The Way of the Word

16. January 2010

Happily Ever After

Filed under: workblog,writing — jensaltmann @ 11:18
Tags: , , , ,

I think that a major reason why people enjoy fiction is that they offer one thing that real life doesn’t provide: happy endings.

Think about it. Think about that romance you last read, or about that romantic comedy you saw recently. It was all about boy getting girl (or girl getting boy), and it ended with the two getting together after having overcome all the obstacles the writer put in their way. Fade out, they live happily ever after.

But we know better, don’t we?

Those of us who have been in a real-life relationship (and that should be 100% of us adults here) know that when boy and girl (or boy and boy or girl and girl) have finally gotten together, that’s not when everyone lives happily ever after. That’s when the problems begin. The arrangements, the arguments and fights, the compromises, the hassles… If everything were happily ever after in the real world, there wouldn’t be divorces.

The same goes for action movies. The heroes stop and usually kill the bad guy(s). Happy ending, end of story. In the real world, there would be the fallout of the entire affair. The heroes would have to deal with lawsuits from all the collateral damage they caused. They’d have to deal with lawyers, with court dates, with insurance companies, they might even end up in jail or (in places where the death penalty is used) might get sentenced to death for saving the day.

That’s a part of why people like fiction, I think. It’s simpler than real life. The problems are more clearly defined, and they are usually solvable. Even in literary fiction, the characters have clearly defined problems and, in one way or another, resolve them by the end of the story.

Compare this: a couple moves into a new apartment. The landlord turns out to be an asshole who makes their life difficult for no other reason but because he can. Their neighbors are nightmares who make constant noise, don’t clean up the messes they cause, and are so noisy during sex that our couple can’t get a decent night’s sleep. In the end, the couple, at the end of their rope, moves out and finds a new apartment. If they’re lucky, they find a better place. But don’t bet on it, because their time in that apartment has damaged their relationship, and when they move they’re still taking all their emotional baggage with them.

Now, the alternative: a couple moves into a new apartment. They face some problems, and it turns out that some years ago their landlord sold his soul to the devil. Because of that deal, the apartment is cursed. The couple find this out, perhaps with the help of a friendly neighborhood ghost hunter who has been on the landlord’s trail for quite some time. Together, they break the curse, the devil comes to claim the landlord’s soul, and the couple move to another apartment. Which can not possibly be any worse. And their relationship is strengthened by their shared ordeal.

Which story do you like better? I sincerely hope you’ll say the second one, because it’s an idea I had this morning and I might want to write that novel.



  1. I like the second one not because you want me to, but because it’s a much more interesting idea. It hits all the right beats and there’s a suitable amount of danger that comes from an easily recognizable source.

    You should write that one.

    Comment by Jason Arnett — 16. January 2010 @ 12:20

  2. What you say underlines what I’ve been saying in this blog post, about how the type of stories that provide the chance to a happy ending are the more interesting ones than the slice-of-life stuff.

    Comment by jensaltmann — 17. January 2010 @ 12:25

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