December 26, 2013

What Does “Happily Ever After” Mean to You?

Sunset with text: Stories and Happy Endings

How were your holidays? Was Santa good to you? I’m still mostly offline, enjoying quality time with my family, so I’m rerunning this post from several years ago. My Christmas couldn’t have been any better, and I hope yours was everything you hoped for too.

Of course, whether or not we’re disappointed often depends on what we’re expecting. After all, if I’d been counting on my dream agent to call me Christmas Eve, I’d have been rather crushed.  Luckily, I’m more realistic than that. *smile*

The same goes for our stories. 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, my stories often leave things a touch bittersweet or with references to issues the characters still need to smooth out. While they’re happy in the moment and 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 does.

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 and subtext. 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. A “happy” ending might simply be one that satisfies the reader. *smile*

Do you prefer happy endings when you read? What about when you write? 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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Rinelle Grey

I agree, a happy ending means different things for different types of stories. My novels haves pretty happy endings, sometimes even a little sappy. Mostly that’s the kind of ending I prefer to read too.

I don’t mind the bittersweet endings so long as they have meaning, and preferably aren’t too much of a surprise. I hate tragic endings that come out of nowhere though, and have no meaning other than for the author to show that they can.


I think I’m overall prone to writing bittersweet endings. I have some that aren’t happy at all—one narrator has ended her most recent book deciding she needs to die—but I write dark fantasy, and that particular narrator will eventually end up happy. (But yikes, she has to go through a lot to get there.) As a reader, it depends on what I’m in the mood for. I at least want some kind of resolution, but I’m okay with a not-entirely-wrapped-up story if it’s done well, like Sunshine by Robin McKinley or Hart’s Hope by Orson Scott Card. The former leaves some questions unanswered, and the latter ends on a “Does X kill Y or not?” question—which readers have to answer by considering the entire story. (It’s a framed narrative, so ending on that question fits.) I’m irritated when there’s no real resolution, when it feels as if the author took 1 story and tore it in half to split into 2 books (and not as a serial). But even in that case, I am not necessarily displeased. For example, Skin Hunger is a story where you need all 3 books to get the full picture (…and the 3rd is something like 3 years late and still isn’t out)—BUT it’s structured so the reader gets a bit more of the big picture and at least some form of progress in the work toward the major goal. Even so, that “Is anything resolved?” question can be answered “Yes” and still tick me…  — Read More »

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