Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Guest Post: Anna Staniszewski on Happy Endings

This is blog vacation week! And to celebrate, I've got a series of guest posts for this week...and a chance to win tons of free books! Today we're welcoming Anna Staniszewski, an agented author who has a lovely and professional blog here. Her topic, on whether or not books need happy ending, grabbed me right away. Thanks for blogging with me, Anna!

Are We Ruled by Happy Endings?

For much of my life, I’ve been a fan of ambiguous and dark endings: The Giver, Z for Zachariah, Feed. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good happy ending once in a while, but I also appreciate endings that make me think and that encourage me to draw my own conclusions.

That’s why I was as surprised as anyone when the YA fairy tale retelling I was working on suddenly decided it wanted a happy ending. While the original tale had ended tragically, the closer I got to the ending of my retelling, the more I couldn’t bear to make my characters suffer any longer. Had I gone soft? Was I caving to the pressure of happy endings? Or was the happy ending simply what the story needed?

There is no doubt that some stories earn their happy endings. In the Harry Potter books, the characters go through so much in the series that it’s a relief to see things wrapped up nicely in the end. After all that turmoil, the characters can finally get some rest! In real life, however, those who suffer the most often don’t have a lot to be hopeful about. Should that reality be reflected in literature? Or should we focus on hope in books because it can be so rare in real life?

Often our reactions to stories are shaped by our expectations. Not too long ago, for example, I went to see Up in the Air. I loved the film and appreciated its realistic, fairly ambiguous ending. On the way out, I heard a woman complain, “That was so sad!” I was surprised by her reaction until I realized she’d come to the theater expecting a romantic comedy; she wasn’t prepared for a dose of reality. If stories are established as dark from the beginning, readers can anticipate the possibility of an equally dark ending and decide whether or not they want to read on.

Is there a danger in becoming too dependent on happy endings? I believe there might be. Last summer I heard Kristin Cashore give a great talk on her first novel, Graceling. At the end of her speech, someone in the audience asked, “Are you going to write a sequel about Katsa and Po?” Kristin looked slightly confused. “I think I wrapped things up pretty well,” she said. “What more would you want to know?” The woman responded, “I want to know what happened to Po and Katsa after the book ended.” Clearly this reader wasn’t satisfied with the story ending as it was. She wanted more. A slide show? The characters’ medical histories? This?


She wanted complete and total closure, which is, of course, impossible. But can we really blame her? With the YA market flooded with series that let us live alongside characters for years, is it any wonder that readers not only want to know what happens next, they also want every single loose end tied up? After you’ve invested so much time in characters, when they feel like real people, you want to know that everything turns out all right for them. This is a nice idea, but what kind of pressure does that put on stories and their creators? And might we be selling ourselves short if all our endings aim at the same thing?

It used to be that YA was a land of anything-goes. Books could be as dark and hopeless as they wanted to be, with no obligation to end happily, or even hopefully. (Just read The Chocolate War to see what I mean.) But these days, YA is expected to give us at least a hopeful, if not a full-out happy, ending. Given the ongoing influence of TV and film (which often rely on formulaic endings) I wonder if this trend will only continue to grow. If that is the case, where does that leave writers and readers? Should we go with the trend, or is there value in having a bit of reality in our endings once in a while?



Bio: Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna grew up enjoying stories in both Polish and English. After studying theater in college, she worked at the Eric Carle Museum where she rediscovered her love of children’s books. She’s been scribbling furiously ever since. Anna lives south of Boston and teaches at Simmons College. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can visit her at www.annastan.com.

14 comments:

Anna said...

Beth, thanks so much for having me. This was a fun post to write! I hope you're having a lovely internet vacation. :-)

Andrea said...

Nice post, Anna. I'm not a big fan of happy endings, but I think leaving the reader with a sense of hope is important.

out of the wordwork said...

Great post, Anna! I actually like the more ambiguous endings. YA is wonderful that way because the characters are so young you know there's so many twists and turns ahead that having too set an ending seems wrong to me. There's so much still ahead of the characters! But I always, even if the ending is sadder than I expected, want to be left with some semblance of hope.
Nelsa

Laura Pauling said...

I don't mind dark endings. I don't mind happy endings. I think it totally depends on what the story dictates.

Solvang Sherrie said...

I think my expectations change with the characters in the stories. I LOVE the original fairy tale The Little Mermaid. I would read it even as a teenager and sob. Disney's version makes me cry for completely different reasons. None of them good. Sometimes having a sad ending makes you think twice about the choices you are making in your own life.

beth said...

Thank YOU Anna for posting!

Ruth said...

Very thought-provoking. I think it does have to do with expectations, and with the "contract" the author establishes with the reader. The formula for commercial, genre fiction (mystery, romance, etc) pretty much demands a solution, a happy ending, loose ends tied up. If a novel seems headed in that direction and suddenly reverses, it can feel like a slap in the face. In other fiction, ambiguity or tragedy may be more meaningful. Art reflects life, and life doesn't always come tied up in neat packages.

Pen Pen said...

First- 'The Giver' is probably my fav book EVER!! LOVED THAT! :)
And- I do think we're all wired for happy endings-mostly cuz of the movies tho--I believe that cuz the big production companies want to only make money, so they put out the lame love stories with sappy endings as opposed to the "true to humanity" or envelope pushing ideas stuff that doesn't make as much money. We're forced to see the dollar go over quality, and that's GOTTA be messing us up! :)
I like dark and raw endings.

Dominique said...

Great post. It's certainly food for thought.

I know I'm an HEA girl. I just love a happy ending. But I'm okay with not getting one. I just don't like to be blindsided. If the author sets up like there's going to be a happy ending but doesn't deliver, I'm annoyed. But, if the author sets up that this is reality and reality sometimes bites, I'm not annoyed/frustrated by the ending.

Anonymous said...

Great post Anna! This is a topic near and dear to my heart.

I think it's important to give honest endings to our stories and characters - and just as in real life, for some that may be the fairy tale. For some it may be tragic, and for the vast majority, it's somewhere in the middle - a mixture of happy and sad that equals real life.

That said, I think part of the decision is dictated by the genre you are writing for. Some types of books are selected by the reader because they know, whatever happens in the first X number of pages, everything is going to be tied up with a bow on the last one. And if that is the story or genre you are writing for requires, you know that going into the project.

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