Friday, May 30, 2008

Happy Endings: More Than A Cancer?

We've all seen them. We've all, in fact, experienced them. They come out of nowhere to ambush, to attack, and to crush. A story hooks us. We begin reading. We become involved with character and incident. We're moving along briskly and, wham, everything works out all right. And for a moment, thought stops.

That is the danger and joy of a happy ending, the stoppage of thinking. Why would anyone do such a thing to an innocent, gullible, and trusting reader? Why abuse someone who has set aside skepticism, suspended disbelief, and bought into details labeled Verisimilitude, of all things?

First of all, it's a convenient place to end a story. It leaves the reader smiling, if it works. It also leaves a positive impression in the mind of the reader toward that writer. Hey, he, she, or it made me feel good. I'd go back to that again.

Cancerous hopes and foolish denial, obviously.

Putting happy endings on things only encourages worse foolishness further on. A happy ending is like icing on a burn victim; tasty, but not very therapeutic.

Consider, instead, the kind of ending that undercuts expectations, leads you up to the edge and pushes you over the cliff, and leaves you mulling over what you've just finished reading. Imagine, if you can, actually thinking about a story over and over, long after you cease scanning the words it was delivered in. And, if you dare, think about learning something not just from a story -- we're not speaking of lecturing, hectoring, or vectoring here -- but from your own insights and thought processes, as prompted by the story.

Synergy rules.

A happy ending rounds things off and gives you nothing to make your eyes snap open later that night, as you realize something breathtaking. A happy ending kills any chance of echoes, ramifications, and consequences. Reading happy endings is safer than playpens, cushier than cribs. They coddle the reader, weakening reading skills and eliminating any need for thinking skills.

As a writer of dark stories that disturb, unsettle, and poke, I know I must often thwart expectations, and I know this is interpreted often as disappointing the reader. Instead of a stroke, my caress became a slap. Instead of a reassurance, my words sowed seeds of doubt and worry.

Sometimes, readers, like virgins, don't get it. They miss the point completely and mistake my stories for spavined, crippled half-tales. Where's the third act? Is that it? What's that mean?

Their questions reveal a refusal, or inability, to think past The End.

And that's because they've grown up with happy endings. They've grown up to believe a story will always come out okay in the end. That fiction is a comfort.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but that raises another issue about happy endings: They don't like the truth much. They prefer easy lies. They prefer delusions, propaganda, and nonsense to anything like real, pointed truths.

So next time you're confronted with a happy ending, ask yourself why you're not angry about being treated with such contempt? Are you a child who needs protected from anything harsh or upsetting?

And if it's one of my endings, and you think it's happy, ask yourself what irony you're missing. Ask yourself if maybe this is too good to be true and, if so, does that itself hint at an opposite or inverted ending, unstated so you can think of it yourself?

If you can, of course. If you're not dying of happy endings.

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