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Should Novels Have Happy Endings?

Updated on August 15, 2013
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Reading a novel isn't like accomplishing a chore, or shouldn't be. I read a novel expecting to take its message with me, perhaps forever. No, I don't memorize the book, but I internalize the message, even if it's a thriller. Every book you read becomes part of you, part of your story, part of your life. This may sound a bit romantic, but it's the way I hold reading fiction. I finish a book, but I don't want it to go away - sometimes.

Novels should not always have happy endings. It's pleasant when they do, but it shouldn't be a rule of fiction writing. For readers of romance novels, this may not be so. They want the ending to be happy. But some great novels are tragedies, and the tragic can be uplifting and meaningful for the reader.

A well told story should end with an opening, a realization that there's more or that there can be. This is how literature becomes part of your life

Should the Story End?

That seems like a crazy question. Of course they have to end, you may think. Unless the story is a never-ending TV series, there has to be a point when the story comes to a close. But it should come to a close for the writer. His job is done. Should it also end for the reader? No, an emphatic no. A well told story should end with an opening, a realization that there's more or that there can be. This is how literature becomes part of your life. Elements of a story show up in your thoughts and emotions long after the book comes to a close. That keeps the book from becoming a chore, a thing that you complete and move on to the next thing. Otherwise, reading fiction is an entertainment that ends with the last page of the novel. Some writers like to cover all of the open plot ideas with an epilogue. Recall the end of the movie Animal House, a well told hysterically funny story. We are told what became of each of the frat brothers later in life. It was done in perfect keeping with the story itself. Writing an epilogue isn't easy, and shouldn't always be done because it can end the story with an awkward amount of information, stuff that the writer wants us to know and doesn't trust us to figure out for ourselves. But an epilogue, like a simple good ending, can make a book a part of our lives.

Do You Think Novels Should Have Happy Endings?

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In Sunlight and in Shadow - A Case in Point

Mark Helprin has long been one of my favorite authors. When he publishes a book, I consider it an event. I don't have to read reviews of the book, I just go out and buy it, or in my case buy and download it to my Kindle. Helprin is one of America's great novelists. I read Winter's Tale in July of 1983 while on vacation in Maine. I sat on a porch and was so engrossed that I got the worst sunburn I ever had because I just couldn't stop reading. The book had a quality of beauty that one doesn't often encounter in a novel. It is a tale of fantasy, woven in a way that captures you. I then read A Soldier of the Great War, another great book. I've read Memoirs of Antproof Case, Freddy and Frederica, a laugh riot of a book, as well as his short story collection, The Pacific. Helprin is a novelest who never let me down, a writer that transports me to another place, a place I like to be.

Until In Sunlight and in Shadow. I loved the book, up until the ending. Some criticize Helprin for his sometimes over-the-top prose, lengthy expositions of his thoughts on a character, a place or an event. These wordy side bars, some say, slow down the story. Well, that may be so, but his poetic imagery is so uplifting that it's worth the slowdown. The book has a great plot. A soldier returns from World War II. sees a beautiful woman on the Staten Island ferry and falls in love at first sight. Romantic? You bet, and beautifully so. They finally meet and fall in love, and struggle to overcome various adversities, which they handle heroically. Throughout the book are Helprin's famous lengthy journeys into describing scenes and people. He loves New York City, as do I, and his descriptive pages on the beauty of the city will never leave me. I may notice that the East River looks sparkling on a certain day. Helprin doesn't just describe the sparkle, he makes the river come alive with motion and especially color. He also did this in Winter's Tale and did it beautifully. The reader notices that his descriptions jump back and forth from sunlight and shadow. Get it? It works.

So I fell in love with the characters and also befriended the supporting players. The book is lengthy at 725 pages in the paper version, but I couldn't put it down, thinking that it was a story that I never wanted to end.

But it did end, abruptly. No I won't spoil the ending by telling you what happened, but you will probably guess it. No it wasn't happy, but it was much worse than that. I felt like a door was slammed in my face. Story over, please move on there's nothing to see here. Don't think you're going to muse over the future of the characters. The story is over, not just for the author but for the reader. I was left gasping and wondering what happened to him and him and her and them. How did those late blooming plot twists resolve? Don't ask. Helprin decided that the story is over, his story and the reader's story as well.

Were the book not on my Kindle I would have thrown it across the room. Never was I so disappointed in a story's ending. As I said earlier in this article, stories don't always have to have a happy ending, but they should leave the reader an opening into the fictitious future of the characters. With this book, laced with some fascinating and compelling characters, it's done, it's all over. A rich young woman has a bright future on Broadway. That's all you're left with.

I wish Helprin would re-release this book, with an ending befitting its otherwise powerful writing.


© 2013 Russ Moran

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    • ComfortB profile image

      Comfort Babatola 3 years ago from Bonaire, GA, USA

      Bad endings to a novel are usually troubling to me. Gives me sleepless night as I would lay wondering if things could have turned out any other way.

      So, you see why I prefer good endings? I can put it to rest and go on to another novel. aahhh (sigh).

      Voted up and interesting.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great points made, Russ. I just finished a series of fifteen novels by a writer, and each one had great endings...not always happy, but good enough to make you want to find the next in the series immediately. Finding the right ending is an art, just like writing the novel is.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 3 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Comfort. Life has enough bad endings. Novels should be an improvement theron.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 3 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Bill. How about - "Let's talk about the future, Jack." Now that makes ME happy.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 3 years ago from Deep South, USA

      I don't require a book to have a happy ending, but it should be satisfying in some way to me as a reader. The ending, even if it doesn't seem like a resolution or the ending I'd prefer, should make me think about the issues in the story, not simply feel dissatisfied, disgruntled or cheated.

      Needless to say, I won't be reading IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW. (Thanks for the warning.)

      Voted Up, Useful and Interesting

      Jaye

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 3 years ago from Long Island, New York

      You hit it on the head, Jaye. "Satisfying" is what we look for. If the bad guy rides off into the sunset with the damsel, it may make sense, but it's not satisfying. I'm enough of a romantic to think that novels should improve on reality, and in so doing, make the world a better place. Thanks for visiting and for your comments.

    • Ceres Schwarz profile image

      Ceres Schwarz 3 years ago

      I agree that the book doesn't need to have a happy ending but it should end in a way that doesn't leave readers disappointed or wanting to know more because the story didn't resolve all the loose ends and answer all unanswered questions. I'm curious to know how In Sunlight And In Shadow ended as I've never read this book before.

    • Rhonda D Johnson profile image

      Rhonda D Johnson 3 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

      To reach that satisfying ending you guys are talking about, I would want the book to end with some feeling of justice. Even if they lived crappily ever after, I want to see that this is a result of their previous actions in the story, not just bad luck.

      I don't like it when the bad guy gets away. Yet, in some books, it's hard to tell who is the bad guy. Take the book 1984 by George Orwell. Winston Smith is our protagonist. Yet, he is such a despicable little sap that I don't even feel sorry for him when he is tortured.

      Rules are made to be challenged and the writer who can successfully break a rule is called a genius. Writing a satisfylng ending is an art not a science.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 3 years ago from Long Island, New York

      You're right Rhonda. Justice is a must, at least in my book. A book can't end with a disturbance in the force.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 3 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Ceres - Loathe as I am to divulge an ending, I will in this case. Harry the hero, who positively touched so many lives, dies at the end, leaving a great part of the story up in the air. Up until then I thought the book was a gem, until the author slammed the door shut.

    • Rhonda D Johnson profile image

      Rhonda D Johnson 3 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

      That's a crying shame when the hero dies for no reason, just because the author was too lazy or lacking in creativity to help his character resolve his issues. I will tolerate a weak beginning (as a reader, but never as a writer), but a dissatisfying ending is unforgivable,

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 3 years ago from Long Island, New York

      I couldn't agree more Rhonda. 725 pages to end in a disappointment.

    • Ceres Schwarz profile image

      Ceres Schwarz 3 years ago

      That is a terrible ending. The hero of the story shouldn't die for no reason at all. There could have been many other alternatives instead of having the main character die. Maybe the author wanted to be different since usually the heroes in stories never die? Still, I think the ending should be satisfying and complete for readers and a story shouldn't just end abruptly that it leaves readers disappointed.

    • Rhonda D Johnson profile image

      Rhonda D Johnson 3 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

      When the hero dies it leaves me feeling like why did I bother. Why did I invest so much emotional energy into this story only to come to the end and find nothing. I know real life can be like that. But art should be larger than life. This current movement towards "reality shows" and "keep it real" music has plunged us into the dark ages.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 3 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Rhionda and Ceres. We are definitely on the same page here. What I found particularly upsetting about this book is my love for it - Up until the stupid ending. I actually felt that I was reading one of the best books I ever read, then blam, out of the blue, the author kills the hero as well as the story.

    • Rhonda D Johnson profile image

      Rhonda D Johnson 3 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

      I guess that's what you mean by the story ending for the writer but not for he reader. I didn't understand you at first, but now I do. The endg has to be the beginning of something. Besides, the author might decide to create a series. Can't do it if the character is dead. Unless, like with Harry Dresden, he comes back to life. I was sad when Harry died, but not for long.

    • stuff4kids profile image

      Amanda Littlejohn 2 years ago

      Great insights and I was particularly interested in this idea that a good novel should end with the hint of another beginning.

      Great hub!

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