argument to be made that SuperFogeys could end in about 3 weeks. It won’t, but it could.

      And that’s a great quote.

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