Something grabbing my interests lately is the way a work of fiction’s ending affects us all differently. I think everyone comes into their favorite media with different needs and expectations (I am certainly no exception), so these varied things will appeal or not in various ways. I don’t have a preferred ending, so long as it fits the genre and completes the narrative in a satisfying and logical way. For me, happiness needs to be earned, and anything else has to have meaning to explain why it’s not happiness. If there are no emotional stakes, the various endings become interchangeable, and that’s just boring to me.
I find a lot of current discussion about story endings comparing the virtues of the happy/Happily-Ever-After and the unhappy/GrimDark. I have my feelings on both, and often find myself pleased with something when a good deal of my friends are not, which is honestly a healthy way to enjoy your favorite things, in my opinion. What puzzles me, though, is this bizarre dichotomy being drawn between the two, as if HEA and Unhappy are the only options, and that the absence of one means it is automatically the other. This binary leaves out something that I, personally, find incredibly satisfying, but as a writer and a consumer of fiction, and that is the Bittersweet.
The HEA is not ‘boring’, but it doesn’t always feel right in context. Sometimes the MC works through the story and gains everything they long for, and it’s certainly not dull to watch that work pay off. We want the hope that stories like this provide us. Sometimes, though, the plot unfolds in a way that makes the HEA impossible. There is no logical way all the ends can be tied up prettily, not without breaking the narrative through cheap gimmicks that conveniently solve all the conflict. And that’s okay. Everything doesn’t have to come out perfect in order for happiness to be gained, nor does happiness in all things make a story objectively good. To quote Danielle in Ever After, a bird may love a fish, but where would they live? As much as we cheer for the bird and the fish to find happiness together, it’s not possible. It doesn’t diminish what they’ve worked together to gain, and it doesn’t mean that they’ve not found happiness and purpose they can enjoy individually. Now, Danielle and Henry earned their HEA by growing and changing in ways that work with one another, because the setting and plot events make it possible. Most birds will never survive underwater, and a fish must breathe water to live in Olden Times France. With Prince Lír and Lady Amalthea in The Last Unicorn, to have Amalthea choose to remain human and forget what she was would have broken the impact of her journey, and we wouldn’t be left with a unicorn who learned to regret. Regret may not be the most pleasant feeling, but an immortal being who must now carry it? The gravity of that feels profound. To say nothing of how Lír lived out his long life as a good king with a drive to be worthy of the love of that same creature. We learn that the loss of the thing you most want isn’t always the worst thing that can happen to you. How a character deals with that loss is, many times, is a happiness all of its own. It’s not a Happy Ending, but it still rewards us for sticking out the journey.
On the other side of that, you have to be careful with your unhappy endings. A dark story can feel like a hopeless slog when you get no payoff whatsoever. When the characters you’ve journeyed with suffer with no relief. When their travails bring about no new equilibrium, whether for themselves or others, you can be left feeling overtaxed emotionally. We all love a bit of angst, but when it’s overused and no one grows as a result, it’s just exhausting.
Done well, these endings can have a rewarding impact. The hero could die, such as in The Death of Superman. This shakes up the status quo. We expect Superman to save the day because he always does. He’s the Man of Steel. If Superman can be defeated, if he can die, what does that tell us about the world? What does that mean for those who remain? It leaves room for those who maintain hope through that to step forward and carry the story onward, and gives the spotlight, potentially, to someone new.
Other times, the so-called sad ending isn’t even an ending. It’s a pause in the story. The end of Avengers: Infinity Wars is devastating. We watch the heroes fight. We watch them fail. We see them cease to exist. We don’t expect or want to see our favorites meet these fates, but sometimes it makes sense, narratively. We see mistakes made, sacrifices paid that challenge the nature of a character, people underestimating the Big Bad or even each other, for better or for worse. On its face it’s not rewarding. It’s not meant to be. But, to quote Prince Lír, you can’t have your happily ever after in the middle of the story. The story needs somewhere to go, and up is interesting. Now you’re invested, because you were left unsatisfied. The Neverending Story movie ends (ha!) with a spark of light in a grain of sand, all that’s left of a world wiped away. Everything has been destroyed by the Nothing, but as the Childlike Empress tells us, in the beginning, it’s always dark. These are little more than pauses, and sometimes the medium demands their use.
That’s not to say that people coming into these things with different wants are wrong in their enjoyment or disappointment–certainly not–because like I said, we all have our own needs in what we consume. That sort of storytelling isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Not every story is for every audience. Sometimes we expect our needs to be met through a story where it makes no sense to meet them because of the narrative arc. It’s not better or worse, just different from what we wanted. That’s going to impact our feelings as we walk away and mull over what the storyteller decided to tell. Do we want everything tied up right now? There are stories where that’s possible! Do we want to watch an epic unfold and see the impossible overcome? There’s stories where that’s necessary. The HEA has become a staple of rom-coms and romance novels. If you’re looking for a different ending, you’re searching the wrong genre. Sam and Annie will get together at the end of Sleepless in Seattle. That’s why we’re all here. Okoye and Shuri now have to figure out how to go forward without T’challa to unite Wakanda. How do you get to be a hero with no heroic challenge in front of you?
Stories are created and shared, but they don’t always cater. No storyteller owes you the payoff you desire, but that doesn’t make you bad for being put off by it. It means that the story this person chose to tell wasn’t for you. You either enjoy it for what it is, or you don’t. There’s no right or wrong side here. Stories are not objectively good or bad. It’s all about what we want when they are shared, and managing our expectations.