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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

03 December 2008

Happy Endings


Happy ending, nice and tidy
It’s a rule I learned in school

Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertholt Brecht’s lyrics to the finale of The Threepenny Opera is laced with irony. Life, the song goes on to say, does not work out so neatly, with Queen Victoria’s messenger riding to the rescue.

Recently on my own website, we had a lively discussion about book series and in particular the wonderful Sebastian St. Cyr Regency-set mystery series by C.S. Harris, and whether Sebastian would end up with his old, star-crossed love, the actress Kat Boleyn, or his enemy's daughter, the bluestocking Hero Jarvis, who plays a larger role in the newest book in the series. There was, I realized, an implicit assumption by all of us (including me) that Sebastian at least would have a happy ending. But one of the things that both delights me and sets me on edge as a reader in mystery series, as opposed to romances, is that the happy ending isn’t guaranteed. Which for me as a reader can make a happy ending that much sweeter (one of my favorite romantic endings is to Barbara Hambly’s Darwath Trilogy, because it seems so hard-fought for and so very much not-guaranteed). But also leaves the door nerve-wrackingly open to other possibilities.

I love happy endings. I root for them against all odds, I worry about favorite characters, I rewrite “unsatisfactory” stories in my head. But some of my favorite stories don’t have happy endings, and, I have to admit, wouldn’t be the better for them. I recently saw the final dress of a breathtaking production of La Bohème at San Francisco Opera. La Bohème emphatically doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending (I usually start crying in Act I–this time was no exception). On the other hand, Rent, based on the same story, does have a happy ending. I loved Rent, but the ending left me completely baffled, and in a sense ruined the show for me. I thought this was because I’d seen La Bohème. I saw Rent with my friend Penny, who also knows Bohème well; like me she ended the show staring at the stage in confusion. But I saw the Bohème dress rehearsal with my friend Greg who said he’d seen Rent before Bohème and he found the ending of Rent jarring as well.

I love and adore happy endings. But not all stories, even–perhaps especially–not all love stories, work with a happy ending. When Mimì came in in the last act of Bohème, I had a moment of thinking “oh, I don’t want her to die.” And yet a different ending takes something away from the power of the story.

When I brought the topic up on my own website, Donna commented that, "I confess to liking happy endings in novels, probably because life seems to dole them out sparingly. I also confess to wondering what happens down the line to some characters. Everything is so lovely and yet, you know there will be ups and downs. Having said that, I also enjoy other stories that you really can’t decide how it will end. It is fascinating to watch characters develop and change through a series especially. There is a tension that keeps me reading."

I find I always want to know what happens after the end of the novel too. So even though I like happy endings, I don’t really consider the story finished. One reason I love series, and even if a novel isn’t part of a series, I often think about “what happens next.” And ambiguous endings can be fascinating. I particularly like watching characters grow and relationships play out over the course of a series. Elizabeth George’s series is harrowing but also riveting. I love the Poldark and Palliser series, both the books and the tv adapations.

And then of course there's the whole question of what makes an ending "happy." In the discussion on my website, Stephanie brought up a recent production she'd seen of All's Well That Ends Well that made her "believe that they might achieve happiness, with time and work on both sides." I've seen All's Well several times, and I remember feeling much more optimistic about the ending when I first saw, which I think has less to do with the production and more with the fact that I was a teenager at the time. My definition of a happy ending was "Helena loves Bertram, they're married and he's accepted the marriage, so it's happy." These days my definition of a happy ending is decidedly more complex. As I mentioned in a previous post, after a production of Bus Stop, friends and I had decidedly different opinions about how "ever after" the happy ending was.

Stephanie also commented that "I suppose what I’m really in favor of are endings that seem true to what’s gone before. And I really can’t stand endings that jerk me around emotionally: like love stories that have one of the protagonists die violently on the last page, when all the signs have been pointing toward a happy or at least upbeat ending. Bittersweet or ambiguous is acceptable, as long as there’s been some indication all along that things might turn out that way." I think being true to what's gone before in the story is the most important thing for me about an ending working (and why the ending of Rent didn't work for me).

As a writer, I like the possibility of my stories not ending happily, if that makes any sense. I was going to say I don’t think I’d ever write a non-happy ending, but when I thought about it, I don’t think I’d precisely call the endings of Secrets of a Lady and Beneath a Silent Moon “happy.” For one thing, it’s an ongoing series, to the story doesn’t really end. I think I’d call the ending of Secrets “hopeful.” And the ending of Beneath “bittersweet.” Tinged with hope perhaps.

How do you feel about endings? Favorite examples to suggest of happy or non-happy endings? Or something in between? Has a jarring ending ever damaged a book for you? Writers, is there any type of ending you don't think you'd ever write?

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16 Comments:

Blogger Jessica said...

Tracy, I also saw Rent first and found the ending a little improbable and too neat and tidy. I definitely agree with you there. (This does not preclude my singing along and watching and re-watching the film version, I just thought it was a little hokey).

Great post, thank you!

6:09 AM  
Blogger Lana said...

I'm with you in that I think the ending has to flow from the rest of the book. There are some unhappy endings that are just heartwrenching, but perfect. For me a few examples are Moulin Rouge and 1984.

On the other hand, the ending of Brave New World seemed to be a cop-out. Though I suppose dystopian novels are in their own class? Mostly I come up with movies with unsatisfying happy endings - the recent movie Eagle Eye is one of those moments. I was very disgruntled, even though I normally root for a happy ending.

6:20 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, I love this post! I'm particularly intrigued by what is considered a "happy ending." In Romance, as a genre, 99% of the time it means that the hero and heroine get married. Ahhhhhhh... "happy"???

Maybe.

Or not.

Most of the time they haven't known each other long enough for us to really know whether their marriage will survive. I love your novels because you give us the portrait of a marriage; and given the events of the story, we wonder whether the marital relationship can survive or withstand them; and if so, in what condition will Mélanie and Charles be in emotionally (and physically, actually) after they've come through the metaphorical fire.

All the fairy tale happy endings we grew up with are shot to you-know-where in Stephen Sondheim's cynical Into the Woods, which raises several questions about what happens after "and they lived happily ever after." Real life gets in the way. Things get messy. And I think that we appreciate happy endings in fiction precisely because we don't always get them in real life. There's a reason "escapist" genres are so popular.

But the other side of that coin is that happy endings give us hope -- hope that they are possible. And, in the Romance genre, we want to embrace the the idea that we can (or already have) find/found our One True Love and that relationship will last till the end of time with few bumps and ruts in the road.

Most of my historical fiction is told from the POV of a famous (or notorious) woman: Helen of Troy, Emma Hamilton, Mary Robinson; and where the heroine is a mortal who lived more than 200 years ago, she, well ... dies. Obviously. But that's not where my novels end. Market research (plus my own personal taste -- I didn't know about the research until after I'd written my books) shows that readers do, even when the characters are drawn from actual history, prefer a happy (which in my characters' case means "hopeful") ending.

I guess the ending I can't see myself writing is the death of the central character (though I currently explain what happened to them after the part of their life where my novel ends). I've killed off their husbands, lovers, sisters, in-laws, in accordance with the factual history, but I don't think I want to write the heroine's death scene as part of the plot.

Maybe, especially in this time of uncertainty, we should embrace the world we live in and tell stories that end with the words "and they lived hopefully ever after."

6:23 AM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

I recently read a JC Oats short story that ended miserably for the main character, who I started out not liking, then as she grew, I liked.

I hated that story. Lead me along and then "jerked me around emotionally" such that I was left irritated with the writer in the end--thinking no character could be that sympathetic and intelligent on one page, and stupid enough to end up dead on the last. ;-(

Thought provoking post, Tracey!

8:44 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Great post. I think I need/expect different things from different books, which is why I read across genres. I do NOT want to pick up a romance and have one of the protagonists die at the end, but when that happens in a mystery or lit-fic, if it suits the story, I'm ok with it.

Personally, I do find that your books have "happy" endings, at least for Charles and Melanie. It may not be a HAPPY ending with fluffy kitties and a host of I-Love-Yous, but I like it all the more that restraint and sense of reality. But then many a book has been ruined for me by the addition of a gooey, lovey-dovey ending that feels disconnected from the relationship as it’s been shown all along. I crave an HEA that feels genuine, and many of the gushy ones in Romancelandia simply ring hollow for me.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Jessica, glad you had a similar reaction to the end of "Rent"! I've seen it twice and enjoyed, but I had the same problem with the ending the second time.

Lana, "Moulin Rouge" is a great example. And the plot is actually very similar to that of "La Bohème" (and therefore "Rent").

9:14 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, when I was thinking about "All's Well" and how as a teenager I thought it had a happy ending and now I'm not so sure, I realized that there are lots of love stories in which I'd question how happy the ending really is. For me to find an ending happy I really have to believe the characters have a chance at working through whatever their problems are. And that they really know each other.

Even in non-series books, I'm always fascinated by "what happens next." (I love what "Into the Woods" does with this). A major reason I love writing a series. I don't think of Charles & Mélanie having a happy ending, because I don't think of their story "ending." Which, as you say, is certainly true when one is writing about real people, unless the story continues to the end of their life. I don't think I could write the death of a central character either.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, I so agree what constitutes a "happy" ending has a lot to do with one's definition of happiness. Like you I tend to find less "perfectly tied with a bow" endings more believable and therefore, in a sense, happier.

Kathrynn, I hate endings that make me feel as though I've been jerked around or had my emotions manipulated. And I hate them even more when they're sad, because at least with a contrived happy ending, the characters are happy :-).

9:24 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, I think the script's denouement is one reason that "All's Well..." is generally classified by Shakespeare scholars to be one of his "problem plays."

His title is the biggest giveaway.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Totally agree, Amanda--and that's actually why I find the play so interesting :-).

11:33 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

This is such a huge subject that I'm tongue-tied (or floppy-fingered??). Which doesn't stop me from bargin' in, as Lord Peter Wimsey likes to put it.

Right now, I'm considering writing a story that has 2 endings -- (1) h&h do not end up happily and... (2) yet somehow, they do. That "somehow" rather reveals my notion of their chances, doesn't it? And yet...

What was so exciting about writing my Molly Weatherfield erotica was that because there was no rule that said Carrie and Jonathan had to end up together, I truly didn't know if they would -- for all of book 1 and about half of book 2.

An exercise I heartily recommend.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Pam, I'm fascinated by your description of your current project. Are these two alternate endings you're deciding between? Does the book have two different endings, like "The French Lieutenant's Woman"? Or are there two ways of viewing the ending?

You're description of wrtiing with no rule about the ending sums up what intrigues me about writing books with open-ended possiblities.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I tend to prefer a HEA in the romances I read. One of the reasons I stopped reading Nicholas Sparks are Nights in Rodanthe was because I invested a lot of time and emotion into getting attached to the characters and then BAM! I realize that life does not often end with HEA. My late husband was killed by a drunk driver 15 years ago. We buried him on his 33rd birthday. I have had my fill of reality. For the most part I read romance to escape the real world for a while. However, if the hero and heroine have to really fight for their HEA so much the better. There ARE HEAs in real life. Write it realistically and I'll be fine with it.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Louisa, I'm so very sorry about your husband. What a terrible tragedy. There are definitely times when I want to escape into the security of a story in which all ends well. The day of my grandmother's funeral, I sat buried in a reread of Georgette Heyer's "Venetia" in the car all the way to the mortuary (I was twelve and it was the first time someone I was to me had died. I still remember what a comfort it was being able to spend time with Venetia and Damerel.

8:43 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Exactly, Tracy! Venetia is one of my comfort reads as well. Heyer is good for that. I love a hard fought struggle to a HEA where you know the hero and heroine will probably have their problems and their fights, but that because of what they have gone through to be together you know their love will survive.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Heyer books are great comfort reads.

I love love stories where it seems impossible that the hero and heroine can have a believable happy ending and yet somehow they do have one--not just a happy ending but one you can believe in. I think I sometimes find them particularly powerful in books that aren't in the romance genre, because everything seems more uncertain along the way.

10:41 AM  

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