Apr 30 2013 10:00am

Satisfying Plot Resolutions: Happy Ever After Isn’t the Only Option

Happily Ever After isn't the only option

There’s a standard theory that seems to crop up whenever one starts talking about what makes a good story. It doesn’t just affect books, either, trickling its way through film and TV shows. This theory suggests that every story should end with a Happily Ever After (or HEA, for short). In a romance, your main characters find love, commit, and when the book ends, you know they’ll be happy and in love forever—in fact, there should be very little doubt.

If we’re talking classic action movie, it’s all but demanded that the hero survive the chaos, achieve his goals in the end, bring down the bad guy, and then (let’s face it) meet the hot chick he rescued for drinks at a Baja bar. If we’re talking science fiction action, it’s usually about overcoming whatever alien threat is plaguing the main characters and exterminating it. Hooray! We win, minimal casualties, and somebody gets the girl.

Chick flick? Obvious answer: it’s always about the HEA.

TV shows end up with rabid fans called “shippers”—a slang term for people who want to see certain characters in relationships. Long term series see these fans exponentially increase, and when a series finally ends, it’s all but demanded that the characters achieve love and contentment. After all, so many seasons of effort on the part of the characters deserves a HEA, right?

It’s so ingrained into us as an audience—and those of us who are creators—that often, we find ourselves leaning towards one extreme or the other. Either our story ends with a happily ever after, or else we deliberately pull a shock move: rocks fall, everyone dies. Take that, HEA!

There’s a problem, though. I like doubt. I may not prefer tragedy as a rule, but I like the uncertainty that can be woven into a satisfying resolution. I like it so much that I’ve adopted a different version of HEA to describe my endings, which I term the Happily For Now. It’s that space in between HEA and Everyone Dies, that shady place where not everything is okay but there’s room for optimism—or raw, sheer hope.

If you’ve read my Dark Mission series, you know that my romances aren’t the kind of stories that end with the knowledge that everything’s going to be a-okay forever, and I do that on purpose. After all, while you can be assured that the main couple will be getting together in the book—it is a romance, naturally—the fact of the matter is the city of New Seattle is a grim, dangerous place, fraught with violence and crime, with persecution spearheaded by those in charge, and made all the more chancy by the promise of a civil war.

One for the Wicked’s resolution is one that I personally find satisfying. It touches base with all the previous couples in the series, reveals where they are in their relationships and their sense of self and how they’ve made it this far—and even returns to Jonas Stone to see how he’s coping with the events in Wicked Lies. It closes with a sense of hope, but it doesn’t shy away from the cost of that satisfaction.

I have reviews that suggest my endings are too bleak for romance, or that the resolution isn’t as HEA as the reader likes. That got me thinking about why I write the way I write, and from there, to the books, TV shows and movies that don’t rely on the HEA wrap-up.

The one that immediately comes to mind doesn’t seem like an obvious choice. After all, the Lord of the Rings trilogy wraps up with The Return of the King—wherein Aragorn gains the kingship and all the hobbits go happily home back to the Shire. The world is free of Sauron’s evil and all is well.

Except it isn’t, is it? Frodo leaves his home—and his beloved friend Samwise Gamgee—to retire with the other Ring-bearers to the West. The Age of Man has begun, and in the wake of Frodo’s passing, Sam is left to pick up the pieces of his broken heart and live a content life until he, too, sails to the West. It’s a resolution that isn’t happy for everyone, but it satisfies. I was sad for Sam, Merry and Pippin, but I understood. The toll on Bilbo and Frodo was too great; they were no longer part of this world, just as Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel (the bearers of Narya, Vilya and Nenya, respectively) were no longer part of it.

Proof that not every fantasy has to end with the mythical HEA or in terrible tragedy to satisfy a reader. At least this reader. How about you?

When a Series Ends

It seems like so many of our favorite TV shows—coughhackFireflyhackhackcough—end without warning or satisfactory resolution. We watch, we get hooked, and then boom, they’re gone. Or worse yet? Drawn out to ridiculous lengths and then wrapped up with some incomprehensible gibberish like, “This ending will deliver no answers but will be left to each viewer to decide what it means.” I’m looking at you, Lost.

There had to be shows that did it right. So I went looking through the annals of my memory and the Twitter hivemind.

Anyone see Six Feet Under? Sara says on Twitter, “That last episode killed me and I don’t cry easily.” When I asked her if she felt satisfied by it, she replies, “Oh yes, I couldn’t imagine it ending any other way given the subject matter. But it’s still a punch in the gut.” When you get to see yourself how every character you’ve grown to love or hate dies, it definitely hands over a sense of resolution that isn’t very happy. A couple are sweet enough—save for the whole dying aspect—and most are tragic or sad. Each is a final ending. Can’t get any more satisfaction than, “And this is how they’ll go.”

How about Moonlighting? Anybody remember that one? (Donatello’s voice pops up in my house regularly to say dryly, “Gosh, it’s kind of like Moonlighting.”) After starts and stops, fits and hiatuses, fourth-wall breaking banter and drama wrapped around comedy, the series ended—and nobody got the girl. Nobody came out on top. The offices closed. The set was dismantled. The priest refused to marry them. “Romance is a fleeting thing,” right? And so it came to an end, with everything falling apart—quite literally dismantled around them—and you were left with... well, not a happy feeling, but a satisfied one. It was over.

And we can’t talk TV shows with an unhappy but definitely final resolution without mentioning Twin Peaks. All that time puzzling out the truth, fitting all those pieces together, only to have it end there? The agony! The frustration! Not because it left us hanging, oh no—we knew what was next, didn’t we? To avoid spoilering this crazy awesome show, I won’t go into detail, but if you watched the series, you know of what I speak.

That wasn’t happy at all, no forever smiles and fairy dust, but it sure wrapped everything up into a neat butcher paper package.

Silver Screen Wrap-Ups

What about movies? Some sweeping historicals made the cut, notably Gladiator and Braveheart—which operate on the same satisfying but lacking in HEA theme. Both heroes lost the women they loved, and both shed this mortal coil with the hopes of seeing those women again in the afterlife. Not happy, but understandable—and leaving us with a sense of full-circle storytelling. Bonus? Not everyone dies. There’s hope for the survivors—hope they’ll make it right, hope they can still win.

Liza Palmer suggested Little Miss Sunshine, and there’s one that left me feeling highly satisfied. Did Olive win the pageant? Did she allow herself to be made-over like all the overly stylized little girls with fake hair and fake smiles and fake tans? No. She lost the pageant, nearly got kicked out and humiliated—but she went home supported by her family, encouraged to be herself, and forever banned from beauty pageants in California. Not your average HEA. The family still has financial problems, heartbreak, and emotional scars to nurse, but you know what? You feel good. A little unsure about their chances, but good.

Am I going to bring up The Break-Up? Yes. Yes, I am. Why? Because it was packaged as a chick-flick and delivered like a slice of life glimpse into the realities of a relationship—and how badly we fail at communication as a species. This had no HEA where they realized they were both idiots and reunited amid promises of love and commitment forever. Like relationships in reality, this dished a dose of real world resolution when attempts to reconcile failed amid fear and fatigue, and our main characters went their separate ways—to be better people alone than they were together.

Harsh? Yes. True? We see the evidence of that in the people around us all the time.

Satisfying? I think so.

Obviously, there’s plenty of precedent for a satisfying ending that isn’t mired in confusion (I am still looking at you, Lost!) or dedicated to the HEA-or-else standard. While I love the fact that I can pick up a romance for that sweet ending, I also like wrapping my resolutions around a bit of realism—because to me, that resolution is all the sweeter when there’s a sacrifice or an obstacle to the pay-off. One that can’t be resolved with those three little words.

Love conquers all, it’s true, but sometimes it just takes a little more time and effort to get there. In my romances, the characters are usually willing to put in that effort. I can’t promise the same for my urban fantasies or other genre projects.

What are your favorite books, movies or TV shows where the resolution was anything but a Happily Ever After... and you were okay with that?

After writing happily ever afters for all of her friends in school, Karina Cooper eventually grew up (sort of), went to work in the real world (kind of), where she decided that making stuff up was way more fun (true!). She is the author of dark and sexy paranormal romances, steampunk adventures, crossover urban fantasy, and writes across multiple genres with mad glee. Visit her at www.karinacooper.com, because she says so.

1. OgreMk5
There was a very short-lived (but well done) science fiction drama called "Falling Gravity" several years ago. It ended quite suddenly, but still it was OK that it was over.

Another, bigger name one, was Dollhouse. In a way, there were happy endings, Echo got the guy but he was dead and a lot of the rest died. Still it ended well.
2. BubbaCoop
I didn't find the ending to LOST confusing.
3. Caro
I thought Dollhouse was way underrated, but although I agree the ending was a good one, there was a definite feeling of it being rushed because the show got cancelled.
4. harmonyfb
I've never liked television or movies which had pat HEA endings, especially when the characters have been cruelly tested. I much prefer a million shades of ambiguity. (Not every movie has to be The Onion Field, but I think it's much more interesting to see the consequences of their adventures at the conclusion of said adventures.)

WARNING: Spoilers for a twenty-four year old TV series

Twin Peaks is one - because even if you're like me, and you've dialed back in your head to consider that the series ended (as it should have) a couple of episodes into the second season, it's still an unhappy ending.

'Bob's' current incarnation has been stopped, but there are still people dead, and still people with their lives irrevocably changed (not for the better) by the murders, and 'Bob' is still out there. Cooper says: "Do you find it easier to believe that a man would rape and kill his own daughter?" (highlight to read: text is whited-out to protect those who haven't ever seen the series.), and the viewer is invited into the realization that either scenario is still unthinkable and heartbreaking.

Life on Mars is another show that had what was clearly supposed to be a downer ending. I loved it, though. (And one of my favorite moments in Ashes to Ashes was the glimpse of the article about Sam on the bulletin board in the Gov's office.)

Carnivale - which I adored - had an ambiguous ending (canceled too soon), but I still found it satisfying, with its emphasis on balance ('Every prophet in his house') and its promise (threat?) that the cycle would always go on.

I liked LotR precisely because there were consequences - Sam, Frodo, Pippin and Merry were never as they were before. The Shire was never as it was before, because they'd be tempered by the evil reaching out of Mordor. It's part of what gives the story its heart.
William Carter
5. wcarter
I like it when happy endings are earned. Hard. Life has risks, choices have consequences and poor ones shouldn't go unpunished just because you're a main character.
Scott Kennedy
6. scottken
I thought the ending of the tv series The Shield was the best I've ever seen for a TV series. Consequences that had been years in the making came home to roost, and one character's end punched me in the gut so hard I couldn't shake it off for days.
8. SKM
I love bittersweet endings, and I agree with harmonyfb--the BBC "Life On Mars" had one of the most satisfying series finales I've ever seen. (The American remake, however, scrapped that in favor of just about the worst finale ever put on screen. Sigh.)
Chris Palmer
9. cmpalmer
I think the show that really stuck the landing was Babylon 5. There was uneveness along the way, but the fact that the story was planned for a five year arc and the series was written with the end in mind was great. I'm not sure who would be spoiled by talking about it, but I'll just say that, given the timeframe of the end, everyone was dead and yet their story still mattered.

There was a good piece I read a little while back (probably here) on whether it's a bad thing to never finish a series (of books, in that case). Not having a resolution doesn't diminish the enjoyment of reading the other parts and a bad ending is worse than no ending at all (Lost, BSG - not knocking them too bad, I loved both shows, but looking back, I like Lost more for the things they didn't answer very well).

Finally, I'd like to add that I like the concept of happy enough for now and a feeling of doubt and uncertainty both adds poingnancy and open-endedness to a story. What I hate, though, is ambiguous endings that feel more like the author/screenwriter said, "I have no idea how to end this well. I'll drop in an ambiguous ending and call it art." I love trying to figure out what was really going on and imagine and extrapolate what might happen after, but I have no patience when the writer/creator doesn't seem to have any idea themselves.
Chris Palmer
10. cmpalmer
Just have to add my ditto for the British Life on Mars series (and the American one, too - sigh).

And, oh my God, The Shield finale was amazing. I kept watching the last few episodes thinking, "Not only is there no way for this to end well, I don't think they can end it with any dramatic closure at all" but I was wrong.
11. Eric Saveau
How about a video game? Dragon Age 2 starts out with the player and his or her family as refugees from a war who escape to a life of poverty and indentured servitude. The player makes a name for him or herself, eventually becoming the Champion of Kirkwall as nasty politics boil hotter in the city that he or she is tries desperately to hold together... and then fails to save. Because generations of bad blood on both sides turn out to be bigger than one powerful person and your loyal friends, or all of the genuinely well-intentioned people whom you try to work with. Victory, in the end, is getting out alive as nations prepare for war. Regardless of some questionable design choices (the same damn dungeon sets re-used over and over) the story was gripping and its tragic resolution felt satisfyingly real.
12. Eric Saveau
I'll also add my voice to those praising the original Life On Mars. Absolutely brilliant.
Rob Munnelly
13. RobMRobM
How about the 1980s movie version of Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog (starring Don Johnson)? Boy and Dog struggle to survive, Boy gets Girl, Dog is in trouble and .... HEA for some but not all of the three principals. I loved it.

Of course, there is also the ending of the Sopranos (which didn't have a HEA but I loved it).
Joseph James
14. wjames1204
I think the ending of Seinfeld was absolutely fantastic. For a group of people who, in all honesty, are really awful people for nine seasons, the ending fit very well. It most defintely didn't end in a place of warmth and comfort and smiles, but it fit! Uncomfortable endings can be satisfying in that they aren't typical or expected or to some degree desired.

And, I actually liked the ending of Lost. It could have tied everything together a little more (meaning not tie things up but bring things in from previous seasons) but it still worked for me. Again, it didn't tie everything off neatly and it left room for interpretation, but this made me think and wonder after the "shown" part of the story was over. Remember that books, movies, and television only show part of the story: the characters and worlds live on in their own place after we depart from them, just as they lived before we met them.
Chris Nelly
15. Aeryl
A recent one was Spartacus. It stuck the historical ending, but led you to hope, often, that things wouldn't play out the way you knew it would. SORTA SPOILERS(it's history, does that count?)

You hoped Gannicus wouldn't end up crucified, but he did. And he did after months of resisting the call to sacrifice, but finally accepting it.

You hoped Spartacus would survive, but he dies, buried by his comrades in a marked grave that's never found.

You hoped Agron and Nasir would survive, AND THEY DID! Together!! Forever!!

Ok, it had one HEA, but DAMN that was earned.

Dollhouse was another one. GAWD, I bawled from the moment Paul was shot til the end, especially Dushku's moving monologue. That she gets to share her headspace with him is a bittersweet resolution to their story.
16. olethros
For all of the flaws of its final season, the Wire ended perfectly.
17. WG
I'm indifferent to good, sad or ambigious endings as long as they make sense to the story I've been told. For instance, the book and the movie Silver Linings Playbook. They had different endings but both made absolute sense to the story that was told so I liked them both very much. If an ending happens for what I feel is just for the sake of it, then I call those bad endings.
Scott Silver
18. hihosilver28
Probably my favorite ambiguous endings are Memento, Before Sunrise, and Before Sunset. The Before ___ trilogy (assuming Before Midnight is good) is one of my absolute favorite set of films, and my favorite romantic movie to watch.

I also thought that Lost was a highly satisfying finale. Perfect, no, but satisfying. And it ended the only way it could have once they revealed where they were going by the middle of season 6.
19. Eric Saveau
The end of the recent short film Spacebound. I was smiling wistfully through my tears.
20. Russell H
The two-episode finale of THE PRISONER (1967) is breathtaking, profound, baffling, ambiguous, enigmatic and, ultimately, satisfying in that there's no other ending anyone can think of that would have lived up to anyone's expectations.
21. Acroarcs
Another vote for the original Life on Mars. I would also throw in Friday Night Lights, which I think more than adequately veers off of HEA to qualify for this conversation.
Shelly wb
22. shellywb
I like endings that are appropriate to the story, and that the book has actually worked to get to. But too, if I do pick up a genre romance novel it darned well better have a happy ending (and make the characters earn it), simply because it's one of the two things that defines the genre. Same with a cozy mystery and knowing you'll find out whodunnit.

But in any other genre, I just want something right for the story. I mean, come on, Casablanca. Gone with the Wind. It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. They couldn't have ended any other way.

I'll add that I don't think there's anything wrong with people having a preference for either kind of story, nor do I think one is better or more satisfying than the other. A lot of people seem to think that happy ending is entertaining but sad ending means art. Pffft. An ending is only as good as the journey taken there.

My favorite bittersweet ending? Tigana I think, at least for books. I recommend it a lot to people who want that.

My least favorite? The Golden Compass, because it was not earned (for an ending like that done right, see Vision of Escaflowne, an anime TV series not to be confused with the awful movie).

The tragic ending I laugh hardest at, Hamlet. There are some great and incredible moments in Hamlet that led to exactly that moment, but I'm sorry, but it's just too over the top funny. I'm laughing now just thinking about it.
Deana Whitney
23. Braid_Tug
Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy - she asked about books too!
Cried buckets, not the ending I expected.

Don't stone me, but if Glee had ended last season, that would have been a good end. No major anything, just the Highschool kids moving onto their lives after Highschool. And two "18" year olds making the smart choice to not get married too soon.
But they didn’t… yet that’s not the focus here.
Alan Brown
24. AlanBrown
I agree with your dislike of HEA, Karina. I prefer slightly unresolved or open ended finishes to stories. Like the end of Heinlein's Glory Road, or Conan Doyle's Lost World, where they end the story as they plan their next adventure. Or a bittersweet ending, like Gone With the Wind, with "After all, tomorrow is another day." Or after Rick loses the gal in Casablanca, "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Mani A
25. sn0wcrash
Despite being an almost exclusively Marvel comics reader, I've always held a soft spot in my heart for both the endings of Justice League Unlimited in the DC Animated Universe.
Epilogue, the season 2 finale was a series finale for Batman Beyond, and like very few other iterations, *really* gets Batman, and Destroyer, the series finale was one of the best examples of the "never-ending battle" that is mainstream superhero comics.
Both are about as close to HEAs as it's possible to get in a persistent universe.
26. Dianthus
I didn't see either Casablanca or Witness on this list. These movies are both great films that have satisfying if not 'happy' endings.
Casablanca is a classic (in B&W), and it made #2 on the AFI's list of top 100 movies. I highly recommend it. Witness too.
27. csgrady78
One show I loved and though it was killed way to early had a great end that did not fit the HEA, was Stargate Universe.
28. Pie'Oh'Pah
How could anyone forget the ending of Dark Star? I ask you!

And then there's Harlan Ellison's Use a Dull Knife, for short stories with a UNA (Unhappy Never After) ending. Come to think of it, nearly all of Harlan Ellison's short stories fit into the UNA category.

For a fantasy novel without the HEA ending, there is China Mieville's Scar and The Iron Council. Come on, there's an unconsumated love in The Iron Council and the death of one of the major characters and the stasis of so many other characters ... Scar never reaches its consummation of actually finding the Scar and one of the major pairings in the story gets pared down to its limits.

Likewise the ending of both Weaveworld and Imajica - well, if you're expecting Cal Mooney to match up with Suzanna Parish, you've got another think coming; if you expect Gentle to consumate his two-century long courtship of Judith, again, you're mistaken. The "happily" part of that lies in finding that the search isn't meaningless, also that it has no end.

But then, The Hellbound Heart taught us that what we might mean by "Happily Ever After" might mean different things to different folks ... none can doubt that the Cenobites live "happily ever after", but few who watch Hellraiser would wish to experience it with them ...
29. Allligator
Reading the article, the first movie that came to mind for no apparent reason was Miracle Mile (1988).

But then I figured there are tons of good movies that have ambiguous endings e.g. Papillon (1973), Unforgiven (1992), Citizen Kane, whatever ...

Jason Aaron's Scalped (comic book) had a totally fitting but not so happy ending.
S Cooper
30. SPC
@22 Oh man, Tigana broke my heart, but in a good way.

I'll add Contact as almost perfect ambiguity with just one off note. If they'd left out the government people discussing the duration of static on the recording, it would have been perfect. Everyone survives, so that's happy, but the actual truth and meaning are left to belief, which exactly fits the theme of the story.
31. helbel
Two spring to mind. Due South which nailed it perfectly, seeing how all the characters ended up. I suppose it was a HEA in a way.

American Gothic - where the bad guys won.
32. Yakov
For me what matters is that the ending works, making sense and being satisfying. Whether it's a HEA or not doesn't matter, as long as it fits and has the right payoff.

One example without spoilers (I think): Mockingjay, the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy, had in my opinion a very fitting ending, meshing well with the events of the story. As much as I felt the book itself was a complete mess, the ending worked.
33. kantra9000
Most of Steven Brust's "Dragaera" books end with non-HEA endings. Brust throws in a couple important character deaths, some very tragic endings to some REAL important relationships, or some tragic turns in very story-central relationships, separations between family members and friends, the world blowing up once or twice, the protagonists not winning quite so much as they thought, physical maiming, transmorgification, numerous forms of exile, mental trauma... But by the end of every book, HEA ending or not, I've laughed so hard and so thoroughly enjoyed myself reading that I just want more or I'd be willing to read it again, front to back. Am I a little let down on some very sad partings we go through? Well yeah, because otherwise they wouldn't matter. But it's character and world development, and the books are so enjoyable and the endings handled so well that, in the long run... I'm happy with them all.

Also, the run of everyone's recently favorite Doctor, David Tennant's #10, features seasons of mostly non-HEA endings (or not entirely HEA endings - I got 5/42 episodes total for those with HEA endings, and even those are debatable). I agree that most of these episodes were some of the best Who there is, and I'm more likely to rewatch a David Tennant episode again than any other Doctor (even Peter Davison and Tom Baker), and not just because they feature David Tennant running around, but also for his companions and the story. SO... I think a lot of people are just unaware that HEA is not the only option and that ambiguity is okay, too.

Then again, what makes a HEA ending? Especially in black/white morality stories where there is a clearly defined villian and a set of good guys? Just reading through summaries for the "Doctor Who" episodes, I got some refreshers on the endings for a number of these villains and I am as creeped out as I was the episode of "Batman: The Brave and the Bold", where The Spectre" turns one criminal into cheese, and the screen blacks out as a swarm of mice begin to eat the guy. And a lot of these HEA endings involve "Yeah, it's HEA... if you're not the antagonist or possibly a member of the primary cast, and now the hero carries the burden of their actions and their companions watched and now they have this baggage and it's still a HEA, right?".
34. kantra9000
Darn it, I meant 5/47. Forgot some episodes.
35. NickM
@4, 8 When I finished this article and started into the comments with examples, "Life on Mars" was the first one that jumped into my mind. Huge difference on the scale between the BBC and US versions. I have something of a painful memory regarding the end of the US version, but it's a personal thing, not about the content of the episode itself.
36. animate_me
Love your image choice given the difference between the book and film endings and the specific reference to HEA the book makes at the end.
Alan Brown
37. AlanBrown
I just thought of the Best Ending Ever, satisfying in a way I never would have expected. "The Hellbound Train" by Robert Bloch, which won the 1959 Hugo short story award.
38. dsfan
I just can't agree with helbel about Due South's finale being HEA for everyone. It was great for those who ship Fraser and Kowalski, because they can imagine the two settling in Canada together as lovers. But it wasn't great for other characters. Frannie and Ray Vecchio both deserved better. I think it was awful to not have Frannie go to the police academy, and Ray to be with that terrible Stella and for Fraser to end his friendship with him. :-( And Turnbull's ending was just plain mean. The Due South finale should have showed love and respect for ALL of the characters, not just some of them. And Fraser should have never ended his friendship with RayV by choosing Kowalski.

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