Monday, February 6, 2012

Happy endings

A friend of mine recently challenged me to write a short story that had a happy ending - just for a change, she said. She is a writer too, currently working on a novel, and part of a writing group I belong to. The particular story of mine that prompted her (humorous) plea - an early draft, I hasten to say - ended with the main character choosing to leave a relationship rather than give up a (neurotic ) way of coping with anxiety.

Both the story and my friend's comments got me thinking about what makes for a 'good' or satisfying ending, especially in a short story, and whether good and happy are the same thing. And, of course, it also made me wonder about what people mean by the terms, happy and ending, - happy ever after? - and once I started thinking about that I realised I had a number of other questions, including who is supposed to feel happy at the end, the character or the reader, and are they the same thing?

Once I'd gone down that road I started thinking about Raymond Carver's stories, none of which are a barrel of laughs. One of my favourite Carver stories is, So Much Water, So Close To Home. The story is not a happy one; it is one of the most powerful and devastating I've ever read. It exposes dehumanising indifference, violence and cruelty, yet it is somehow satisfying. Why? Because, in the end, the woman in the story knows so much more about dehumanising indifference, violence and cruelty, and takes her own small, yet dangerous stand against it. In other words, the character is in an entirely different moral/psychological place at the end than at the beginning. This character movement or development makes me as a reader 'happy' even when the story itself is not. And the reason for this is because in some small way, through identification with the character, I too have gained insight into the human condition, witnessed its horror and glory, and come out the other side changed in some way.

In this week's New Zealand Listener (February 4th, pp35-36) there is an article on Kelly Link, an American short story writer, who is noted apparently (I haven't read her work) for her 'open' endings. I liked her comment that:

"Stories that have too neat an ending, they're very easy to put down and walk away from. I don't want to write stories that feel disposable."

I'm not against stories with overtly happy endings, I'm sure I've read many and probably enjoyed them, its just that I can't remember any of them.


  1. I agree. Stories with challenging endings satisfy me...challenging for the character or for me, the reader! I want to be a different person after reading the story, and if the ending is too pat, I don't question myself and develop as a person. Hopefully, I'm writing stories that allow readers, as well as the characters, to change.

  2. Hi Kate, thanks for your comment, I particularly agree when you say you want to be a different person after reading the story; and I would love to hear more about the stories you like to read and to write.

  3. Hi Trisha.
    You asked what type of stories I like to read and write.
    I enjoy stories which have more character plot than action plot. I enjoy stories by Owen Marshall, Shonagh Koea, and Annie Proulx - nothing like aiming for the stars!

    I write stories with mainly female characters. I've written one in which the main character is male, but it required considerable research. My characters need to face some dilemma or recognise something in themselves that challenges their ethics or belief system. At the end of the stories, main characters are usually left contemplating a change in their lives, external or internal. I like the reader to be able to consider where that change may lead the character. Hopefully it's an effective technique in my 'endings'.

  4. Hi Kate
    thanks for sharing more on your own stories - I like your comment about characters needing to face some dilemma... that challenges their ethics or belief system; that really sums up (for me) the essence of a good story.