Why Can’t All Stories Be Happy?

“True art has a mythic quality in that it speaks of
that which was true, is true, and will be true.”
Madeleine L’Engle

I read all kinds of fiction. As soon as I say that I don’t like something—romance, for instance—I find myself halfway through Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and loving every page. There is one genre, however, that I just cannot stomach, that of the no-conflict, unrealistically sticky-sweet happy-ending romance. People explain it away, saying, “There’s so much sadness in real life; I like reading something where I know there will be a happy ending.” Well, what’s wrong with that? I mean, I would like for my ending to be happy, so why do I keep reading the stuff that has unhappy endings (not to mention beginnings and middles)?

In my fiction workshop days, we sometimes discussed truth in fiction. Fiction is story, through which authors convey truth. Take allegories like Aesop’s Fables. What about Jesus’ parables? Nuggets or even great chunks of truth can be mined or chiseled out of stories. And what is more true than a life full of bumps and potholes?

If fiction at all resembles real life, then endings can’t all be “happily ever after.” Sorry. Think about your favorite books and movies. How many of them include elements of tragedy? There is nothing like following the story of someone who goes through adversity and triumphs in the end. Often, however, that “in the end” might not happen until years after the protagonist has died—or it could be a sacrifice on his or her part that brings about the triumphal ending. (Can you imagine a Harry Potter in which his parents don’t die? Yeah, it’d be a lot happier, but then it wouldn’t be a story. Once upon a time there was a baby named Harry Potter. He grew up with his parents. He was a trouble-maker at school like his dad, but he got the girl in the end. Anyone could have written that, and it would have sold zero copies and movie rights.)

There are those out there on the opposite end of the spectrum who like to write sad endings simply to go against the happy-ending grain. For instance, I could rewrite Cinderella so that instead of riding off with the prince after trying on her glass slipper, she gets trampled by the horses pulling the transformed pumpkin carriage. This kind of writing only works in satire. If it’s written as a romance, and that’s the end, a lot of people will be banging on the bookstore’s door, demanding a refund. It’s a slap in the face and just as pointless, to me, as writing a happy ending for happy ending’s sake.

There is a happy medium, and I promise these books are worth reading, even if you have to go through some pain to get there. One of my favorite series of books is the Anne of Green Gables series, by L.M. Montgomery. If you’ve read the first three, you know that many of the “tragedies” in Anne’s life are simply the mishaps of a young mischief-magnet. She grows up, matures, and gets her prince charming, right? Well. . . If you read the whole series (and there are eight books, ending when her children are adults), you get sucked into World War I. And although there is a new romance between Anne’s youngest daughter and a friend-turned-soldier, there is tragedy as well. I won’t spoil it; please read the books yourselves. But to people actually living through World War I, don’t you think they appreciated reading something in which the young heroine-turned-mother suffered, grieved, yet survived like the rest of the world? Yes, it would have been much happier if her family had escaped the horrors of war, but I know I would not have been so moved, so drawn back to them again and again, if that tragic element had not been there.

To boil it all down, it’s fine if the princess gets her prince charming, but I won’t complain—actually, I’ll keep turning the pages hours after I should have gone to sleep—if she has to go through hell to get him.

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