Happy Endings: They’ll Never See ‘em Coming!

No joke: I went to high school with one of the stars of this show.

It’s a strange thing, and maybe it’s just me, but I notice a certain sneering sense of condescension when people talk or write about those of us to enjoy reading and writing fiction.

And again, maybe it’s just me, but there is even a certain sense of embarrassment when you tell friends and associates of the same fact. As though there’s something to be ashamed of regarding exercising your imagination!

Adults are expected to be dead inside. You’re expected to kill anything that could provide a vestige of the childlike wonder you used to behold the world with. It’s sad fact, but following the path laid out before you by contemporary American life really results in you being a mindless consumer. The angst we often feel is a reaction to this unnatural fact.

Fiction plays into this. Escapism is not a dirty word. In fact, it’s vital. To escape is to leave a bad situation to a better one. Who doesn’t need that in this weird post-industrial society we find ourselves in, through no fault of our own?

In fact, nobody asked most of us if we actually like the direction things are going.

Natural rhythms of sleep, of life, of family, of human interaction, even of eating are completely disrupted and strange. Who wouldn’t want to get away from there?

Who wouldn’t want some discomfort and adventure, even vicariously?

Ever wonder why highly immersive video games are so popular, especially with young men? Because they offer a sense of wonder, exploration, reward for skill, and achievement. There’s precious little else in modern life that offers which can replicate those feelings.

Great band, great album, and great album title.

What the chattering classes, the intelligentsia, the bowtie twiddlers say about fiction, and the arts in general, really says it all. But this stuff is important. We are what we consume. If you fill your time with doom and existential meaningless, don’t be surprised by the consequences.

Stories are how we learn, how we stretch ourselves, how we teach and break out of regular and institutionalized patterns of thinking, going all the way back to The Iliad. The same way the buttoned-down business guy likes to listen to heavy metal, lots of other people love fantastical stories . . . fantastical stories with heart.

And maybe with, dare I say it, happy endings.

Brian Niemeier says it very well in a recent post:

. . . Talk to guys in the #PulpRev, and a common complaint you hear about post-1980 storytelling is that nobody knows how write an ending anymore. This lament encompasses epic fantasy and sci-fi series that bloat due to scope creep with no end sight, but also writers’ general inability to bring closure without prompting the reader to make toast in the bathtub.

Gotta have that “twist”! Gotta have that “unexpected” ending! Instead of, you know, good one that pays off the promises laid out before.

This is basic storycraft 101. And yet . . .

Nihilism and moral ambiguity are not shocking, are not deep, and are not “smart.” Subversion for the sake of subversion is actually one of the laziest things a writer can do.

Why not have a happy ending? Why not have the girl and the guy get together at the end. Why subvert everything just to say “Ha ha! I pissed all over these schmucks (the audience) and what they expected!”

If you really want to be shocking, try being uplifting and inspiring. That’s something audiences don’t expect these days.

Note: Here is an interesting article I came across while writing this piece, called “Why Escapism can be Harmful.” Pay attention to the qualifier there in the title: “can.” Like anything, too much escapism can have harmful effects if it forces you to completely neglect everyday life. That is not what I or most other writers advocate, but it is interestingly what it tech giants and institutionalized entertainment industries want you to do–turn your brain off and buy this product.


  1. Have you read Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories? He was making almost a century ago some of the same arguments we are making today.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that “subversion” has become so orthodox today that when a writer plays it straight it surprises me. This is a great opportunity! You get the surprise of the twist and the emotional satisfaction of playing it straight.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, I’ve read excerpts but have not read the whole thing. The more things change!

      You are right on about subversion being de rigueur. If something seems normal in a modern story, you just know it’s going to be upended in a predictable way.

      Liked by 1 person

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