I’ve been thinking a lot about happy endings lately (stop sniggering). I could go into why I think they’re important, which is rooted in my philosophy of literature and my view of the way literary fiction functions, but that’s a really long post. What I believe about happy endings and how I think they should function are two separate talks, I think.
So in this case it’s less about happy endings, about doing them right, or about how they can be done right. It’s more about why doing an ending right is important.
You can’t just slap any old ending on a story. It has to have the ending it was meant to have, or perhaps more accurately the ending it has been building towards. There is a school of thought which says that because our lives aren’t narrative in the way our stories are, there are no real “endings”, and the job of the writer is just to find a stopping-point that’s appropriate. And to some extent I believe in that. In an overall sense, I believe more in a phrase I used in a story once: Make it true and make it good.
“Make it true and make it good” is much more difficult than it seems. Writers have an amazing amount of power over their little worlds, and it’s easy to write something that merely gratifies the self. It takes discipline to write something that gratifies the work, something that is true to the spirit of the story, satisfying, and at least a little tidy.
There’s nothing more disappointing than the wrong ending on a story: an ending that’s too fast, because you got bored of writing after you hit the climax, or an ending whose note rings false. Or the infamous fix-it ending, where someone or something swoops in at the last minute to solve the problem of the rest of the book.
Mind you, if you do it right, a fix-it can be appropriate. Douglas Adams used to deliberately write himself into corners so he’d be forced to create ways to fix things, and once in a while he had to go pretty far out there, with results that were both creative and amusing. Sometimes a fix-it can be a satire of our desires for neatly-tied packages. But most of the time it’s a sign that the writer was tired. Which I understand. I get tired too.
I believe in the power of true-and-good to remind us even when we are tired that the story is what we serve. It’s not a technique in itself, but sometimes knowing the law of the craft is as important as knowing the craft itself.