Monday, May 22, 2006

A Rant in Praise of Happy Endings

Two days ago, I rented a movie and, tired after a long day writing, settled back to watch it. As the friend who recommended it had promised, this flick had great acting and wonderful characterization. The trouble was, all that characterization was used to depict fictional human beings who continually screwed up, learning nothing from their errors, until each member of the family was left dysfunctional, isolated, and in need of long-term therapy. It had one of those subtle endings, too, where you’re so taken by surprise when the credits roll, you start tearing at your hair and shrieking, “I spent two hours of my life on this?”

When critics, pseudo-intellectuals, and people who never read the genre play the “more erudite than thou” game, one of their favorite slams against romance is the guarantee of a happy ending. As if happy endings where two people get together in a committed relationship are somehow less than, say, happy endings where the murderer is caught, the protagonist survives grave danger, a battle is won, or human colonists on some distant moon escape extinction.

Oh, wait. Those kinds of endings often happen in romance novels, too, as elements in the books’ external plots. Just as when I read novels shelved outside the romance aisle, I usually recognize romantic elements in them, too. And a lot of them have – oh, the horror – happy endings.

Well, here’s a news flash. People love them. If they want to be depressed, they can turn on the evening news. If they want insoluble problems, they can read the paper. If they want to see unhealthy relationships that go nowhere or come to bad ends, they surely don’t have to look far, either. People pick up popular fiction after a tough day working, wrangling kids, or caring for sick parents so they can get a break from stress and worry. They trust their favorite authors to take them to a world where the bad guys always get theirs, kittens don’t have to worry about getting drop-kicked, and people who struggle hard and try to be decent human beings are pretty well assured of having someone nice to cuddle at the day’s end.

As a writer, I love taking readers to places they’ve never been, allowing them to meet fascinating new people they might never encounter, and enticing them to sweat out my characters’ harrowing journeys in the comfort and safety of their (that’s the readers’, not the characters’) favorite lounge chairs. If I introduce my readers to new ideas or make them consider other points of view along the way, that’s nice, but primarily, I see my job as allowing the reader to slip into the skins of my books’ heroes and heroines and hang on for a wild ride – knowing that though there might by some surprises, some skinned knees, and bruised hearts along the way, there will be a moment of truth. And better yet, I’m going to darned well tell them how it all comes out.

The way I see it, an author gets paid to tell a story – a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And a commercial author in particular works hard to build larger-than-life characters with whom the reader will identify. These characters go on to represent the reader, much in the same way a school’s or city’s sports team represents the fan base.

Who wants to see his/her team lose? Sure, the best games are those where the outcome is in doubt and the opponents worthy, but in the end, I know I want my guys to overcome the odds. A home team’s sports victory relieves stress and releases endorphins, just as a happy ending in a book or movie leaves the reader with a sigh of satisfaction and the strong desire to repeat the experience again soon.

An unhappy ending or – worse yet- no real ending at all leaves most audience members depressed and anxious.

Is it any wonder that popular fiction – especially romance – is so, well, popular? Crowds cheer when the Death Star is blown to pieces, the Lost Ark is swiped from under the noses of the Nazis, and Sally finally realizes Harry has been the right one all along. And I cheer right along with them.

If that makes me a philistine, sue me. I plan to go on writing happy endings as long as there are readers who prefer a hopeful brand of fiction to a prescription for Prozac.


JoAnn Ross said...

I absolutely agree and also agree that readers expect happy endings from other genres (not just romance) as well. They just don't necessarily use that term.

Mystery and thriller readers would feel let down, I think, if the bad killer escaped at the end of the book. (Unless it was clear that he was going to get his comeuppance in book #2.) The same with demons or evil spirits getting away in the darker paranormals. I know it's sometimes done, but I always feel let down if the world the writer has created isn't put back into some semblance of order at the end of a book.

I want tyrants toppled, justice to prevail, lovers united, the wicked punished, and the good to live happily ever after. Give me that, and I'm a happy reader. :)

Sandra K. Moore said...

That's the general argument I use when well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) readers ask, "So aren't romance novels just using a formula?" My reply is always the same: "Ever read a mystery where the killer didn't get caught? Or a thriller where the pyscho didn't come to some sort of justice? Or an adventure novel where the protagonist didn't bring down the rogue government/find the treasure/save the girl?" In most cases, the readers admit to wanting things to turn out "right," which in our case is, after all, the happily ever after.

Alfie said...

I want to know what the movie is, Colleen, so I don't waste my time watching it.

MaryF said...

Me, too, Colleen! Was it The Family Stone? I've heard it's not what it looked like in the previews.

Colleen Thompson said...

OK... The movie in question was THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. It just wasn't for me.

In its defense, it was nominated for a boatload of independent movie awards. I often enjoy indies (try CHILDREN OF HEAVEN, a wonderful Iranian film with an outstanding, though bittersweet, ending), but this one made me want to run and pop RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or even KING KONG into my VCR.