How Stories End

In amongst the usual panels that I am picked for (there’s ALWAYS one on heroines – I seem to have established something of a rep as a Writer Who Writes Strong Wimmin), at the latest convention I have a panel that I have not had before. A panel entitled “How Stories End”.

It’s an intriguing premise. Let’s look at it from several angles.

One – the “Happily Ever After” angle.

The generic formula.

The older I get, the less that works for me. The generic is nebulous. Happily-ever-after just goes on and and on and on into a pink cloud of unadulterated, well, pinkness, and everyone is well and happy and smiling forever more, and what pops into my recalcitrant mind sooner or later is a pink land of smiling zombies who wander around wearing broad and fake grins like the man in that godawful Viagra ad did and feeling nothing, doing nothing, thinking nothing, because their only role in life is to continue existing in a zombified happily-ever-after pinkness. I suppose I must have had a period when I was young and silly and naive when I was living in the childhood NOW and even thirty five was *old*, dammit, and happily-ever-after was so far away as to be really incomprehensible and therefore somehow became believable simply because of the distance between it and me and no corresponding life experience to fill the gap.

But then I grew older. And I started developing thoughts and opinions and critical processes. I suppose many children have a much longer period of innocence but by age eleven I was already asking the question, “WHOSE happy ending?” and figuring out that for somebody to win there must have been someone else who loses – and we NEVER read those stories. Saccharine quickly started to lose its flavour for me, after that. I gravitated to the REAL fairy tales, the gruesome ones, the Cinderella where the stepsisters cut off bits of feet to stuff them into the glass slipper, the transcendent tragedy of the original “Little Mermaid”, and the Disney versions became pretty pictures but little more than that – they were meringue, fluffy and white, but empty inside.  I rarely write happy endings in my own stories – in fact, at least ne friend once phoned me to ask me somewhat irately if I even knew what a happy ending WAS, after reading one of my stories – but I write emotionally TRUE endings. And yes, they are probably happy for somebody. But that somebody may not be the POV character of the story I am writing, and in fact probably isn’t – because of the simple fact that a story involves a character with a problem and I cannot conceive of any story where a problem simply, well, you know, ENDS. Just like that. Somebody has to lose. And the story, if it’s worth its salt, has to have a particular quality for me – a quality of being in a continuum, a glimpse through a window, but there is a “Before” the story and an “After” the story even though neither may be mentioned in the story itself. The story exists in spite of itself, extends into its OWN past and its future – and the trouble with “happily ever after” is that it puts a wall in that future which has no doors in it and you cannot get past it and see beyond it and there’s got to be more to it than that except that you NEVER FIND OUT and even as a young reader I began to sense the frustration I would feel about that as an adult.

About that story contiuity – as it happens, I recently had a chance to handle an old old old book of fairytales which ended stories with a formula which I haven’t seen for a while but which I grew up with as a kid – it isn’t just “And they lived happily ever after”, it’s “And they had a great wedding feast, and if they haven’t finished celebrating yet, why, they’re at it still.”

For some reason that latter formulation sings for me – far more than the generic happily-ever-after. Why? If everything I’ve said so far holds water, it’s still “happily ever after” – it’s worse, in a way, because not only are the protagonists confined to a happy-happy future, they are confined to a particular aspect of it – the everlasting neverending wedding feast.

But wait – there’s a lurking phrase in there that unlocks a hidden door in that wall for me. “If they haven’t finished celebrating yet, why, they’re at it still” – well, yes, they may be celebrating, but *they may have finished*. And there’s a glimpse of something ELSE beyond the wedding feast – which was grand, which was glorious, which was full and overflowing with happiness and the happily-ever-afters – but there is an idea here that this is merely the wedding, and while that is indeed to be celebrated there is something that comes after the wedding. That something that’s called a marriage. The relationship of which a wedding isn’t the END of, but rather a beginning. And a story doesn’t end here, but only pauses – or at the very least it is an ending that is a beginning to another story altogether. And that satisfies my needs and my hungers – the road goes ON. It doesn’t stop dead at a sign that says “Heppily Ever After – Dead End – No Outlet”.

How do stories end? With a beginning. With an ability woken in the reader to see something bigger, wider, grander, happier, sadder, ongoing. A story is a seed; it may seem complete as and of itself but good stories will reward by sprouting into a strange and wondrous plant after they’ve been buried in a reader’s subconscious, and bear unexpected fruit somewhere down the line. Some stories may be cabbages, some may be peach trees or coconut palms, still others may grow slowly and with great dignity and almost too slowly to watch but they turn, in time, into a giant redwood tree and become something huge and mysterious and wonderful in the landscape of the reader’s mind. The writer of a story seed may not even know what the eventual plant will be – and indeed the same seed may grow into different things in different readers” minds, depending on what kind of fertile soil it encounters, and there are some seeds and some minds that are so incompatible that the seed never germinates at all but that isn’t something the writer can anticipate – it just happens.

But stories don’t just END. They keep growing.

So. How do YOUR stories end? The stories you write? The stories you like to read?

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There are 7 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Paul

    I don’t want happily ever after.

    What I do want in a story/novel I read is a universe where I can imagine the characters continuing to explore, learn and grow. A playground of the mind, to quote Larry Niven.

    “And it would be wrong to say that they lived happily ever after, for in truth no one ever lives happily ever after, and perhaps would not even want to. Suffice it to say that they lived well, and were equal to the challenges and difficulties that they faced.”

  2. 2. Phil

    My stories end with a bang, not a whimper! This usually involves turn-of-the-century Colt firearms, run-away stage coaches and sticks of dynamite that sweat clear, lethal nitroglycerin! Few are left standing when all is said and done, and those that survive are usually dazed, face blackened supporting cast members, who pull on their mustachios and aver to each other that it never pays to attract the narrator’s attention.

  3. 3. Adam Heine

    My version of “happily ever after” is to end the stories with hope, but always with the possibility that it may be hope unrealized. They’ve defeated the villain, but they still have to live in the world – it’s easier now, but still dangerous and who knows when another villain will raise his head?

    My short stories tend to end unhappily, though – more like the Twilight Zone.

    When you described “a pink land of smiling zombies”, I imagined a Night-of-the-Living-Dead-style story with a decidedly unhappy ending. Though I guess you’re right: it is a happy ending for the zombies.

  4. 4. cindy

    i wanted to write a story about
    unrequited love. (with a fantastic
    journey thrown in, etc.) so it’s
    not a happy ending.

    but i admit, i do like to read happy
    endings, not the sugary kind, but the
    kind where the characters suffered
    and worked hard for it–the kind that
    is deserved.

    i so like reading about two people
    finding and loving each other, it makes
    me wonder why i wrote about unrequited
    love. other than it’s mostly what i know
    from my younger years. it resonates.

    great post, alma.

  5. 5. Alma Alexander

    cindy – I hear you on the “deserved”. But in one sense I think of everything coming home to roost where it should as “closure”. Not a happy ending.

    And I do love me a good love story [ the “two people finding and loving each other”. I just don’t believe that life ENDS when they do, but rather that it begins again, this time with a cast of two rather than a singleton – and because both are human it’s bound to get… interesting… at least sometimes. A happy ending isn’t a white gown and confetti and wedding cake – it’s “Darling, you snore, but I love you anyway”.

  6. 6. Kelly McCullough

    Alma, thanks for this. You made a nice point to riff off of for my current post. I started to reply here about five times but couldn’t fit it down into a reasonable sized response and so ended up writing the front page post that now sits a bit up the slope from this one.


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Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.



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