Happy Endings – Or Not

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Today’s post:

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Your humble host

Is the ending of your story too predictable?

Put your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them. That’s the basis for an interesting story, right? But at some point the rocks stop and the ending comes.

Readers are funny, though. In movies, “Rocky” fans want the SAME ending every time. And before everybody turns their literary noses up, SO DO HARRY POTTER readers. And Stars Wars fans.

Basically, every franchise wants that, in movies or books.

While reading the Harry Potter stuff, did you ever REALLY think Harry would die?

Or that James Bond wouldn’t escape intact?

Or that Hercule Poirot, Charlie Chan (or Bruce Willis in just about every movie he makes) etc., wouldn’t get the bad guy?

So, we want what we want. And by we I mean you. And by you I mean the large collective of readers and moviegoers, not necessarily you, except it probably includes you.

The TV show Friends is doing a 2 hour reunion, even though as far as I can tell the show has never gone off the air; it’s been in reruns continually since they stopped making originals ten years ago or whatever. So you can see Joey and Monica and the gang every night on Nick At Night if you want; no need for a reunion. Wanna know how they ended up? You know. Jenifer Aniston is still a megastar and the rest still aren’t. There. No need for a reunion.

But gee, none of them ever died in a car wreck or suffered from depression. There were no A Very Special Episode of Friends where Joey dies of AIDS. Because sitcom, sure, but also because $$$ means give the viewers what they want. (Friends and Scrubs on Nick At Night reruns got me through many a late-night bottle feeding not too many years ago.)

So, too, in many books and movies. Hell, just by knowing there are three or four or six Harry Potter books, you know he doesn’t die in the second one.

But that’s why when a main character dies in one of these books or movies, it’s such a big deal. Harry had one. So did Star Wars. I won’t give you the exact examples in case it’s a spoiler (but trust me, I haven’t seen or read them and I know, so how much of a spoiler can it be, but still), you get the point.

And that is why it is SO tragic of an ending – and far more memorable – when in Dr Zhivago that he has his torrid, heart wrenching love affair with Lara and they cannot be together and then finally they can and she doesn’t know it and he sees her from the trolley and she doesn’t see him and he gets off and chases after her and actually dies of a heart attack in the crowd before she ever turns around! He died with the love of his life twenty feet away and she never knew. He didn’t get to be with her but he almost did! The happy ending was right there and fate snatched it away at the last second. Readers and moviegoers were left teary eyed. Nooooo! He goes to his death not knowing what might have been. She gets away – for eternity? Nooooooo!

I didn’t do it justice there, but you get the idea. Plenty of readers would have LOVED for them to meet back up and live happily ever after. That’s why his death, so close to his goal, is so tragic – and so memorable. It helped make Dr Zhivago a classic for decades. I have to believe it’s still a good story if it has a happy ending, but showing us the candy and then taking it away right before we get to taste it, and doing it in such a masterful way, made it a classic instead. As an author, I’ll take classic any day.

As a reader, too.

An appropriate ending is what every story needs. Yeah, we like happy endings. But we love other endings – when they are appropriate to the story and they work.

It is the occasional curve ball that brings the excitement to the story. Not knowing exactly how it’s gonna go every time is part of what keeps eyes glued to the stories we write.

Readers want that, too.

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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Click HERE to check out his other works

15 thoughts on “Happy Endings – Or Not

    • Thanks. I read a lot of new authors and I worry that too often we’re not being original enough or taking enough risks. Myself, too. My next story is going to push boundaries. Poggibonsi did and it was much more memorable than it would have been otherwise. The Water Castle did in certain areas and it evoked – still evokes – strong reactions.

      I think an author might get nine good reviews and dies over the tenth review because it’s negative, but certain authors take risks and get three or four negative reactions or warnings, but the author gets one that says I get it, I love it – and that’s all the author needs to forge ahead, possibly to brilliance and amazing things.

      Even in “Savvy Stories: funny things I learned from my daughter,” which is a collection of lighthearted moments, there’s a deeply personal, scary, near tragic place. I debated a long time about sharing it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to show my wife or me in that vulnerable light – to be so obviously scared and weak. It turned out to be extremely well received, allowing readers to cry with us, which made it easier for them to laugh with us. It was very scary to be that open and honest, but it was a lesson I wil never forget and every time I push boundaries I get braver about it.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. So I minored in film in college, nothing exciting about that unless you like movies, but I still remember seeing Psycho for the first time and understanding all the effort Hitchcock had to go through to make it because the studios believed no one would like a movie where you killed off the main character half way through. They thought audiences would simply walk out. Hitchcock really blazed a path in that vein. He made it acceptable to kill a main character, demonstrated the public was capable of accepting and even embracing that trauma. In movies at least.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Books, too. I have heard that Hugh Howey does that too (I’m currently reading Wool), killing of main characters, and so did Game Of Thrones – to the point where you almost didn’t want to like a character too much because as soon as you did they got killed! But like anything else, done well, it works. I may have to try it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this thought provoking post. I like your description of the ending in Doctor Zhivago but it was well done compared to the ending in the book where he goes wandering around like some kind of a vagrant not able to accept his country but not able to leave. You’ve given me something to think about as usual. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this post Dan. So true, we don’t want to make the readers angry, but life isn’t always happy endings and if we can evoke deep emotion and leave them with something to ponder, that’s wonderful. BTW, I lovedddddddddddd Dr. Zhivago. I’ve seen it like 20 times, and every time the kleenex box is drained and I still hope for a happy ending. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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