Thursday, April 12, 2012

Does A Great Book Always Need A Happy Ending?

Seven Point Eight: The First ChronicleOur guest post today is by Marie Harbon author of Seven Point Eight as she talks about people want to see in movies and books at the conclusion of the story.
By Marie Harbon: We all know the proverbial scenario; girl falls in love with boy, cowboy rides off into the sunset and the bad guy is defeated, followed by much rejoicing in the land. But, is a happy ending an essential ingredient for a great book or movie?

Lindsay Doran, film producer and missionary for mood-elevating movies got to the heart of that question in a recently published article. Many of her conclusions relate to the world of books too. While she didn’t want to create a rigid formula for a great movie, she wanted to challenge the Hollywood notion that a movie is only art if it ends badly and that you’ll only win an award if you write about misery.

One of her chief findings was that what audiences care about most are relationships and the positive resolution of them, so not so much the character winning, but sharing that accomplishment with a significant other. An example of this would be ‘The King’s Speech’, in which he conquers his stammer then shares the victory with his wife, daughters and the cheering crowds.

There is value in a story with a feel good factor; it’s a quick fix, a literary or visual form of Prozac. Indeed, laughter trumps any drug but personally, I think the temporary lift in mood is soon forgotten. For a story with a lasting impression, there are other elements involved. Remember, in ‘Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince’, Dumbledore dies. In ‘Titanic’, 1500 passengers go down with the ship and then Jack doesn’t make it either. As author Nike Marshall astutely puts it, ‘happy endings can be cliché and diminish the impact of the story. Less than happy is more believable’. Appropriate is a key word, concluding a story with a satisfactory, even less than ideal event or series of events. As author Emerald Barnes surmises, ‘Some stories don’t have the option of having a happy ending’.
As readers, we can engage with the lives of the characters and the conflicts, challenges and successes they encounter. We relate to other people to learn how they deal with these difficulties, as if it’s a kind of virtual reality simulation. This is one of the reasons soaps are so popular. The way a book ends is also a reflection on how we’d either like a situation to conclude, or a healthy scepticism in knowing ‘that’s life, what will be will be’.

‘Life is made up of pleasurable and horrific experiences and there’s nothing wrong with a book or movie telling a story that shines a light on our failures’. Denise DeSio, author of ‘Roses’s Will
As human beings, we like closure, to be able to shut the door on something, to file it away as a success or failure. This may be one of the reasons why cliff hanger endings in serials can be risky in the book world, because we don’t like situations in our own life to be unresolved. Therefore, it’s important to strike a balance between wrapping up one phase while creating a lead to where the story will take the reader next. Season finales in TV series craft this well.

In the writing world, it’s always stated ‘show, don’t tell’ and this can tailor a beautiful conclusion where the reader is given the satisfaction of finality, yet their imagination is given the licence to create what happens next. As science fiction author, Glenn Scrimshaw puts it, ‘the legend of King Arthur works so well at that; a bitter sweet ending but the promise of Arthur’s return when needed.’
What everything is leading to is, in fact, the emotional involvement of the reader in the final moments of a story. Look back at the sadness of the death of Dumbledore, a character that readers were very attached to, or the tragedy of the huge loss of life in ‘Titanic’. As author Carlyle Labuschagne states, ‘I like drama and feeling like my heart is about to explode with sorrow’.

What we really want as readers, therefore, is a powerful climax after the build-up as opposed to a puft! The engagement of powerful emotions can leave a far greater impact on a reader than a chocolate box ending. There is something so compelling about tales of misery, because we all experience loss, even abuse in our lives or those close to us. Through a story, we can release that sadness in a positive way and observe how characters deal with their challenges. I believe there’s another factor at work too, it’s a quality called resilience. A character who survives loss, abuse or tragedy may be far more inspiring than the traditional, commercial hero because it sends a powerful signal that infuses us to endure – ‘Whatever life throws at me, I’m still here. Bring it on!’
Follow her on Twitter: @marieharbon

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