I was in a brief, but interesting discussion yesterday about happy endings and “formula” books in fiction. Without drifting too far into literature theory, let us, for the sake of this post use something like the big romance chain as formula – the story varies little more than in what setting, age, and socioeconomic level are used. It’s like any franchise restaurant – you know what the menu and décor will be and that’s what you expect. A series by an author is somewhat of a formula because you expect the main character and the recurring characters to be consistent and the “pace” of the book is often the same. Surprises come in with new characters that may be introduced precisely to stretch the boundaries perhaps, show a different side to the main characters, and plot twists are the other means to keep the reader’s interest. Because the author totally controls what happens in fiction, the author also makes the choices about having a happy ending or not. Again, there are “mega-happy endings” to use the quote from the movie “Wayne’s World”, as well as happy, and bittersweet endings. Any of these can work depending on what the author wants as a conclusion. Deciding on a tragic end is fine, too if that serves the purpose of the author, for whatever reason that may be.
The tendency, however, is for some people to say that happy endings aren’t “realistic”. Of course they are, to include mega-happy ones. Are there tragedies everyday in life? Certainly, just as there are wonderful triumphs over adversity. If I want to read tragedy, there are plenty of well-written non-fiction books that can deliver that. When I am looking to relax and be entertained, I don’t want to wade through loss, and sorrow, and cruelty where the “bad guy” wins. There are times when I am in the mood to deal with that in fiction because I enjoy the particular writing style, setting, or whatever, but I want to be aware that is what I’m getting. I don’t want the main character killed off at the last minute unless there are redemptive qualities attached to his or her death. (Think the character that dies while saving the life of another.) So, if the back cover says, “Tragic story of”, “profoundly emotional”, etc., then I know what I’m getting into.
If someone wants to narrow their definition of “good books” to minimize or exclude those with happy endings, that’s fine. I, however, don’t view it in those terms.