Making Stories: A Pantser’s Defence of Unhappy Endings

By DeAnn Bell
Only days left in the Normal Deviation submission period (August 31st) and today I want to talk about happy endings. Why? Because we are coming to the end of the summer, the end of the submission period AND my writing friends recently pointed out that there was a serious lack of happy endings happening in fiction. It might seem odd that in a space where a writer can literally create every imaginable happiness for a character they often choose not to. From Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon loss to Disney’s Belle losing her mother to the plague, happily ever after seems hard to come by these days.  Is there an explanation for all of this sadness?

I don’t have a degree in psychology so I will attempt to avoid talking with authority on anyone else’s behalf other than my own. Some might say that it is a response to the tragedy happening around us in the world, but those people forget that a story is often written at least a year or more before it makes an appearance with the general public. Yet, the films and books we read often accurately reflect our feelings in the moment. Whether this is because writers are able to project and predict possible futures, or whether it is because worlds of meaning exist behind words and we pick the meanings that impact us, is a matter for a much deeper study. What is important to understand is that not all unhappy endings are unsatisfying and that the writer can’t always be blamed entirely for when a story turns sour.
Terry Pratchett says the first draft of a novel is you telling yourself the story. At the root of that statement is a lot of truth because no matter how much I plan or intend to write to a plan, my story wanders on its own path to completion and I follow. I know without a doubt that my work is inspired by what I read and watch on television, but it can be as strongly influenced by my observation of the world. I never really know what combination of these things will appear on the page and it is only when the first draft is complete do I know whether it is a happy or sad story. To say that my stories write themselves would be a lie. I have never awakened to find a new story on my laptop, but I have occasionally discovered a subconscious story thread under my conscious one. All of the paths to right or wrong, good or evil, happy or sad are open to me at the start and I have to just sit down and trust myself. A big part of teaching writing is teaching a writer to trust their instincts.

I normally come to the keyboard with an idea. Sometimes the idea is large enough to make a plot graph or to plan chapters, but often times I arrive with a single image or phrase. On a good day I get a conflict and on a bad one, I get impressions that only resemble the shape of the thing they will become because I know that shape is there.  To be 100% honest, that image or phrase doesn’t always come to me from the start of the story, but it does encapsulate what drives the feelings I am trying to relay. For instance, in one of my short stories “In the Phone Booth” I was heavily influenced by the feeling of displacement that comes from hot-desking and this transformed into the displacement a superhero choosing between two extreme identities must face. Saying that, I have to admit that my recognition of the connection of the story and the situation I was in came retrospectively.

As a writer, I write the first sentence and when I read what I have written back to myself, I can “hear” whether or not it is the correct start. I am primarily an auditory writer and my first drafts often appear as long sections of dialogue. The three legged story stool that has a plot, a character, and a setting is what I use to edit my stories, not create them. When I can clearly hear my narrator’s voice, I get a sense of time and then places but these are often very vague until the end of the second draft. The last senses to show up for the story are texture and taste but I believe that is more to do with how I receive and study stories rather than any kind of fundamental learning mechanism. I watch films and read books, therefore, I either see or hear stories.

Reading is hearing for me. I hear the words on the page spoken as if the narrator were sitting beside me, so much so that I can’t hear real people who speak to me when I read. My imagined narrator uses a voice that is mine and yet not a part of me. Joyce Carol Oates claims that reading is slipping involuntarily into another person’s soul. When we read this quote we assume that she is referring to the writer, but in actuality, it is the narrator whose skin and soul we wear. How close or far from the writer’s own point of view these narrators depends only on how much imagination the writer has but none of the POV’s is an exact replication or the writer’s. Like an impressionist painting, these “souls” range in clarity and closeness from slightly fuzzy to almost unrecognisable but each of them is created with a single purpose; to tell a story.   

Even Romance novels, which are built around happily ever after, have to be careful of how easy the journey to true love is. Audiences distrust endings that wrap up too neatly or end with all the characters exactly where they want to be. Reality has a way of sinking its dirty claws into fantasy no matter how hard a writer tries to keep it out. If you are reading this as a reader, then be kind to your favourite author. For us, sometimes losing a favourite character was as much a shock to us as it was to you. If you are a writer, trust yourself. You know what story you are telling. There is an audience out there for all kinds of endings, even happy ones. 


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