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On Happy Endings and Why the Reader Matters More than the Writer

young girl reading a bookSeveral years ago at a writing conference I was inspired by Susanna Kearsley’s excellent talk, in which she mentioned that writers should write what they read (i.e. the same genre). It might seem self-evident, but writers don’t always do this. (Rumours exist about The-Writer-Who-Doesn’t-Read, but I hope this creature is purely mythical.) I knew I liked history and romance and vicars (there can never be too many vicars!), but I’d forgotten how much I also enjoyed reading books with elements of mystery and suspense. Kearsley’s talk inspired me to write the novel I most wanted to read, which became Bluebeard’s Mistress.
This spring I re-read a novel I wrote seven years ago. I had shelved the novel shortly after writing it, mainly because it had been difficult to write and I knew I needed distance from it. Over the years I nearly forgot about it as I became excited about new writing projects, and when I did think about it I assumed it was probably just not a good novel. I’d allowed the struggle of writing it to colour the finished product.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve done this. When I finished writing my dissertation, I firmly believed that Chapter 2 was horrible and Chapter 6 was good, based mainly on the fact that the former was difficult to write and the latter easy. (I’m sure the trauma of grad school also skewed my perspective.) After some months passed and I went back to the dissertation, I was stunned to see that both chapters were fine. There was no evidence of the textual murder I felt I’d committed in Chapter 2—all traces of blood were gone. And sadly, Chapter 6 was not as wonderful as I expected.
But I digress. Going back to the novel I thought was so bad all those years ago, I was stunned to realize it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t even just okay. It was good.
Yes, it needed some work, but again, there was no evidence of struggle—no visible blood, sweat, or tears. Not even choppy sentences or an accidental “DAMN YOU! I HATE YOU, YOU &($^#! NOVEL!” (when I’m really frustrated I do make notes of this kind in drafts of my novels. I lie awake at night worrying that I won’t remember to remove these notes before sending the novel to my agent, or even worse, that somehow a note like this will end up in the published version.)
Another interesting revelation about the better-than-I-expected novel was that I was unhappy with its ending. I remembered struggling with the ending seven years earlier. I wrote several different endings before settling on the one that satisfied me at the time. The one I decided on back then was not a happy ending. It wasn’t a tragic ending either. It was an open, ambiguous ending. When I wrote it, I felt that this ending best served who my characters were and what they were likely to do.
But this time when I read the ending, I undermined all that previous writerly satisfaction by actually yelling, “NO, NO, NO. I can’t live with this. This is not okay. I NEED A HAPPY ENDING!” (Sorry for all the capital letters. I’ve been living an all-caps sort of life lately and it’s hard to stop.) I had been sucked into the lives of these characters and spent time with them and came to care for them deeply, and I wanted them to be happy, dammit.
So I changed the ending. My protagonists, who had been circling warily around each other, admitted their love and plunged into a relationship that, given their history and their personalities, wasn’t likely to be a guaranteed success. But my reader self is happy now.
After all the hand-wringing and maniacal laughter, after all the cursing and revising, the writer must give way to the reader. The reader’s satisfaction matters more than the writer’s cleverness or convictions. There was a time when I fought against this notion (“but it’s MY book!”). I will fight no longer. I’ll certainly always try to stay true to my characters, but I’m not writing just for me.
I now have a better understanding of the two endings John Fowles offered in his postmodern novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. In an essay entitled “Hardy and the Hag,” Fowles explains,

I wrote and printed two endings to The French Lieutenant’s Woman entirely because from early in the first draft I was torn intolerably between wishing to reward the male protagonist . . . with the woman he loved and wishing to deprive him of her—that is, I wanted to pander to both the adult and the child in myself. . . . . Yet I am now very clear that I am happier . . . with the unhappy ending, and not in any way for objective critical reasons, but simply because it has seemed more fertile and onward to my whole being as a writer.

I find Fowles’s comment about pandering to the adult and the child in himself offensive because he assumes it’s childish to want happy endings. What I’m more interested in is that his unhappy ending is for the writer, whereas the happy ending is for the reader. I don’t mean to suggest that all unhappy and happy endings work this way, but I certainly could have described my own novel’s first (open) ending the same way—that it helped me grow as a writer. The new, happy ending, on the other hand, is for readers. Not for children, but for my readers and for the reader in me.
And I’m happy with that.


  1. JT

    Yay for happy endings! This reader loves happy endings. I once started reading a book that I could see would have a sad ending. (I was on vacation, forgot my book, and this book happened to have been left in my room.) I most definitely did not want to read sad endings while on a relaxing vacation, so I read most of it, then set it aside and made up my own ending where all of the people and dogs in the book lived happily ever after. Yup, that never gets old for me.

  2. Clarissa Harwood

    I love your subversive reader behaviour! Making up your own ending was very creative of you, and better than throwing the book against a wall. And don’t even get me started on dogs (or cats). I get nervous if I see a dog or cat in a book at all: is the writer going to kill it off and break my heart?

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