“I love a happy ending.”

You hear that a lot. People go to the movies or read books or watch TV shows or plays and they tell you that the happy ending is the best part. Some people won’t even check something out–movie, play, book, whatever–unless they know there’s a happy ending in the story, as if their whole enjoyment of this creative work hinges upon how it ends and nothing else.

But what is a happy ending? What is the definition of a happy ending? If you think about it, it’s not as easy a question to answer as it seems. It can actually vary between genres. In romance, a happy ending is that after many trials and tribulations the hero and heroine finally end up together, madly in love, and the villain, if there is one, either realizes the errors of their ways and repents for it or they suffer for the misery they’ve caused. In fantasy, usually the quest the characters set out upon is accomplished, though sometimes that has its own consequences (the hero dies or, like Frodo in LOTR, has been too affected by the events of the story to truly be happy). And in horror, happy endings aren’t easily achieved. If you’re lucky, you’ll survive and have most of your psyche intact. Anything else is up in the air.

And in some cases, happy endings don’t come at all. Take about a third of Shakespeare’s plays, or movies like Oculus, or the movie Godfather (everyone gets brought low in that film). How about stories where the enemy is defeated but someone dies tragically (Moulin Rouge). Or maybe, as in one of my favorite indie horror film I Am A Ghost, you are left with more questions than answers.

I think happy endings are actually pretty subjective and hard to define. Does everyone but the bad guy win? Do the lovers end up together? Does nobody come away with traumatic experiences? I think it’s easier to look for a satisfactory ending than a happy ending. A satisfactory ending is a conclusion that resonates with you, that you feel is the natural conclusion of this long story you’ve been reading/watching and brings out an emotional response in you that doesn’t involve disappointment. It makes you say, “I like how this ends.” And it’s much less likely to make you burst out crying because you’re so happy that all has turned out well.

How do you feel about happy endings or satisfactory endings?

What’s your definition of either?

  1. blondeusk says:

    Natural conclusion definitely. Sometimes happy endings annoy me though.

  2. Two of the best endings I ever saw were in the movies The Good Marriage and Misery (both books written by Stephen King). They weren’t warm and fuzzy, but they definitely left you feeling complete.

    ****warning: spoilers ahead******

    I don’t know if you saw these movies, but there was a death toward the end of both movies. These deaths were both justified and you were glad to see the bad guys get what was coming to them because of the horrible stuff they did. But there was a twist on the surviving party. In Misery, the author isn’t too thrilled to hear “I’m your number one fan” (or something to that effect) and in The Good Marriage, it was rewarding to hear the retired detective tell the woman, “You did the right thing.” Those are memorable endings.

    *****end spoilers******

    I don’t care much for endings that leave you with more questions. I like the writer of the movie to let me know the ending they had envisioned for the story instead of leaving it up to me. This is why I hated the movie (and book) The Giver by Lois Lowry. I loved the entire movie and book up to that part because the ending was too vague.

    Also, I noticed in horror, it’s very hard to get a happy ending. That’s kind of a bummer, though realistically, it’d be hard to be completely happy after going through one of those experiences. lol

    • I’ve seen one of those movies, but I figured for the latter someone was going to end up dead. And I can understand your feelings about vague or open-possibility endings. They can be aggravating, especially for those who like the satisfaction of a full ending where the evil is defeated and the good guys win. But every now and then they’re rather refreshing.
      By the way Ruth, I’ve got a question for you: in romance the happy ending is usually the characters end up together and all is well. Does that ever change in any way? Like is it still considered romance if, like in Romeo and Juliet, they can only be united in death? Or what if one dies and the other is left with a child or all alone but the villain is still defeated? Does that count as romance? As you’re more the expert in this than I am, what’s your say?

      • It never changes. Romance readers as a whole need the couple to end up together, alive and well, in order to be happy with the ending. If you have a scenario like you mentioned, with the hero or heroine dying, then we are looking at a love story. A love story allows for a a death or something tragic that keeps the couple apart. Gone With The Wind is mistakingly called a romance, but since Rhett leaves Scarlet at the end, it’s not a romance. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy with a love story. People mistake these for romances if they aren’t familiar with the romance genre and what the romance readers want. The readers want the warm and fuzzy happy ending where the couple ends up together (alive and well).

        If you are thinking of a story that ends on a sad note, such as the villain and hero dying but the heroine being pregnant, I would say you’re better off labeling it as a different genre.

      • You know, I have the strangest feeling we’ve discussed this somewhere else.

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