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Should Stories Always End Well?

“And they lived happily ever after.” Everyone knows that phrase. The standard line resounds through numerous stories, wrapping the tale’s end in a sparkly, feel-good bow and sending the characters off to a blissful life of painless euphoria. But, to […]
| Dec 8, 2015 | 9 comments |

“And they lived happily ever after.”

The Princess Bride

                             Happily ever after

Everyone knows that phrase. The standard line resounds through numerous stories, wrapping the tale’s end in a sparkly, feel-good bow and sending the characters off to a blissful life of painless euphoria.

But, to use a modern phrase, is it for realz? Or is it just to lather us with the satisfaction of the happy feels?

The happily ever after comes at the end, after the Menacing Monster has been defeated, the hero has earned his place in the annals of history, and the conflict faucet has turned off in favor of the gentle farewell.

This begs the question: should stories always end well? If not, how should they conclude?

Taken simply, without the context of eternity, happily ever after is at best naïve and at worst a blatant lie. Sure, the story has run its course, the lovers are together, and the future shines bright with potential. But put yourself in the shoes of the characters. Substitute their life for yours. Are we guaranteed a happily ever after?

In one sense, yes. In another, not so much.

A Not-So-Happy Ending

A story’s impact can stand or fall on how it concludes. Some stories close with the perfect last scene, last page, last sentence. A sense of completion and satisfaction fills the reader. “Yes,” they say, “this is exactly how it should have ended.”

Other stories fall short. I loved the Hunger Games novels, but to me, Mockingjay failed to produce that satisfaction. Instead of resonating with lush notes of a world-famous symphony, it squeaked with the hesitation of the first high-school band practice of the year. (I thought the movie did a better job.)

Mockingjay had a rainy-day ending. Gloom, depression, pain. Mostly, it stole the warm blush of hope I was craving. What it did do, however, was point out a harsh fact of life:

Not every ending is happy.

  • Marriage doesn’t lead to lifelong bliss, without another snag or dark valley
  • Winning the war doesn’t ensure peace now and forevermore
  • Friends don’t last forever

Lord of the Rings comes to mind as an example of a bittersweet end. The Ring was destroyed, Sauron vanquished, Aragorn crowned king, the Shire saved from Saruman’s schemes. The hobbits returned in safety, yet as Frodo said:

“The shire has been saved, Sam. But not for me.”

Frodo had the privilege of passing into the West, but Sam watched him leave. His best friend, his dear Master Frodo, gone.

There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart.

I can only imagine the sorrow he felt. Not an end of triumphant jubilation, but the right end.

The Ultimate Ending

What does this discussion of endings mean for us as Christians? Three things:

  1. We accept the consequences of living in a sinful world. We realize that things go wrong, that notes of sorrow weave into the melody of life. We understand that meeting Prince Charming or the beautiful princess won’t result in a blissful utopia.
  2. Thankfully, this world, with its cares and problems, is only temporary. Death isn’t the end of the story.
  3. We can live with the confident hope that the ultimate end of the story of history does, indeed, conclude with “happily ever after.” Where “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4 ESV)

As C.S. Lewis poetically stated at the end (how appropriate) of The Last Battle:

And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can truly say that they all lived happily ever after…now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

What is your favorite type of ending? Is there a time when books should end on a gloomy note?

Zachary Totah writes speculative fiction stories. This allows him to roam through his imagination, where he has illegal amounts of fun creating worlds and characters to populate them. When not working on stories or wading through schoolwork, he enjoys playing sports, hanging out with his family and friends, watching movies, and reading. He lives in Colorado and doesn't drink coffee. He loves connecting with other readers and writers. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, Goodreads, and at his website.

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Parker J. Cole

I’m reminded of a CSI’ish Korean Drama called Sign where one of the prominent characters dies at the end. And you really don’t want them to die but at the same, if they didn’t, justice would not have been done.  It was a bittersweet ending but the only ending possible.

I also think of romances, which I write, that ends with HEA. Typically, it should end with guy and gal being together. Few romances take another road where the guy or girl ends up with someone else other than who they started with.  The YA thing with the love triangle keeps you guessing by giving both factions reason to root for them.

With mysteries and thrillers, the HEA has to be all questions answered, the plot thwarted, stuff like that. You want the main protagonist to be the one to figure out the mystery or solve the problem.

In military, political intrigue books, you want the mission accomplished or the plot unraveled.

In spec fiction, it’s anyone’s game because HEA depends on the self-contained world of the author.

All in all, HEA has to make sense, even if it’s sad. I think of the original Night of the Living Dead when the guy gets killed in the end after surviving all night shows irony. I think of Casablanca where Ingrid goes off with Paul than Humphrey symbolizing duty (which during the era it was created made sense) more than individual ambition.

Thanks for the post.


There is definitely something to be said for the fact that the HEA ending does depend, to some extent, on the genre of the book, with romances being high on the scale. There is nothing wrong with escapist fiction in that sense, sometimes you just want to have it all work out, even if it is just on the pages of a book. However, I do think that Christian fiction tends to err on the side of always providing a happy ending even if the genre isn’t romance. My favourite is the bittersweet ending, I suppose. I like certain things to wrap up with a bow but on the other hand I want there to be some realism in the mix, too.

Michelle R. Wood

Time for me to once again plug the most underrated series in Christian speculative fiction: the Lamb Among the Stars. Maybe it’s because the author is British, maybe because of when it released, maybe because of who published it, but this series does not get nearly enough attention. It is the perfect example of how to employ a hopeful, transcendent finale without being “happy,” where there is pain and loss and tragedy, and where heroes fall. Hard. Even when they succeed. Seriously, everyone: please read these books.


Thanks for the recommendation, Michelle! They sound interesting….

Julie D

I’ve read Lamb Among the Stars, but I don’t specifically remember the ending…and I’m surprised nobody mentioned eucatastrophe yet.  One of the best eucatastrophic endings I’ve read is the final Binding of the Blade book by L. B. Graham. The main characters have gone through horrible, horrible things, but at the end, well…

The previous books all ended with an in-universe song quotation. The final says

The songs of the age of peace are not recorded, for they cannot be, by us, understood. It is enough to know that they are real and are and will be heard by many


Tyrean Martinson

I’m a fan of a hopeful ending . . . not necessarily with everyone super happy and dancing, but something where at least a few characters are happy and there is a promise of a new day or a new life on the horizon.