Stories that Matter

Happily Ever After…Or Not?


“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”

I’m at a crossroads with this story I’m working on. Been here a while. For the first time, probably ever, I’m contemplating not writing a happy ending. I know. I’m shocked myself. Because I love that ‘ah…’  feeling at the end of a great story. All’s well that ends well. And they all lived happily ever after.


Casablanca did not have a happy ending. Neither does Gone With The Wind. A Walk To Remember. I’m sure you can think of other movies and books you’ve read that don’t provide that “woohoo” feeling once the last line is read or the credits start to roll. I recently read Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes. Not a happy ending. At. All. But I still loved the book. Why? Because I was left aching. Wanting. Desperately sad in wishing there had been another way, a different ending, yet knowing in all likelihood, there could not have been.

Real life. Real pain. Real situations that just can’t be worked out no matter how hard you try or how much you want them to. This is why I write. To somehow make sense of things that don’t make sense. But I’m learning, slowly, that even as an author, able to change the course of any story if I really want to, some stories shouldn’t be changed. Because sometimes, a lot of times, there are no happy endings. And sometimes we need to learn to live with that. Accept it. Because we know we can’t change it.

We make choices. Every day. Every hour. With every interaction we engage in. We say and do things we shouldn’t, want things we can’t have, take for granted the things we do and second guess every single move we make.

Real life.

Real struggles.

Just. Real.

So I’m wondering now. Maybe we’re not really meant to be completely happy. If we were, would we not become complacent? Would the fight to live, to endure, to battle through the darkness and come out on the other side…wouldn’t that just leave us? Would we even bother seeking God? I’ve read that more people turn to God through trial and hardship…during war time, illness, flood, fire, famine, death. What would happen to hope if we had no need for it?

Maybe this…longing, this wanting, this seeking after what we think will make us happy…maybe this is how we grow. Maybe we find true peace in accepting the things we can’t have instead of this relentless pursuit after things that were never meant to be ours in the first place.

Star-crossed lovers. A romantic concept, contrived perhaps, yet I’m not sure. Because it’s not just a convenient way to end a book or a movie. It’s…real. The aching, the longing, the wanting and the finality of knowing it can never be. You can’t make that up. People feel it. They live it.

They know.

And maybe they never get over it. Maybe they spend the rest of their lives wondering why or what if…or they find some resolute acceptance and a way to move on. And somehow, some way, eventually over time, it makes them stronger.

So I don’t know. Maybe those happy endings I love so much aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Because sometimes life just deals a bad hand. And you take it.  Stay in the game as long as you can, until it’s safe to fold. Then you go home, count your losses and get ready to do it all over again. Because next time…next time…you might just win.

“Play it again, Sam.”




  1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on May 17, 2014 at 12:50 am

    Oh, yes, happy endings are all they’re cracked up to be. They are to be treasured, cherished, and valued as if they may never come again.

    Because they may not.

    We live in a world that murders the gentle and the good, to make a point, to make room, for fun, or just in casual offhand savagery. Thousands of stories end every day, and thousands of happy endings perish in the flames.

    A happy ending…even a partially happy ending…is a gift. It’s God whispering that there’s still something good worth holding to, that somewhere in this insane temporal calculus there’s a term that cancels all the evil on one side of the equation.

    We reach out to God in the storm, sure…but that’s dangerous, because the storm can overwhelm us, can batter our hope into a dull lethargic acceptance of a Fate that we see as cruel.

    How much more brightly hope can shine in the rainbow!

    • Cathy West on May 17, 2014 at 9:09 am

      Yes, you’re right of course. 🙂 And I LOVE a happy ending. I guess the catalyst for these thoughts was that I have read a few books recently where it didn’t all work out with the two of them riding off into the sunset. And I thought, yeah, sometimes life doesn’t give that option. Probably what I should have said was that even when it doesn’t. God is still in control or our destinies, and if we believe that, then we choose to praise him regardless. And that’s not something you see in the general market with fiction, not a lot anyway. So maybe this is all part of me trying to figure out this whole writing thing…knowing me, I probably will stick to the HAE…but it’s interesting to explore other ideas too. But you’re right, those happy endings are indeed a gift and should never be taken for granted. 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts, Andrew!

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on May 17, 2014 at 1:23 pm

        You’ve definitely got me thinking, and I was thinking about this while walking the dogs this morning. All 26 of them.

        I think that one of the key questions is what, exactly defines ‘happily ever after’. The examples of ‘Casablanca’ and GWTW are interesting, because they’re not really clear-cut.

        In ‘Casablanca’, the only way that Sam and Ilsa could have gone off together was through an act of betrayal. The ending as it stands, “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship” is rather reminiscent of David and Jonathan (or Damon and Pythias, come to think of it). It’s satisfying, and upbeat.

        GWTW is more complicated. Scarlet has, I think, more of a ‘need’ for Rhett than genuine love. He represents something to her, but through the film there’s an aura of emptiness to his character that we never find in Scarlet. In the last scene, she realizes – and we do, too – that she’s outgrown that need, and outgrown him. She’s gone from grub to butterfly, and her metamorphosis is what makes some of her frankly irritating moments worthwhile.

        Books and movies with truly unhappy endings see, not to really work, because they either tie things up with a finality that can be a bit preposterous (hero or heroine is heroically killed in the context of the relationship…now, how often does THAT happen?), or things just fall apart, which we can see often enough in real life, thank you.

        And then there’s Nevil Shute’s “On The Beach”, of which the less said, the better. The world comes to an end, so why read the book, masochism aside?

        I think that what i’m trying to say (and using a LOT of words to do so) is that a happy ending has to be defined in one of two ways –

        1) It’s morally correct, in that the characters make the right choices, and that the benefit of those choices is shown, even if briefly;

        2) It’s faithful to the character, as she or he progresses beyond the need for an ending that would have been seen as happy through the bulk of the story. Again, we’ve got to see the payoff, or at least its potential.

  2. Jenelle. M on May 17, 2014 at 2:51 am

    Like Andrew wonderfully stated, I too, like happy endings. My life is filled with mess, stress, bad hands, whatever! I read to escape those things. I want to dive into another world and be swept away into someone’s else woes and see them work out. It doesn’t need to be puppies and flowers happy, but most readers like some satisfaction in the ending. Now, friend, I get what you’re saying, but I would like to challenge you with what an unhappy ending would look like in your current WIP. What’s your motivation for doing so? Is it for you or the reader? Maybe you can write out both endings and see what sticks. You’ll figure it out. And in the meantime, we’re here for your ranting pleasure 😉

    Andrew, I read your comments whenever I’m on the Books&Such, and I have read your blog numerous times. You honesty is refreshing and I wanted to thank you for keep it real.

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on May 17, 2014 at 7:25 am

      Oh, Jenelle…you don’t know how much your kind words mean! I’m really honored. Being able to be part of this community of hope is a privilege.

    • Cathy West on May 17, 2014 at 9:11 am

      Oh, I know. And I guess the luxury we have is being able to write whichever fits the story. I think it will be a happy ending, in one sense, but there will be other sides to the story that won’t be so happy…if that makes sense. And I’m definitely one of those readers who get ticked with an unhappy ending! HA. Which is probably why I’ve never written one. But anyway, just thinking out loud, and thanks for listening and sharing! Hugs!

  3. MarieP. on May 17, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    I definitely prefer a happy ending to both books and movies. Life is so full of unhappy endings already. I don’t need everything to be all roses and sunshine, I just like an ending that leaves me with a feeling of satisfaction, joy or hope.

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