Is a happily ever after ending necessary or is an optimistic ending just as powerful?
Did you watch Meghan and Harry’s wedding? I think secretly we all like to believe in fairy tale endings, but the promise of a strong and enduring love, which continues to grow long after the story ends, can be just as memorable.
There’s a great deal of comfort in characters who are, like most of us, hanging on as life whirls them on a wild ride. We can be empowered by the way characters rise to the challenge, change and grow as love blossoms. We know love can redeem, but life has taught us that true redemption may take time.
In Return to Roseglen the Dunmore sisters, Felicity and Georgina, have known both sorrow and joy as their marriages falter and life gets in the way. Felicity is optimistic by nature, but still hurting from a recent betrayal. Older and wiser, Georgina is jaded and disdainful of love. Neither Felicity nor Georgina expect life to deliver a happy ending; they wouldn’t believe it if it happened. But it is possible they will realise that love may be standing right beside them, resolute and strong, if only they’re prepared to trust again; but that’s going to take time.
A fairy tale ending is like a fast-food sugar hit. It tastes great while it lasts and leaves us on a high, but it’s fleeting. Whereas an optimistic ending is like a delicious five-course dinner with carefully chosen wine, silverware, crisp linen and a starry night. We savour each mouthful, every subtle taste, and the memory will linger, inspiring us, uplifting us and nourishing us in a way chocolate never can.
Most of my favourite books have happy endings. I derive enormous satisfaction from seeing characters I’ve grown to love getting what they want after struggling against great odds. The killer is brought to justice or the lovers end up happy together. There is nothing worse than diving into a book expecting a happy ending and not getting one.
But I have noticed that some of the stories that stay with me long after I’ve finished them do not have neat, happy endings. Would Gone with the Wind have been as memorable if Rhett and Scarlett had ended up together? If Jojo Moyes had done the safe thing in Me Before You and allowed Lou to change Will’s mind, would the ending have felt as honest and raw? When I finished the book, I was sad and bereft and angry at Moyes for making me feel that way. But the ending rang true to me and I loved it all the same.
Either way, what brings satisfaction to me as a reader is seeing the main character break away from her old life and become her best self – that can make a sad ending to a story feel as optimistic in a bittersweet way as an ending of unmixed joy.
In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett finally gets over the illusions that have been holding her back and realises Rhett is the man for her. It’s too late to get him back, but knowing Scarlett’s determination, perhaps one day she will. After all, tomorrow is another day. In Me Before You, Lou blossoms and is ultimately made stronger by her love for Will and her acceptance of his decision. We hoped that the two of them would end up together, but something inside us recognizes that this ending is right.
In this day and age when we are bombarded daily with worrying news and dire predictions about the future, I don't think any of us can quite trust the concept of happiness lasting for ‘ever after’. Optimism, on the other hand, is still very important. Optimism opens us up to new ideas and possibilities. Optimism can be inspiring for our readers.
In The Summer of Secrets, several stories are interwoven and the characters range in age from twelve to almost one hundred. There is, for example, a single woman with a loudly ticking biological clock, another older woman whose marriage is in jeopardy, and a widower who feels inadequate as a parent and keeps his pre-teen daughter at a distance. To give each of their stories the fairy tale 'happily ever after' ending would feel too neat, I'm sure, and would be hard to believe.
However, I do know that my readers trust me to bring my characters through dark patches in their lives and out the other side into at least a patch of sunlight. To not do so would be like writing a detective novel where the crime remains unresolved at the end. That said, there is nothing easy or ‘quick fix’ about providing a believable, satisfying conclusion to a romance. I have always found endings the hardest parts of my novels to write. I don't have hard and fast rules about the tone of my endings and each novel and set of characters calls for something slightly different – but always, optimism is the key.