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.

I Blank when I Try to Write


I Blank when I Try to Write

It happens to all of us. We finally have managed to get our bums in chairs, have two hours when the kids are at soccer practice, and the dishwasher is running. Okay, ready to go! And blank. Blank screen. Blank mind.

As the minutes tick by and nothing happens, the frustration mounts. Come on!

If this happens frequently, you might have writer’s block, but often it is just that you need to trick yourself into starting.

Trick yourself—do a mise en place

Mise en place. In cooking, chefs often will have all the ingredients weighed out, the pots ready, and the utensils assembled before they start to create. You can do the same thing. Tell yourself that you’re not going to write, you’re just getting ready to write. You can:

  • Open and name a new file. If I was going to write, which I am not, what would the file name be? If you start obsessing, just use the date.
  • Set up the formatting. Of the writing you are not going to do, should it be double spaced or single? Indented? Paging.
  • Make a few notes of thoughts to include in the piece. Just a couple of things that you want to remember to include if you were going to write. Which you are not. But might want to describe that street scene from last week. Jot down a few points to evoke it.
  • Any character names you particularly like for this piece? Which you are not going to write. But Anna’s a nice name. Dark hair, I think. Sort of plump—so she can always be fretting about dieting.
  • If you were going to write, which of course you are not, what might the opening sentence be?

And usually by this time, you are well into the writing. I know this shouldn’t work—after all, you’re tricking yourself. Don’t you think you’d pick it up? Well, I may be slower than most, but honestly, it works.

Other ways to fill the blank space

If the first suggestion doesn’t work for you, you can also try:

  • Keep the fingers moving. Seriously, just type gibberish—sdfgdfgsdfgsdfg—over and over. The act of typing can sometimes kick-start the brain into writing. Or it does it to avoid the boredom—either way, you win.
  • Start your engines, gentlemen, please. I literally type “Okay, start your engines, please, gentlemen (yeah, yeah, I know, sexist). It is 10:15. I will write for 30 minutes until 10:45. No stopping. No games.” I sometimes set an alarm. Doesn’t have to be thirty minutes. It can be five. But no stopping and no diversions.
  • Write drivel. After all, we all do it which is why the blog is called From Drivel to Magic. But when we are getting SERIOUS, we can’t be driveling. But if you are stuck, just write about anything. The blue of the sky (clichés are acceptable when drivelling), the freshness of the breeze, the color of the African violet. But not pick up milk, renew that book, make the doctor’s appointment. Stay in the moment.

If you use these techniques as a way to let yourself loosen up, to open up to the lovely pieces which are waiting to be born, then the trickery is worth it.

Care and Feeding of Ideal Readers


Care and Feeding of Ideal Readers

Last post, I discussed how valuable I found getting feedback from an Ideal Reader (IR). But even if you think you’ve identified a likely candidate, you need to treat her with care.

Make sure the Ideal Reader knows what she is committing to

Most people are flattered that you ask them to read your work but they may not understand what they are agreeing to and you need to spell this out to avoid damaging your relationship and the quality of the feedback.

  • Tell him what kind of time commitment you are asking for. A novel takes a lot longer than a short story and it needs to fit into his schedule.
  • Agree on a deadline. Since your Ideal Reader (IR) is probably volunteering, it can be awkward to do but if you have to wait six months, it’s not going to do you much good. You can say something like, “I know you are crazy busy. Would it be too soon to discuss this in a month or so?”
  • Let them know that you will be sending them a set of questions you’d like answered. More on that below.

Help her give you what you need

As I have mentioned in other posts, the job of the writer is to create a continuous dream in which the reader can immerse herself. The more successfully it is done, the less the ordinary reader can identify the elements which make up the continuous dream feeling. So, unless your Ideal Reader is himself a writer, it is unlikely he can give feedback in a writerly way. The IR won’t say the frame of the story doesn’t work but rather I got sort of confused.

To help your IR, you can and should provide a set of questions to be read after the IR has finished your piece. The questions revolve around areas where you are unsure. Here are some examples:

Sample question

What you are looking for

Did it get boring at any point? If so where?

Does the action slow down

Did you want to know what happened to Jill or did it not matter at some point?

Credibility and persuasiveness of the character

Did you buy [name event of which you are unsure] would happen?

Believability of the plot


Dos and Don’ts

Remembering that the IR is doing you a favor and that you are friends:


  • thank them profusely, write a thank you note, or send a small gift
  • react to the feedback respectfully even if, or especially if, you don’t agree. See my post on feedback.



  • bombard them with in-progress or repeat readings. They read for enjoyment and repetition can kill that. Use your writing group for that.
  • assume you can go back to them again. Ask again if you have a new piece.
  • go back months later to ask about details of your work. They won’t remember.

You need to make the experience a pleasant one for your IR, first because you are friends but also because you want them to continue to enjoy reading your pieces and not view it as a chore they do only because you’re buds.

You Need an Ideal Reader


You Need an Ideal Reader

What is an Ideal Reader?

 The Ideal Reader represents the audience you want to reach with your finished piece of work with two important additions.

Addition One: the Ideal Reader (IR) likes you enough to read your stuff.

Addition Two: the IR is articulate enough to provide useful comments. If you’re writing for children, this might be tough (although not impossible—you could watch the children`s reactions as they hear the story).

An IR’s feedback can be more specific than your writing group’s because she knows if the situation, characters, plot, etc. work for the target audience. In addition, he’s coming to the work cold (unlike your reading group which has probably discussed it quite a bit) and so can pick up big issues and blind spots which might have been missed in the minutiae of writing.

Why you need one—an example

This suggestion may not sound much different from getting feedback from your writing group, so I’ll give you an example of where I profited from having one.

I was working on my novel, Scam!, about four Canadian actors who pretend to be an intact British acting family to get parts on an American sitcom.

My first draft took on the feel of a heist movie. You know, where a group concocts a complicated and split-second timed plan to steal the crown jewels, the Hope diamond, whatever. With this type of plot, there is no movie unless they get to the actual heist. Similarly, in my story, there is no novel unless the actors get the sitcom parts. In both, the reader knows the intended end point, so the interest has to be built in how they get there. Therefore, I spent a lot of time creating roadblocks and close calls to maintain the tension which might otherwise come from the reader wondering how will this end?

I finished the novel and, although there was a little niggle that it wasn’t my usual style, I nevertheless thought it was done.

After reading it, my wonderful IR, Janet, thought that although the action moved, the characters didn’t grow (she said this more kindly than my depiction).

After a secret pout, my thinking went as: I think it’s okay. But I really respect Janet’s opinion. Maybe this is a novel where the characters regress rather than grow. If so, I don’t have to do anything. But I really respect Janet’s opinion.

I finally decided to devote a week to see if there was anything to her comments. And damned if there wasn’t! I realized that my characters were more acted upon (by the close calls and roadblocks, etc.) than acting. I was basically pushing the characters around to meet the needs of the plot.

The revamp provided a novel I was much more satisfied with.

Where do you find an Ideal Reader?

Can be almost anyone. Typically, they like to read and in the genre you are writing. That is, don’t ask a romance fanatic to read your scifi just because you are great friends. You try for someone who tends to the analytic. Otherwise, all you’ll get it is “Oh, it’s great.”

The next post covers an IR’s care and feeding.

(And no, you can’t have my fabulous IR’s coordinates. Get your own.)