How important is it to you that a book end happily? If it’s very important, there’s a good chance you enjoy romance novels. A happy-ever-after ending is pretty much a requirement in that genre. In contrast, readers who prefer other genres may actually dislike endings that are too tidy and optimistic. Real life isn’t like that, they say, so books that have a completely positive ending don’t seem compelling or real to them and fail to engage their interest. They prefer a grittier, less perfect ending. One that better mirrors how things usually turn out in real life.
But even readers who scorn happy endings often yearn for one that is satisfying or hopeful. Most genre readers want some sort of positive resolution in their fiction, even if sad or distressing things happen along the way. They want the good guys to prevail in the end, the murder to be solved, to have the sense that the world is safe from destruction, at least for a time. They can tolerate some loose ends, some niggling worries that all isn’t completely well. Perhaps the main story question is resolved, but the bad guy behind everything gets away, to potentially kill or create mayhem another day. Those loose ends are what inspire series, and most of us love series.
When Lee Child’s hero Jack Reacher gets involved in a situation, we know that by the end of the book, things are going to be better for the characters he’s helping. Potential threats may remain, threats he might be encountering in future books, but for a time period at least, justice and goodness has prevailed.
Every fictional genre has rules, and those rules have potent effects on our expectations for the books we read. I once read what I thought was a mystery, and although there were several murders solved over the course of the book, the main mystery that framed the story remained open-ended. I found that unsettling. And yet, I realized, if I had thought I was reading another sort of book, a mainstream or literary novel, I might not have felt quite as let-down.
That’s because mainstream and literary fiction tend to have ambiguous endings. They often end on a sad or bittersweet note. A main character—who have come to admire and identify with over the course of the book—may even die. Tragedies are compelling. They make us think and question things. If The Great Gatsby had ended happily, it’s unlikely people would still be reading that book today, nearly a hundred years after it was written. Although Fitzgerald’s graceful, evocative prose might be admired, he probably wouldn’t be considered a great novelist if all his stories ended happily.
Which leads to one of the reasons a lot of people don’t choose literary fiction for their pleasure reading. Very often the outcomes of those books can be depressing. Fiction that is too much like real life can drag us down rather than offering an escape.
In historical time periods like ours, when things are especially unsettled and troubled, people tend to turn to books where the outcome is predictably satisfying, and genre fiction fills the bill. Those books may have a lot of violence and feature a lot of dark, grim events, consider how popular dystopian fiction is. But even so, at the end, we have faith that the author will give us an outcome that reassures us that things are mostly right in the world and there is hope for the future.
How about you? How happy do you like your endings to be?