Creating a Good Happy Ending


Creating a Good Happy Ending

In the last post, I discussed how happy endings have fallen out of favor. But I understand that you still might want write one. So let’s talk about that.

Pitfalls to look for

There are some cues to when you might be heading down the feel-goodism path. Here’s what to look for in your story.

Things come together too easily. Brenda gets into the college of her choice. At the freshman meet and greet, she is introduced to this great guy. She marries him, they live happily ever after. Exactly what want for our own lives; boring fiction. A happy ending isn’t credible unless there are some roadblocks on the way to it.

Characters have to be bent out of shape to make the ending work. To this point in the novel, Jordie has been a lovely guy—considerate, generous, open-hearted (by the by, probably not a very interesting character). Suddenly, he deceives his girlfriend by convincing her that her BFF is coming onto him. I mean, he has to do that as you are planning a great knock-down, drag-out fight between him and the girlfriend. Although I suppose this betrayal immediately makes him more interesting, a happy ending in this case will be unsatisfying to the reader because it sort of comes out of the blue.

Deus ex machina. Or ‘God in the machine.’  Any time you have written yourself into a corner in the plot and you get out of it by introducing a never-before-seen character to save the day, a trapdoor in a bungalow—you get the picture. Major coincidence (protagonist happens to run into the one person who can save him), while not exactly the same, are nevertheless also taboo.

How to create a credible happy ending

So, to sort of turn around the pitfalls above, here are some of questions you need to ask yourself about your piece if you are heading to a happy ending.

How does your protagonist struggle to achieve the happy ending? In the example above, Brenda might like the guy but he’s already going out with someone else. She has to get his attention. The guy’s girlfriend is actually really sweet and Brenda feels guilty about her plan. You see, complications. A happy ending has to be earned.

Does he achieve it through his own efforts? Today, readers might be a little skeptical if, as in  It’s a Wonderful Life, a friend in Europe agrees to advance $25,000 to cover the debt the hero owes. Usually, the protagonist needs to achieve the happy ending because of his own strivings. i.e. No deus ex machina.

Are his actions consistent? If you need Jordie to lie to his girlfriend as in the example above, then adjust your portrayal of him so that readers have a few doubts about him. If they get to the lying scene without them, both that scene and the happy ending are going to be incredible (but not in a good way).

Have seeds of happy ending been planted? Don’t have to be and in fact, shouldn’t be obvious. But little throwaway moments that the reader can take in, perhaps without even noticing them, that make a happy ending realistic. Great surprise that Roger isn’t the last one to leave the bar; he is losing weight without working out; he doesn’t fly off the handle as much. Spread over the course of the novel, these casual comments can make the happy ending of Roger going to A.A. believable.

So, you can still do a happy ending—you just need to build up to it.

It’s a Wonderful Life: Feel-Good Movies


It’s a Wonderful Life: Feel-Good Movies

Christmas is the time for feel-good movies like The Miracle on 34th Street, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (okay, TV movie) and It’s a Wonderful Life. We bask in stories which not only end happily but we know they’re going to. We can sit through the trials of the hero/heroine quite contentedly, knowing Things Will Work Out.

A great example of this genre is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. In it, George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) maintains a Savings and Loan company. He wants fair mortgages  for the townspeople rather than them being forced to deal with the town’s greedy banker. However, money inadvertently goes astray and George realizes he will be charged with fraud. Projecting how this shame will reflect on his loved ones, he decides he is better off dead. An angel prevents his suicide and shows him how things would have been if he had never been born. George realizes how many people his life has benefitted and decides not to jump off the bridge. When he returns home, he finds that town folk and distant friends have donated money to replace the missing amount.

The feel-good part of the movie happens when George’s friends contribute to make up the shortfall. If the movie had ended with George’s decision to live, it might still have been a good movie, but it probably would not have had the feel-good touch we all love.

The problem with feel-good stories

It was remarkably hard to get Google to say anything negative about feel-good movies. No matter what I input along with the term—criticism of, problem with, etc.—all I got were lists of the best of them. Only dictionaries  would admit that the term feel-good relates to or promotes “an often specious sense of satisfaction or well-being.” Example: “feel-good reform program that makes no changes.”

Because, let’s face it, calling a movie or novel ‘feel-good’, is often a dismissive way to denigrate a story. What in other times would have been thought of as just a ‘good’ movie, might now be flipped off with the addition of ‘feel.’ Why does a happy ending in modern works now run the risk of being disparaged in this way?

Frankly, who knows. It might be because we have been more suspicious of others’ motives than in earlier days. Or perhaps we are less willing to accept that good outcomes are as frequent and/or uncomplicated. Or maybe the literary fashion has just changed. But as a writer, you ignore this zeitgeist at your peril.

How does it affect your writing?

Interestingly enough, it might be easier to see the effects of feel-goodism in memoirs. How would you feel if you read a memoir where everything turned out beautifully for the protagonist, that she was never guilty of a value-challenging act, and everyone was lovely to everyone else?

In addition to being bored to death, I’d probably think, “She’s lying through her teeth.”

In fiction, it is more difficult to pick up when this phenomenon is operating. But you need to step back from your story to ensure that the happy ending is deserved, if you know what I mean. So how do you write a happy ending which doesn’t get the finger for feel-goodism? Next post.

A Gentleman in Moscow


A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles’ widely acclaimed A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016. It is the story of a Russian aristocrat during the Russian Revolution. His sanctuary/house arrest is the luxurious Metropol Hotel where he meets a girl who shows him the inner workings of the hotel. A moody chef, among other characters, figure in his discovery.

I found I enjoyed reading the novel while reading it but when I put it down, it took me a long time to pick it up again. This happened again and again. At about page 250, I think I figured out what was causing the sporadic reading.

The novel has lots of events, but no real plot. Things happen but the novel doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

A Gentleman in Moscow has other charms

Although I enjoy a good plot, I recognize that novels can be excellent for other reasons. I can and do appreciate living in the world Amor Towles created. The Count is quite a delightful character and his insights into Life are both apt and apropos. NPR’s review of the book says:

All of the verbal excess, the gently funny mock-epic digressions, the small capers and cast of colorful characters, add up to something undeniably mannered but also undeniably pleasant.

And I agree. It is lovely to read when I am reading it.

But there is the problem that I keep putting it down and not picking it up for a long time.

Lots of events, no story

This is tough concept to get. The idea that lots can happen, but there is no real story. The closest thing I think I can get to is when you watch, willingly or otherwise, somebody else’s vacation photos. Lots of places are visited, lots of boats boarded, lots of meals consumed. But it isn’t so much a story as a litany of events.

Which is fine for holiday snaps but readers usually expect more from a novel. I am prepared for people to argue that A Gentleman in Moscow does so have a story. I might even agree with them. But fundamentally, although things happen, it doesn’t have a sense of forward motion. The sense that the protagonist is going to end up somewhere different or be someone at least slightly different.

It might be argued that it is more real life to have a protagonist who is adapting as well as he can to a difficult situation. True. But, as I have said Fiction is Not Life and how it really happened is not actually an adequate defense against the charge of no story.

Fiction has its own rules. In order to feel authentic on the page, it often requires a distortion of what usually happens in real life. And generally, fiction requires that the story goes somewhere even if we don’t necessarily expect our own lives to come to a climax which is resolved in a surprising yet satisfying way.

Well, it is possible that A Gentleman in Moscow does suddenly develop a forward motion even if there was no sign of it at page 250. I’ll let you know when I get back to it.

Next post—how to turn events into a plot.

Where a Good Story/Memoir Ends


Where a Good Story/Memoir Ends

In the previous post, I discussed the movie, Lady Bird, and its ending. I think a weak ending has a ripple effect back to the rest of the piece and seems to deflate what might have been a plot that was bopping along well. (There might have been three mixed metaphors in that sentence. Ah, well.) Where a story ends is the topic of this post.

How do I know where to end?

The great thing about writing generally is that you can end your piece anywhere you like. I know I have harped on making sure that you meet the expectations of the reader by including all the component parts of a story arc. However there is lots of wiggle room within that framework. This is also true of memoirs. You need to build the story of your life and end it where it works for the story you are telling.

Endings, like beginnings and the whole writing thing, are so flexible that the best I can do is present my list of probable Dos and Don’ts.

DO end the story as close to the climax as possible. It sometimes works to have a long denouement where all the bits and pieces are neatly connected. But too long a one can leave the reader with the feeling of yeah, yeah, I got it—the butler did it.

DO end shortly after the main character has experienced the major life-altering realization or event that you were aiming for. It sometimes works to continue past that point but you need to decide.  For example,  will illustrating in detail how the protagonist has changed her life strengthen the story or make it feel as if it is tapering off into oblivion?


Don’t feel you have to resolve every question your novel raises. As long as the main and most important ones are satisfactorily dealt with, the reader won’t be that put off.  Example of question you can leave dangling: Did the secondary character’s husband’s sister really die of cancer? Memoir writers  especially need to rein in the idea they need to tell everyone’s story which touches their own. You do not.

Don’t feel you have to take things to the literal or figurative death bed. It is perfectly acceptable to portray a slice of a character’s life and end it when it feels right to you.

Don’t spell out how you want the reader to feel about the ending. This is partly a tenet of show, don’t tell. You just show it and allow the reader to decide how he feels about it. This approach can give extra pleasure to the reader as he explores his own reaction to your ending.

The ends need to justify the means

So, generally, your ending needs to be as strong as the plot which is resolves.

Having said that, endings are, I think, particularly idiosyncratic. You may feel the story ends at a different place than I do—as I did with the movie Lady Bird. You may be right; I may be right; we may both be right; there may be no right answer.

If you feel that your ending is a strong one and really speaks to you, by all means go ahead. I have already discussed the annoying phenomenon of authors who break the rules and make it work fabulously. Your ending may be in that category.

But if you’re not sure, then my Dos and Don’ts might help to hone in on an ending which will be as satisfying as the rest of your story.

Lady Bird—The Importance of Endings


Lady Bird—The Importance of Endings

Endings can make or break stories.

Lady Bird is the 2017 directorial debut of Greta Gerwig. The movie is an amazing mix of humor and gut-wrenching conflict between a mother and her teenage daughter. It is a remarkable tour de force when, from the beginning scene to the ending one, the director can make us laugh or cry, seemingly at will. The critics felt it was almost perfect, giving it a 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences were also enthusiastic with a 79%.

Although differences between critics and viewers are not unheard of, 20% is still a big chunk of change. Why are the critics are saying, ‘omg, to die for’, and viewers are saying, ‘yeah, very good’? I have a theory about why this happened.

Endings can make or break a piece

I want to emphasize that this is a movie well worth seeing. It is a triumph of acting and direction. But I have to say, I think the ending was in the wrong place.

Near the close of the movie, her parents drive Lady Bird (played by Saoirse Ronan) to the airport so she can return to university. Her mother is not talking to her and it makes for an uncomfortable ride. She drops them off at the curb without saying good-bye, and drives away, presumably to find parking. However, it becomes clear that the mother (played by Laurie Metcalf) is distressed by the leaving. She turns the car around so she can run to the gate. But Lady Bird has already boarded.  

This is where I think the movie should have ended.

Instead, it goes on for a while longer. The last scene is Lady Bird calling home to tell her mother she loves her.

Why does this matter?

Well, the actual ending left me flat. All this tortured drama and all we get is a voice-mail message? The strength of the ending did not match the strength of the material leading up to it.

The problem with weak endings is that it can, as I think it did with this movie, leave the viewer with an unsatisfied feeling. They can change the perception of the piece from omg, to die for—which the movie largely deserves—to okay, nice movie. Because it was not a strong ending, the whole thing seems to drop in value. I think this is what audiences picked up although perhaps not at a conscious level.

Admittedly, there is a problem with where I think the movie should have ended. The traditional story arc assumes that the main character changes or moves forward in her understanding of life. In my suggestion, it would be the mother and not Lady Bird who has that epiphany.

But in the actual ending, Lady Bird’s life-changing realization is not as well-portrayed or as riveting as her mother’s. And leaving a voice-mail saying she loved her mother is without the power of her mother’s change.

As I have mentioned in other posts, the reader/viewer has certain expectations of a story of which they may be unaware. Because it is not a reader’s job to analyze the writing but simply to enjoy it, the disappointment of these assumptions can be expressed as ‘yeah, good movie’ rather than ‘yeah, fabulous movie’ which is what it actually deserved.

So, how can you be alert to the need for an ending to your story which is satisfying and at the same level of intensity as the rest of your piece? Next post.