Imagination and Writing: The “Hopeful Ending” vs. the “Happy Ending”

Written for my ENG4435 Writing Theory and Ethics class at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, with Professor Amy McCann, Fall 2013.


All writers know that a good story is not complete without some element of sadness. That is, a story needs to have something tragic happen in order for a story to actually happen. Let’s say a family goes on a picnic and nothing happens but the picnic. That’s no story at all, unless of course the author chooses to have a tree fall on the daughter’s head or have a bee sting the little boy’s ankle. Then we have a story.

Although I do agree that all stories need some element of sadness in order to titillate the readers’ attention, I have to put a stop to the sadness when it spoils the ending. The notion of “the happy ending” is one nauseatingly associated with Disney movies and Hallmark films that supposedly clean up the world and tell the readers, “All will be well,” when really, these critics say, all is not well, because all does not end happily in the real world.

It’s as if critics are pitting the worlds of fantasy and fiction against the worlds of reality. It seems that all we know is a world where divorce rates are climbing, the economy is waning, and anyone who says, “If you just believe, things will get better,” is living in a fairytale. Apparently no girl gets her Prince Charming (the way she wants). No man gets his millions of dollars (unless he wins the lottery), and no one suddenly turns into a princess overnight like Mia Thermopolis or Cinderella, because according to these critics, any writer who paints this kind of world is essentially lying to his or her readers.

While I commend these critics for pointing out the flaws in poorly-written stories, I must take their definition of “happy ending” and turn it into “hopeful ending.” By this, I mean that while the happy ending promises the character exactly what it wants, the hopeful ending may or may not carry out this promise, but it delivers hope when hope seems lost. Even through dark moments and tragic scenes, it invites readers to glean meaning from the story and inspires them to live as the characters live, if such may be the case.

When a reader sees hope in a story, that hope sends thrills through the reader’s spine, and the reader gleans satisfaction that there is something to live for in this world. Author Frederick Buechner says that hope is essential to any story, because hope gives us joy that propels us through even the darkest moments of our lives. At the apex of winter, we delight in the crystals of snow after months of autumn grayness, or when we read of chivalrous knights battling dragons and rescuing fair damsels, we thrill in the climax of war and the relief of victory. It’s this kind of hope, says Buechner, that fuels our vitality. And frankly, it’s what makes life worth living.

It is not enough to just end a story without giving the character his or her desires, and surely it is wrong to dash the character’s dreams without satisfying him or her with the conclusion of hope, as shown in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” Here, Buechner retells the story of a tin soldier who trudges through danger to reach his beloved paper doll, yet though he is thrown into the fire, he remains steadfastly strong to her as his leftover metal melts and forms into the shape of a heart. Buechner shares this story because though it is one of the “darkest” and grimmest of Andersen’s fairytales, it is the hope that the tin soldier strengthens for his paper doll that shines through darkness and conquers even the strongest of flames.

In our daily lives, it is this hope which we crave, and it is this hope that compels us to grab fairytales from the bookshelves in droves, because in our hearts, we want that satisfying ending in our own lives. Even if we don’t have our Prince Charming or our lottery fortune, we can at least have satisfaction that our lives are worth living. Buechner says that in the real world, joy sustains us, and it is not “sweetness and light” or “Disney Land where everything is kept spotless…On the contrary, the world where this Joy happens is as full of darkness as our own world, and that is why when it happens it is as poignant as grief and can bring tears to our eyes.”

But he continues:

Yet the tears that come to our eyes at the joy of the fairy tale are nevertheless essentially joyous tears because what we have caught a glimpse of, however fleeting, is Joy itself, the triumph if not of goodness, at least of hope. And I do not think it is entirely fanciful to say that it is not only in fairy tales that we have glimpsed it.

When our hearts are like those of little children, we are titillated by the excitement and sensuality of it all, and as such, there is this longing for the hopeful that excites our hearts. We resonate with endings that give us hope and applaud them when they speak to our hearts. In the John Newberry novel The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite De Angeli, we see a crippled medieval boy named Robin, who never heals and never runs. While a happy ending would heal his legs, De Angeli places Robin in the friar’s abbey all day, where he learns to whittle wood and say his prayers, yet in the climax when the city’s castle is under siege, Robin’s handicap actually saves the city when Robin disguises himself as a shepherd’s boy and hobbles past the guards on his crutches, unsuspected and undetected as he alerts his king’s allies who come and wipe out the enemy. In the end, Robin rests in the fact that despite his cripple, he finds worth in himself now that he actually benefited his city—and he did it all on a pair of crutches!

This ending is not sentimental or Disney-like, because while a Disney ending would paint an unrealistically positive ending, Robin’s ending parallels what a young reader ought to know: that through the darkness, through the pain, a boy stands up with courage to face his enemies, and there is beauty in this because it gives readers hope that their endings can also end well, when they see Robin reunited with his parents who now hold pride in their son and his talent.

When I first started my creative writing courses in college, I found an unpleasant genre that spurned my theory to defend the hopeful ending. All the contemporary fiction I read had no joy and no hopeful or happy ending—only real life with sob stories and drama. A few examples feature real-life adults enduring real-life difficulties and their estrangement from their desires. Lorrie Moore’s “You’re Ugly, Too” features a single, lonely woman who yearns for a man, yet at a friend’s party, she finds only couples making out and shoving her out. “The Mail Lady,” by David Gates, ends with an elderly stroke patient who suffocates in his car. Even Stuart Dybek’s “Pet Milk” separates a young couple after the man slides up the girl’s skirt in public, and the man’s shame at seeing insensitive onlookers gawk at them gradually pulls him away from her.

These endings give no hope to the reader and no hope whatsoever for the characters. And yet here’s the part I still need to reconcile myself with: Sometimes, some readers actually resonate with these endings. Sometimes readers prefer these endings, because there they find some aspect that they’ve dealt with, or that someone they know has dealt with.

I have never dealt with any of this, and that’s why I find it repugnant to read through breakups and divorce, or friends’ deaths or car accidents. Yet I shouldn’t automatically dismiss these stories for being dismal—or ones that don’t end hopefully—because sometimes, these readers find no hope in their lives, or at least, they don’t find the hope that I find in my stories.

One of my creative writing professors mentioned Walter Wangerin, Jr., who wrote about a friend changing the diapers of his senile mother. It was here that Wangerin recognized that his friend was “giving back glory unto God…where glory wasn’t,” even through the grimy, dirty, and repulsive scene. Yet Wangerin said that writing itself can be a service to readers, and professor quoted Flannery O’Connor in saying that a writer should be like a servant who allows himself or herself to stoop into the messes and scoop out something that will spark a tinge of life in whoever finds it. Sometimes whoever finds it may be a person I know, or a person who might just find something of worth in my stories that will heal or save them in their distress, and it’s there that I need to recognize that not every happy or hopeful ending will automatically heal a person.

But even with these writing lessons, I still wasn’t satisfied with the dismal endings. So I found at least one story that had both a hopeful and a happy ending. It was “Raymond’s Run,” by Toni Cade Bambara, which shows a middle-school girl who finds new appreciation for her annoying little brother when he cheers at her winning the school race. I thought, Yes! Finally a happy ending! and then remembered the contemporary short stories and how this story seemed like another Disney clip compared to them.

Yet I think I’m over-analyzing that aspect. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether a story has a Disney ending or not. But what matters is if a story resonates with its readers, and that story can have a hopeful, happy, or even dismal ending—whatever most befits the author and reader.

But one might ask: If a story is happy, does the happiness make the story less credible to readers who endure the grimy, nasty bits of life?

And I say yes, it does. Go back to “Raymond’s Run.” What makes it believable is that its story can happen to anyone. Even though it happens to a middle-schooled girl, anyone of this age can respond to this story and either think, “What a nice ending,” or just glean a sense of peace that, yes, there is justice in this ending. Two siblings are reunited from their previous pettiness. That is a story with both a happy and a hopeful ending, and it can happen to any reader who allows that ending to be their own.

Whatever the case, every story ought to have justice in it. A hopeful ending can still be happy, but even in the instances when the characters lose their desires or fall short of their goals, the authors must give hope amidst these trials, because even there, the characters can still glean hope from tragedy, and readers can step back and see the good in this world. No matter how dark the world may be, there is still light.


2 thoughts on “Imagination and Writing: The “Hopeful Ending” vs. the “Happy Ending”

  1. I couldn’t stand most of the contemporary lit I had to read for classes. And that whole trend of “unhappy endings are more mature” is a huge problem in literature

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