December 28, 2010

What Does “Happily Ever After” Mean?

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How were your holidays?  Was Santa good to you?  I got a Kindle and quality time with my family, so short of getting an agent and book contract, my Christmas couldn’t have been any better.

As I mentioned last time, whether or not we’re disappointed often depends on what we’re expecting.  After all, if I’d been counting on an agent to call me on Christmas Eve, I’d have been rather crushed.  Luckily, I’m more realistic than that, and it helps that I’ve thought about what will make me happy.

Similarly, readers often expect stories to have a Happily Ever After—known as an HEA in romance-novel-speak—or at least a happy-ish ending.  But what does that mean?  What makes a story ending “happy”?

A story’s genre creates many expectations, but can those expectations also depend on the author?  Or the characters?  Or the plot?

  • Genre Differences

Stories don’t need to meet every formula expectation of their genre to have a happy ending.  Even romance novels, the ultimate source for happily ever after endings, no longer require a wedding like the fairy tales of old.  In some cases, the ending is more “happily for now” than happily ever after.

In mysteries, the mystery must be solved, but sometimes the main character’s family or friends are killed before the murderer is caught.  In thrillers, the bad guy must be defeated and the world saved, but a city might be sacrificed to a suitcase bomb during the hunt for the bigger threat of coordinated attacks.  Powerful endings can leave the reader satisfied despite bad events.

  • Author Differences

Authors don’t have to change their voice to create a happy ending.  Some authors wrap their plot threads into a neat bow by the end of the story.  Others don’t mind a little messiness.

Personally, while I believe in happy endings, I don’t write fairy tales, so my stories often leave things a touch bittersweet.  While the possibility for future happiness exists, the reader knows the characters will have to continue to work at it.  In my stories, there’s no assumption of “ever after”.  Kind of like life.

  • Character Differences

A character’s desire doesn’t have to match the reader’s for a happy ending.  A character might make different decisions than a reader.  Or maybe a character needs less security/love/commitment/success to feel happy than the reader.

In those situations, if the author wants the reader to perceive the ending as happy despite the disconnect, they have to “sell” the character’s happiness more than usual.  The author has to convince the reader that this ending is the best thing for the character.

  • Plot Differences

Different plots don’t require the same solution for a happy ending.  A boy meets girl plot and a quest story lead to very different conclusions.  Same with courtroom dramas versus interstellar wars.

In the case of a book series, authors often choose to leave loose plot threads to follow up with in subsequent stories.  Or minor subplot resolutions might be handled off the page.  Other times, the plot elements don’t allow for a clean wrap-up.

So What Makes an Ending “Happy”?

The author must decide what “happy” means to their story/plot/characters and work to sell that ending to the reader through clues.  Just as expectations shape how people percieve reality, authors shape readers’ expectations by embedding story goals throughout the narrative.

If the important story goals (for the plot and characters) are met, the ending will be satisfactory to the reader.  When plot threads are left loose, authors must make it clear that those goals aren’t important to the overall story.  When a character’s decisions are iffy, authors can show the character’s little choices leading to the final outcome to pave the way for reader understanding.  When the story doesn’t perfectly follow genre formula, authors can set the stage for those discrepancies from the beginning.

Happiness is a nebulous concept at best, with scientific studies examining what makes people happy, what percentage of the population is happy, whether happier people are healthier, etc.  If we have a difficult time defining happiness in real life, storybook happiness can be even harder to determine.

But unlike real life, readers know without a doubt that story events are following a path set in place by the author.  When authors establish story goals and meet them, readers trust they’ll be satisfied by the ending and that the story will end exactly as happy as it should.  A strong author makes readers feel secure with events as they unfold, setting them up for the impending finale.

A happy ending is one where the reader closes the book with a sense of satisfaction that everything happened just the way it was supposed to.  And that feeling is entirely within control of the author as they shape reader expectations.

Has a sad book ever still left you satisfied and happy?  How do you think the author managed that trick?  Do you have other thoughts about how to create a happy ending in stories?

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Comments — What do you think?

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I don’t think I could write a “happily ever after” ending even if it was spelled out for me letter by letter. I prefer surreal, giddy, and a bit uncomfortable endings. It’s all in the genre, I suppose . .

Jamie Wesley

When I read a romance that has a happily for now, I just continue the story in my head, so the couple ends up together forever. I’m sure that’s what the author intended, so I just help her out. 🙂


As a reader, when it comes to endings, I just have to feel moved by the ending . If it is shocking or sad, or the happily ever after type I need to feel emotionally moved to be satisfied. If that happens then that is when I nod and say, “good book.”

Suzi McGowen

I recently read a fantasy novel, where the group are in dire straits (they were all going to die). The lady love of the protag has the solution. If she dies in a certain way, everyone else will be saved. The protag resists (but not too much, since they’re all going to die anyway), but she has her way. She dies. The deus ex machina shows up, and kills everyone. It turns out the “if you die in a certain way” promise was actually a lie. The end. Seriously. “The end” right there.

I hated that book, because what was the ending supposed to show us? Self sacrifice is stupid? When things are dire, don’t do anything because it won’t affect the outcome? No matter how bad things are, they can always get worse? I don’t need a “happy ending”, but I very much want an ending that says we can make a difference in the world, even if it’s painful.

Matt Shields

I’d say stories have the ending they need. When you get down to it, stories have messages, and you tell them to teach and bring forth the theme of the story. If the theme is that when people do X and Y, that they live happily ever after, then thats what should happen! If the theme is that when people do A & B, they never live happily ever after, then thats what should happen.
And thats all I have to say about that.

Techsurgeons TechGuy

Great post Jami!

When it comes to the end of a ‘world’ created by an author, I really hate it when I’m left hanging. The ending of a book or series needs to feel natural and not feel forced or end arbitrarily.

I was recently disappointed by Suzanne Collins’ “Underland Chronicals”. The final book ended so abruptly and seemingly without reason that my pre-teen son asked if she did that to have the option of writing another book when she needed the money. The abrupt ending was also mentioned by most of the neutral and negative Amazon reviews.

If she had a better setup for the ending she chose, we’d have been fine with the non-HEA ending. But as it was, we both felt cheated.

A bad ending also kills my desire to re-read a book. My library is my ‘book proving ground’ – if you want my $ spent on your book, it needs a high level of ‘re-readability’ to get me to open my wallet.



Weeel, ya know I love romance – so the HEA is a must for me, but even that doesn’t guarantee reader satisfaction. I think there has to be a deeper connection formed between the reader and the characters in order for the reader to be happy with the final outcome. I mean, as a romance reader – am I reading for the sake of the romance in the story or am I captivated by the characters – who I’ve fallen in love with and want to see get together? I think it’s exploring the whys of that – that satisfies me. I’ve read stories that have plugged in all the right formulas, but I’ve finished the story going ho-hum. There was nothing unique or believable about the h/heroine or their situation because there was no why explored or answered. Like: Why was that particular hero the perfect match for that specific heroine?

Just my .02


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