Happy endings resound with hope, reminding us of God’s ultimate triumph over evil. As we turn the last page, we feel homesick for the moment when He’ll wipe away all our tears and usher in the new heavens and new earth.
But a thin line separates endings that point toward eternity and endings that have been manipulated to give readers warm fuzzies. For a story to remain honest, the ending needs to reflect victory and reality. Genuine happy endings share three traits that artificial ones do not: consequences, appropriate reactions, and logic. If you infuse these elements into your endings, you’ll leave readers both delighted and nourished.
1. Include Consequences
Writers often confuse happy endings with perfect ones. Perfect endings vary but generally involve a hero who conquers his adversaries, gets the girl, and experiences little to no psychological trauma. Only minor characters die. For anyone important, the trip to the other side isn’t permanent.
Happy endings resemble perfect ones in form only. The antagonists face justice, the girl falls for the guy, and the central conflict is resolved during the final chapters. However, the villain is a human being with longings and fears. The hero and his girl walk down the aisle after significant strife. Even after all the hero’s struggles, he still might find himself placing flowers on the tombstone of someone he couldn’t save or a dream he had to sacrifice. The ending shows him gaining what he needs—but rarely in the manner he expects.
Perfect endings appease readers, but genuine happy endings feed souls. Consequences don’t ruin a story; when characters undergo trial after trial, their eventual success gains meaning.
The specific consequences will depend on your character’s journey, but she should never return to the life she had before the story began. Even her goals may shift. In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny Price wins the guy’s affection, escapes the antagonist, and presumably lives happily ever after. However, one of her cousins permanently ruins her reputation and drives Fanny’s uncle into distress. Though none of the disasters are Fanny’s fault, not every character had a strong enough moral constitution to merit a happy ending. You can’t redeem every character or you’ll weaken the power of the lie that influences them.
When you’re searching for consequences to incorporate, don’t shy away from lasting ones. But before you start digging graves, remember that emotional turmoil can be more agonizing than death. Discover what your character values and attack it.
In the suburban fantasy film Onward, Ian ends his quest to resurrect his dad with newfound courage and a richer friendship with his brother. However, he never actually meets his dad. Instead, he gives the privilege to his older brother, who needs closure after being too scared to say goodbye to their dying father as a small child. Ian grows through the adventure, but his deepest desire is never fulfilled.
Though you want your story to have consequences, make sure you replace what the character lost. Ian forfeits the chance to talk to his dad, but he realizes his brother has been a stand-in for him, which offers him peace in spite of never being able to see his dad. Hardship and rewards must go hand in hand for endings to be happy as well as genuine.
2. Depict Appropriate Reactions to Pain
Writers are tempted to gloss over tragedy to force a happy ending. For instance, some films neutralize the serious nature of death (like Guardians of the Galaxy II) or turn moments that should be solemn into comic relief. While this will prevent negative feelings, it drains meaning from the story.
In the Disney movie Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, the climax is a battle between winged fae and humans. But instead of dwelling on all the casualties, the story concludes with the former enemies standing calmly side by side, watching a wedding. The damage is trivialized, causing the ending to ring false.
Characters need time to mourn. When your protagonist loses someone she loves on her path to transformation, don’t rush past that low moment. Give her a chance to process the injury to her heart, and let that alter her course of action.
Take the humorous but dark historical drama Jojo Rabbit for example. Jojo is a young, impressionable boy who has adopted the Nazi’s racism toward the Jewish people. But his prejudice begins to fade when he meets Elsa, a fierce Jewish girl Jojo’s mother is sheltering in their home. As Jojo and Elsa form a bond, readers form an attachment to them.
But darkness soon swallows Jojo’s innocent world, and he discovers (spoiler alert) his mother hanging in the square, presumably for treason against the government. As an eight-year-old brainwashed by his society, he copes with his grief by lashing out at the person he perceives is to blame—Elsa. His weak stab barely harms her, but it threatens the fragile relationship viewers hold dear.
Jojo Rabbit isn’t a happy movie by far, but unlike Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, the characters respond correctly to pain. Don’t be afraid to allow your characters to express their grief. Even though Jojo attacks Elsa, she refuses to forsake him. When your own characters triumph despite their emotionally charged mistakes, it will deepen your story. And when the happy ending arrives, readers will recognize the authenticity that led there.
3. Tie Everything to Theme
Though the type of happy ending largely depends on the character’s external circumstances (guy gets girl, hero survives villain, antagonist receives justice, etc.), its impact is internal.
In some stories, characters achieve their goals even after repeated bad decisions, or worse—they get everything they want by learning the wrong lesson. The famous musical Grease celebrates the main character’s choice to change her personality and appearance to attract a guy. But that’s not a true happy ending. When a character wins, it’s because she’s matured. Not only does she gain a reward (even if it’s not the one she was originally pursuing), she emerges wiser and stronger. As Rose, one of our writing team members, puts it, “If the character pays in blood, sweat, and tears for a happy ending, then you better give it to her. But if she doesn’t earn it, she doesn’t deserve it.”
In the gritty fantasy Sky in the Deep, Eelyn hates her clan’s rival, the Riki, and willingly slays them alongside her clanmates. But after she’s captured by the Riki, she slowly begins to understand their humanity. When a massive evil clan threatens both the Riki and the Aska, Eelyn uses her new perspective to unite the tribes and defeat the bloodthirsty killers. As a result of her growth, the Riki and the Aska survive—and she begins a new life alongside her love interest, a Riki clansman.
Connecting victory to your character’s arc guards against illogical endings. We’ve all read stories where the ending, though enjoyable, didn’t make sense. The author tacked a lighthearted closing scene onto the story just because. The hero overcomes the villain through a stroke of luck, or the love interest decides to ignore the protagonist’s flaws and marry him anyway. You’ll avoid these inconsistencies if you sew all the pieces (characters, plot, theme) together with the same thread.
Chase an Honest Ever After
If you follow every point of this article to the letter, your story won’t be moving.
That’s right. An ending isn’t memorable because the author religiously observed a formula. It’s memorable because she poured something real into it rather than smoldering reality with happiness. She had a viewpoint to share and characters suited to portray it with their actions.
Before you evaluate a project with these tips in mind, know the core of your story. Don’t be afraid to commit to what you’re trying to say. When a happy ending flows from your worldview, you’ll find that it naturally conforms to the traits I described above.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.