You know what comes next, right? They lived…happily ever after.
Growing up as a kid in the late 50s and 60s, I got used to stories ending this way. Certainly, every Disney movie did. All the other family-oriented movies did also (and there were plenty of those in the theaters). Most of the love stories ended happily, too.
It’s one of the reasons people read books, watched TV and went to the movies. To be encouraged and entertained, occasionally inspired. Back then, just like now, life was hard. Even though some of the best stories depicted hard times, we could always count on the storyteller leading us through to a happy ending. Before that last page turned or the credits rolled on the movie screen the guy would get the girl, the runner would win the race, the crime got solved, the bad guy is killed or captured, and the world gets saved.
This conveyed a basic message: There is always hope for a better tomorrow.
By the end of the 60s, certainly throughout the 70s, things began to change. Under the banner of realism―and, perhaps yielding to the new air of cynicism brought on by the Vietnam War, Watergate and a series of tragic assassinations―it wasn’t uncommon to find books and movies ending sadly. If not sadly, then vaguely. As if the writer’s message was: “Now, go home and think about that.”
In recent years, particularly in secular storytelling, I’m starting to see a resurgence of this same air of cynicism and commitment to “gritty realism” that we saw back then. The plots are often very dark, the hero or heroine are more than a little flawed; they’re almost as bad as the villain. The endings often seem as dark as the rest of the story.
In my writing, I try to combat this trend when I can, especially in the way I end my books.
I make no apologies. I believe in happy endings.
I said “happy” endings, not sappy (a distinction I heard my friend, Allen Arnold, make at a conference a couple of years ago). Maybe a better word than happy is satisfied. I don’t believe all our stories should end with unicorns and rainbows. But as I said, I think a lot of what’s out there today is way TOO dark, and the endings often leave us stuck feeling frustrated and unsatisfied.
In part, I understand why. Life is hard and, for many people, it’s been hard for a long time. For those who don’t know the Lord, the outlook is often bleak, even hopeless. I think our books need to reflect some of that to remain relevant and connect well with readers. After all, conflict is the essence of good fiction.
But this is also where I think believers can make a real difference. We have a real message of Hope to offer, not a fictional one. I believe one of the goals of Christian fiction should be to lead people from that dark place to a place of hope. God’s ways are all about redemption; through Christ He offers us a “narrow way that leads to life.” We have to include the “narrow” part, but we should also conclude showing how it “leads to life.”
I’m a firm believer in writing what I call “Romans 8:28 Endings.” “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”
I think that’s part of my calling as a Christian fiction writer, to reveal at least some of God’s ways through stories that accurately reflect those ways. And His ways, or plans for us are filled with hope and, I think, even a measure of happiness.
That happiness doesn’t come overnight. But in time, it does come. I’m simply suggesting we keep writing our story until we reach that part, the part where hope is born, where faith in God and His goodness is seen to be a credible alternative to the bleak, despairing outlook offered by writers who have no such hope.
Take my latest novel, What Follows After, for example. The same exact story written just the way I wrote it would have had a dramatically different feel if I’d ended it 2 chapters earlier. Or if I hadn’t included an epilogue-style last chapter that brought us back to the present. But I kept writing because one of my deliberate goals is to end my stories a certain way.
You know what I want my readers to experience when they finish one of my novels? I’m hoping for a contented sigh, perhaps the need to reach for the tissue box. Maybe for them to experience a fresh appreciation for life, love, or their families and friends.
Apparently, I’m not alone in this desire for satisfying endings. Last year, I did a survey of fiction readers laying out the 7 components of every novel, asking them to tell me the 3 things in a book that matter most to them. One of the Top 3 responses was…A Satisfying Ending.
How about you? In the books you read and movies you watch, how big a deal are Endings for you? For writers, how much time do you put into crafting your ending vs the time you put in writing Chapter One?