Sure, we remember the bad times, but never very fondly. We prefer to let our memories dwell on joyful times, like Christmases long ago. Why? Because that warm cozy feeling inside is just the thing to cure any year-round case of humbug. Isn’t that what you want for your novel? That people will look back on it with a smile, and wonder when they get to read it again?
True, that may be a happy ending for your story, but the only way to get there is a happy ending for your story.
(See what I did there?)
People like to feel good. Feeling good is nice. Feeling REALLY good is memorable. So often modern novels, especially YA stories, are so filled with action, death, and revolution that they never have a truly happy ending. However, the truth is that a genuine, happy ending, is an essential part for nearly any story. Like, how many of us would like “Lord of the Rings” if, in the end of the “Return of the King”, Frodo decided to be Middle Earth’s next Dark Lord, and everyone lived miserably ever after.
I wouldn’t read it, for one.
Allow me to quote, at some length, J.R.R. Tolkien, from his (remarkable) essay, “On Fairy-Stories”:
“It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild it’s events, however fantastic or terrible it’s adventures, it can give to a child or man that hears it, …a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”
Though Tolkien applies this “lifting of the heart” to fairy-stories, I would extend it to any story, with perhaps only satire and Shakespearean tragedies aside.
Most writers who openly avoid happy endings cite distain for the cliché as their reason for fleeing from Tolkien’s “catch of the breath.” Of course, if the guy kills the villain, gets the kingdom, the riches, and the girl, things seem too scripted. After all, if everything works out perfectly, what was the point of the story? What was the cost?
But joyful endings don’t have to be happy. For lack of a better alternative, think again of the Lord of the Rings. Sure, it has a ‘happy’ ending, and it certainly gives the reader a “lifting of the heart,” but it is far from cliché. (Except, perhaps, for the fact that it established a trend, like so many elements of that story, and created a cliché) That aside, however, nothing about the end of the “Lord of the Rings” is predictable. Nor is it random, for that matter. I won’t develop my thoughts on the final pages of that ingenious trilogy for the sake of any (poor souls) who haven’t read it (yet.) But any who are in the know will agree that Tolkien’s trilogy ends on a joyful, if not light-hearted note. And though the readers may pity Frodo or Sam, they walk away from the book feeling uplifted, joyful, and victorious.
Creating Joyful Endings
So, you want one of these great endings and you don’t want a cliché? Here are a couple of ideas:
Give your hero what he really wanted, not what he wanted
Really deep heroes have two levels of desire. Frodo wanted to live in the shire the way it had always been. But deeper down inside, he loved the shire too much to stand by and watch it dissolve. He wanted to enjoy the Shire, but even more, he wanted the Shire to thrive. In the end (spoiler alert) Tolkien gave the hobbits the Shire, but took it from Frodo. Frodo lost what he wanted, but gained what he really loved.
Deny your hero’s material goal, but give him the spiritual victory
This type of ending can be very powerful. For an entire novel, your hero has chased his goal; his goal has consumed him. And then he loses it.
Perhaps a slandered, ill-accused, and defamed prince struggles to rally a small army loyal to the crown who will stand against the barbarian invaders. His army grows until it looks like he may just win out, but on the night before the battle, another rumor about the prince spreads through the camp and his entire army abandon’s him. The barbarians naturally have a hay-day destroying the capital city, and just as the hero is leaving his burning walls with his shoulders hanging in defeat, a small child comes and slips a tiny hand into the prince’s bloody, calloused fingers.
Sure, your hero has lost the material battle, but the spiritual victory far outweighs all the pain.
Give your hero everything, in the midst of nothing
Joseph and Mary had nothing. They were financially poor, in Bethlehem only to pay more taxes, and (just as for a slap to the face) they couldn’t even get a room at the local bed and breakfast. (More than likely, they didn’t even know what they were eating for breakfast.) So there they are, newlyweds, in a barn, struggling to get comfortable on the hay bales, when Jesus is born.
Suddenly, they were parents.
Suddenly, the world had a Savior.
Suddenly, all their efforts had paid off.
Sure, they had nothing, but they had everything.
That kind of revealing, emotional twist will turn your ending into a great climax, and a denouement which lasts forever.