There’s Nothing Wrong With Happily Ever After

Nor, for that matter, is there anything inherently wrong with “they all died tragically.” One of the bedrock problems that you run into in any discussion of fiction is the idea that there is some objective way of determining if a story is good.* I don’t believe that there is, in part because fiction isn’t one thing, nor does it have one purpose. I don’t know about anyone else, but for me the purposes of fiction vary depending on my moods, whether I’m writing or reading it, and where I’ve been at in my life when I encountered something.

That’s why I always bristle when someone says something like, fiction must be true, or fiction must be honest, or fiction must shock, or fiction must uplift. I can make a case for any of those as important values for certain types of fiction. I can also make a case for every one of them being a bad idea for other types of fiction. Today I want to make the case for happily ever after

I personally like to read stories that end happily ever after, though when I’m writing I usually saw off the ever after part. I will go so far as to say that sometimes in my life I’ve needed stories that end in happily ever after. I do not engage fiction primarily to reach for truth.** I am looking for myth.

In part that is because in my experience truth all to often seems to mean that someone wants to show you something really ugly. When I want ugly, I can and do find that without ever leaving the world we live in. I read a ton of non-fiction and the history, politics, and sociology more than supply my needs for being exposed to the nastier side of human nature. For that matter, I have seen a fair amount of ugly in an up close and personal sort of way.

Now, it’s important that we are aware of those things, and some will prefer to find and show them in fiction. I don’t begrudge them that. What irritates me is how often I see people insist that fiction that doesn’t aim for that target is bad. That somehow, happily ever after is a lie that should never be written. Or that is sets up false expectations for people. I suppose that it can, if you assume that modeling reality is what fiction is for.

If not, well one human being’s lie is another’s necessary myth. Sometimes you’re in a place in your life where you need look no further than tomorrow to see how ugly the world can be and then that lie of happily ever after can be the myth that keeps hope alive long enough for freedom or healing or happiness to become truth. I think this can be especially important for the abused or neglected child or young adult who has to wait for an arbitrary age line to give them freedom of choice in how they will live their lives, though it can also apply to a lot of adult situations. Sometimes in life, you’re in a dungeon.

Sometimes a myth is all that keeps you alive, a myth in the shape of a story or book. You can’t leave the dungeon. If you could, it wouldn’t be a dungeon. But stories are day passes that let you out for a time, myths that let you believe for a little while that there’s another kind of place, one where happily ever after really happens and that a moment of magic or insight can make the pain stop. When you’re in the dungeon you don’t need someone to tell you that those moments aren’t true, that pain doesn’t just go away, or that the magic moment is never going to happen. You know that.

Then, what you need is very different from what you know. What you need is that day pass, that myth that allows you to believe that somewhere the reality of the dungeon is the myth, and the idea that it can all be made better is the truth. It’s the myth that keeps you sane, the myth that allows you to keep breathing every day, to hang on a little bit longer.

Sometimes you need a little Happily Ever After.




*Or bad, though my experience with slush suggests that while there may be a great deal of dispute over certain types of bad, there is also a set of work that everyone but the writer will agree is bad.

**Truth is word I’m very wary of since it means substantially different things to different people. If I am talking about things that are not false, I much prefer fact since it tends to remove a good deal of the subjectivity from the conversation

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  1. 1. Laura

    I agree we do need happy endings. There are times I have started and enjoyed a good action/fantasy/series only to stop a couple books short of the end because I am so depressed I need an anti-depressant.

    The result is then I tend to avoid that authors work because I don’t trust them anymore, to provide highs, they just provide lows and the fast train into the various levels of hell.

    Unfortuneately, the only place I can find happy endings these days are romances. Which is too bad because I do like my fantasy and action adventure novels. But I have become very picky in my choosing of them.

  2. 2. Karen Wester Newton

    I love happy ending, but don’t insist on them. the one rule I can articulate about endings is I want them to satisfy me. Sometimes a story will have a happy ending that makes me feel cheated– as when a protagonist spends the entire book under a set of rules that say “if x happens then y MUST happen.” Then at the end, we find out y doesn’t really have to happen and everything is rosy, That’s cheating, in my book. There have to be clues that there’s a way around y, or it’s too unsatisfying. I would rather have the protagonist pay the price for what he/she does than shoplift a happy ending. But well done, with the right set-up, that kind of last-minute-hail-Mary-pass happy ending can be very satisfying.

  3. 3. Alma Alexander

    Karen: exactly. Exactly that.

    For my part, I want a “closure” ending – nothing annoys me more than something left dangling, leaving me to figure it out – dammit, that’s the way reality behaves already, let me at least have something coherent happen in my fiction…

    but Kelly – yes, I do hear you. Yes, we do need catharsis. No, I was not advocating complete sombre catastrophe at the end of every book. I just don’t want to see a cop out where the writer doesn’t WANT to figure out the logical consequences and leaves everything dangling at the happy ever after phase.

    Do you know what made “Lord of the RIngs” REAL for me? The fact that Tolkien didn’t take the easy way out and leave everyone celebrating the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen, oh look, happily ever after.

    LIFE CARRIES ON. Bad things happen after happy endings. The scouring of the Shire made perfect dramatic SENSE to me. I had loved LOTR – but it’s right there, when the hard choices were made for the ending, that I began to respect it.

    Sadness is as much a part of life as joy. Shadow, as much as light. They both need to be acknowledged.

  4. 4. Kelly McCullough

    Laura, there are a fair number of happily ever after ending in science fiction and fantasy, the trick is to find the right books. Off the top of my head I’d highly recommend Barry Hughart, Pat Wrede, and most of Robin McKinley on that front.

    Karen, absolutely, any ending happy or sad has to come organically from the story.

    Alma, I agree that they both need to be acknowledged, I just don’t think that it has to happen in every book. I love Hamlet’s and they all die ending. I also love Midsummer’s happily ever after. I don’t think either one would be improved by splitting the difference.

    When I’m writing I tend to leave a book on happily with the ever after, sawed off. I want my readers to have a sense going forward from the end of the story that the characters continue on into a real world. I generally also want my readers to be left with the sense that the protagonist(s) are in a safe happy place for the moment. Not forever, but for long enough that the reader feels some sense of closure, that they can put down the book or series and not worry about anything awful happening to characters because of something left looming.

  5. 5. Kelly McCullough

    Alma, I forgot to say. I don’t take issue with your earlier post at all, it was quite clear that you were talking about the type of ending that works best for you and interested in hearing about what works well for others. I’m fine with that and it provided me with a good take off point.

    Where I get grumpy is the place where people start talking about fiction in terms of absolutes. I absolutely did not see you doing that but it’s something I’ve gotten an awful lot over the years, particularly from people arguing that fiction must be about horrible truths, and it drives me right up the wall. I don’t really want to go into the details, but I’ve been in the dark places a few times in my life and in those times happily ever after stories have been a life and sanity saver.

  6. 6. cindy

    or that fiction can’t simply “entertain”.
    that that’s a bad thing.

    i agree that the ending has to make
    sense to me. in the world of YA, there
    was a lot of backlash with meyer’s final
    book, because some readers felt she
    broke her own rules to give her characters
    a happy ending. they felt cheated by it.

    the beauty of story is that there are ALL
    kinds out there across the spectrum. and
    we can indulge in reading what may suit
    our mood. i had that choice today. i couldn’t
    decide between chabon or rothfuss. i started
    the latter.

    thanks for the thought provoking post, kelly.

  7. 7. Lynne Thomas

    *wild applause*

    I’m a firm believer that there is room in the world for Happily Ever After. Just because I enjoy complex fiction with morally grey characters that have different motivations and endings that provide appropriate closure without giving them “happiness” does NOT mean that I want to enjoy that type of fiction all the time.

    There is a reason that HEA romance sells so well. Escapism is good for the soul on occasion.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    I’m a fan of happily ever after myself. One of my biggest problems with a lot of modernism is that modernism often seeks to deny that outcome. Pshaw, I say. People still manage to be happy more often than not, even if they are modern.

  9. 9. Kelly McCullough

    Cindy, Lynne, Sam, thanks for stopping in and commenting. Much appreciated.

    BTW, my wife and I own two cars with the personalized plates “TWU WUV” and “EVR AFTR” which probably tells you all a little bit about how I feel about the occasional reality of Happily Ever After.


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Author Information

Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough is a fantasy and science fiction author. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series—Penguin/ACE. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Writers of the Future and Weird Tales. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star—part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited—funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visit site.



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