If you are a romance reader and/or writer, you’re well acquainted with the “formula” for a romance novel – boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and lives happily ever after. The very formula that makes these stories so popular also constitutes its largest points of criticism. How can any book that follows such a close formula be any good?
I think we all know that isn’t true. Most of write and read wonderful books with that prerequisite ending attached. In fact, the “happy ending” is a part of why I love romance novels to begin with. The fact that I know the couple is going to end up together, no matter the odds they face, is comforting. It allows me to trust the beloved genre enough to know I’ll get what I want — the feelings, the warmth, the belief that love can and does conquer all. There are hundreds of thousands of romantic books that prove it.
But there are other types of novels, too, that exist with happy endings. When you read a thriller mystery where the hero has to save the day or New York will explode, you know in the end, he’s going to save the day. When you read a suspense novel or mystery novel, you know the protagonist is going to overcome the obstacles and reveal the killer, reveal the story, reveal the truth. You know.
It’s satisfying. It’s complete. How many JD Robb books would you read if Eve Dallas never found the bad guy? How many disaster movies would you watch if you knew, in the end, everyone was going to die and the disaster would ruin the world?
A “happy ending” gets a bad rap, in my opinion, but that’s because it’s most often ascribed to romance novels, chick flicks and romantic pairings. But happy endings are more. Some say that’s the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction. And some say it’s the difference between “commercial” movies and all the rest.
Wikipedia says: Since the ending is the point at which a narrative ends, a “happy ending” is constructed in a way so as to imply that, after the conclusion of the narrative, the lives of all the “good” characters will be filled with happiness and that any unpleasantness they encounter will be negligible.
So is this how you think of the happy endings in books or movies you watch? Do you believe that all the difficulty is behind the characters and nothing bad will ever happen to them again? Is that part of what makes a happy ending for you?
Many fairy tales started in very different forms from the happily-ever-after versions we know today. In the early version of Snow White, the queen is punished for her crimes — to the death. She’s forced to wear red-hot shoes and dance until she falls over dead. Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale of The Little Mermaid has the prince marrying another girl and Ariel throwing herself into the sea, where she disappears into the foam and becomes a permanent part of the ocean.
Psychologists have long debated what fairy tales mean. Bruno Bettelheim, author and child psychiatrist, believed that fairy tales help children learn to navigate reality and survive in a world that is controlled by adults. Since often times the protagonists in fairy tales are often children, the conflicts in family and the morals taught could provide examples of how to cope in the world. “Fairy tales are loved by the child…because—despite all the angry, anxious thoughts in his mind to which the fairy tale gives body and specific context—these stories always result in a happy outcome, which the child cannot imagine on his own.” Bettelheim faced many criticisms against him, but there is still a connection in his words about fairy tales to books today that provide an emotional experience with a happy outcome.
And there are plenty of stories without a happy ending…Romeo and Juliet always comes to mind first. If Shakespeare lived in modern times, would that story become great? Would it ever see the light of day if sent to a publisher — a story where both the hero and heroine kill themselves? Hard to imagine.
Is the popularity of happy endings about a human’s need for closure? A good book will take you on an emotional journey — tears, laughter, anger, you will feel along with the characters. At the end of that journey, is there a need to gain an emotional conclusion to that that leaves no room for ambiguity? It’s also no surprise that in tougher times, books with happy endings sell more. It’s a human need for comfort, for a way to escape into something that they know is under control.
So what about you? Do you migrate toward books and movies with a likely outcome of success of happiness? I know I do.