Satisfying Plot Resolutions: Happy 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, because she says so.


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