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How To Write A Happy Ending That Doesn’t Fall Flat (A Checklist)

happy ending

“…And suddenly, everything works out and everyone lives happily ever after. The End.” You’ve undoubtedly experienced the unhappiness of a quickly resolved, artificial happy ending. When writing a book or story, don’t let your eagerness to please your audience backfire: The result will be disappointed fans and readers. If your story or book concludes with a traditional HEA (happily-ever-after), use this checklist to be sure that your work doesn’t fall flat.

A Checklist For Writing A Great Happy Ending

1. It’s positive, but not perfect.

The best happy endings also have a whiff of reality about them—and that’s what makes them work. It’s the imperfections that will make the ending of your story perfect. Example: A woman reunites with her long-lost daughter (happy!), but in the process, she has to let go of a rocky relationship with her current husband (challenging, but maybe for the best). Want more examples? Check out this list of classic books with happy endings.

2. Loose ends are tied up neatly.

Wrap up all the subplots and your main plot in the last third of your story as you near the climax of the main plot. Treat each subplot with evenhanded attention: If you devoted a lot of time explaining one subplot and slightly less to explaining another, your final pages should follow that pattern. Don’t leave readers hanging with unfinished storylines (unless your story is part of a series, of course!).

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3. No last-minute entanglements or distractions.

Readers do not appreciate it when conflicts occur at the eleventh hour. If a conflict is truly critical to the plot and essential to character development, it should be given plenty of textual real estate for thorough exploration. Be cautious about dropping in last-minute entanglements that require a rushed plot arc.

4. Hint at things to come.

Do you know what happens to your characters after the reader turns the last page? If so, write an ending that implies the story goes on long after the reading stops. Give readers a glimpse at a glowing future, and the story will be more likely to become immortal in readers’ minds.

5. No deus ex machina.

The deus ex machina was a classic storytelling trope of the ancients: When the hero is in dire straits with no possible escape, the gods swoop in and save him. New storytellers will sometimes inadvertently introduce a deus ex machina moment without quite realizing it. Examples: A character who’s never even mentioned earlier in the story suddenly pops in to shoot the bad guy and save the day—and conveniently, that character is explained as being vitally important to everything that has come before in the story. Or, the sleuth’s aha! moment happens only because he walks in on the killer attempting another murder.

6. Happiness happens in context.

If your whole story has been dark and gloomy, readers will feel cheated and duped if suddenly everything is instantly bright and sunny and everyone joins hands and sings “Kumbaya” at the end. And if your story is already sort of uplifting and positive, readers may be let down if the HEA emotional payoff isn’t big enough for them. Be sure that your happy ending doesn’t breach the contract with the audience that you set up early on in your story.

There’s A Difference Between The Right Ending And The Happy Ending

There are particular commercial genres whose readers have very particular expectations for certain kinds of happy endings, and it’s important to give them what they want: i.e., the amateur sleuth points out the killer, the heroine gets her guy, etc. But if you’re not working within the confines of those genres, you should focus less on a happy ending and more on writing an ending that feels right. If it turns out to be uplifting and life-affirming, great! By shooting for “right” instead of “happy,” you may wind up with a sophisticated, modern kind of happily-ever-after.

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: Do you believe that memorable stories tend to have happy endings, realistic endings, or tragic endings?


3 Responses to How To Write A Happy Ending That Doesn’t Fall Flat (A Checklist)

  1. So the ending is something to “die” for? The fun of alternate endings is lost when trying to make any one of them work satisfactorily.

    It’s a curious thing that some consider “sweet” to be somewhat on a par with “neat.”

    How much Hallmark Theater can a reading populace endure? Even the Hallmarks leave unanswered questions. Initially, they may seem important to you, but like the Harlequins, it becomes homogenized.

    Personally, I like to “leave them wondering” to some extent, even though there may not be a sequel planned.

  2. My mom always complained that with Harlequins “You read the first page and you know how it ends.” That’s genre romance for ya. That’s why TV’s so weak. You don’t believe it when they say the main character is going to die, because you didn’t hear anything about him breaking contract. How can a book be a page-turner if you KNOW certain things can’t happen. personally, I think authors should keep a set of dice around when they’re writing, so even THEY can’t say how a story’s ending.

  3. Realistic endings are more memorable. When it is all neatly tied up with a bow and rainbow stickers, it’s over and doesn’t stay with me.

    I usually don’t want a deeply depressing ending either. Appreciated Message in a Bottle but don’t want to see it again. (Haven’t read the book.)

    If there are some true-to-life loose ends and wonderings, if the ending is believable and solid, I’m happy. I’ll think more about the story as a whole as a result.

    I can also enjoy an ending that satisfies but isn’t quite complete, IF it ends a story which has enough seeds sown within it for me to conjecture possible follow-ups for myself.

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