Writing Info

Happy Endings Sell Books…(and movies)

I think everyone likes a story that wraps up with a proverbial hand slap on the table.  When you’re reading a book and come to the end, you know when you’ve been satisfied or not.  A good ending closes all loops (unless there’s a sequel book coming later) and leaves the reader feeling as though the main character learned something or accomplished his/her goal.  You can tell when the story completed its circle.  You’d think this would be common sense for most writers, but we’ve all read books that leave us feeling empty and wanting more.

An example of this emptiness is in a movie I saw recently, “Cabin in the Woods”.  It’s the story of five teenagers who drive into the woods on a seemingly relaxing vacation.  The movie turns dark quickly with the teenagers being stalked by zombies and a strange government overseer cataloging their demise.  (SPOILER ALERT)  The movie is actually not bad…interesting premise…creative…etc.  However, right at the end, I expected the main character would pull off something big to save the world and “win out”.  No such luck.  Dark forces seemed to win in the end and the main character just kind of tipped her head and said, “oh well”.  Everything in the movie was going well until the end.  The movie got ok reviews, not great, but not earth shatteringly bad.  I think it would have done much better had the ending given the viewer some kind of hope or happy ending.  When we watch a main character develop over two hours, we want to see some satisfying result.  We want some vindication for them or at least some lesson to be learned.  We don’t want to have wasted our time.

The same is true for books.  One author I met (not naming names) wondered why his book hadn’t sold more copies.  His editor and agent expected the book would be a bestseller.  And I wondered myself why the book hadn’t made it bigger after I read the enticing synopsis.  But…then I read the book.  I didn’t necessarily need a happy ending, although I do like those kind of finishes best.  But I wanted some kind of resolution I could sink my teeth into.  I wanted all my questions answered.  What I got was six hours of invested time into the book’s main character and then disappointment when the hero failed to make a difference and subsequently vanished into the ether.  I wanted him to overthrow the evil forces in some creative move, not have the book’s ending wrapped up in an uneventful few pages the left the main character as a martyr without any hope.  And some major questions were left unanswered too.  So while the premise of the novel was very exciting, the ending made me feel…blah.  Thus, I wasn’t going to promote the book via word of mouth.  I think this is what happened with sales.  Hey, the book did alright…even won a few small awards.  But it didn’t excite people the way it could have.

So what I’m saying is that us writers need to provide people some substance at the end of a novel to justify why they’ve sat through hours with our book or script.  There needs to be a hand-slap ending that leaves our readers satisfied.

I’ve just given two bad examples.  Here are some examples of good endings:

-Book:  Roald Dahl’s Witches…the witches get it in the end, all due to the creative, explosive energy of the main character

-Movie:  Love Actually…all the various threads are wrapped up, tied together so viewers can finally see how everyone interconnects.  Not all the various ending threads were happy (Emma Thompson was left together with her cheating husband and Laura Linney didn’t get the guy), but they were all resolved so that the “circle” closed.

1 Comment on Happy Endings Sell Books…(and movies)

  • Nur says:
    November 11, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    The only thing that comes to mind is Pan’s Labyrinth, which has an ending that is very happy or very sad denipdeng on how you look at it. Silence of the Lambs also has a mixed ending. Parts of it are good and parts are bad, and it doesn’t feel like it’s over. Have fun.

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