How do you define a happy ending?
''I won't read a book with an unhappy ending,' a friend once told me.
'So how do you define a happy ending?' I asked.
'Well,' she replied, 'I guess it's a broader issue than everyone living happily ever after, like in a romance novel. For me, in order to have a happy ending, good has to triumph over evil.'
This got me thinking. Is it really necessary for every novel to serve up a morally nutritious dessert at the end of the fictional feast? Must good always emerge the victor? Real life, as we're all painfully aware, isn't like that. So why should we expect fiction to paint an unrealistic picture of the world we live in?
A place for unhappy endings
Genre is important here, of course. I'd bet that most romance readers prefer happy endings for their novels. After all, isn't that the point? Character A meets Character B, they're attracted, but obstacles abound along the path of true love. Eventually A and B conquer their issues, declare their love and live happily ever after. Death, unpleasant divorce statistics and marital disharmony would be unwelcome guests in the soft-edged and fluffy world of romantic fiction.
'I remember reading a romance book back when I was a teenager and it had the heroine dying at the end in childbirth and the hero being sad and never finding someone again. What the hell kinda ending is that!?' A comment made in response to me posing the question about happy endings in a Goodreads group. Hard not to see her point, really! In the same group, someone mentioned a romance in which the hero gets shot two chapters from the end, totally ruining the reading experience. For romance novels, a stereotypical 'happy ever after' ending is almost implicit.
Not always, of course. Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' is the obvious example of a doomed romance, but there are plenty more. Take 'The Fault in Our Stars', a novel by John Green. No happy endings here, not given the death of Augustus Waters from cancer. But then, with this novel, the reader is primed from the start to wonder whether a feel-good conclusion is in the stars. After all, the protagonists meet at a support group for cancer patients. And let's not forget many readers enjoy a good weepie. There's definitely a place for unhappy endings, even within the romance genre, provided they're done sensitively and don't come as a shock to the reader.
A world without hope, an unthinkable future
Let's stick with the issue of genre. If happy endings are the norm for romance novels. the opposite is often true for dystopian ones. Dystopian novels are, by their definition, about unhappiness, with the protagonist primed to fail in a world without hope. The point of such a novel is to portray a an unthinkable future, one that can serve as a warning.
In his dystopian epic 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', George Orwell allows us to glimpse the horrors of a totalitarian world. I've written in a previous blog post about how affected I was by reading the novel with the expectation that good would triumph and that Winston would eventually defeat Big Brother and the Party. I was a teenager at the time and the final chapter came as a huge shock to me, destroying my adolescent expectations for a different, less bleak, ending. I've sometimes wondered what kind of novel it would have been had Orwell delivered the ending my teenage self expected. Personally, I found the long, boring passages about Ingsoc a chore to read. What if they had been replaced by Winston and Julia fighting the good fight and overthrowing the Party? In the hands of a master like Orwell, the reader would still have been assured of a great read. Would it have been a better novel? Impossible to say, of course.
Life isn't all roses and honey
Reader requirements are important too, of course. In a world where there's hunger, poverty and cruelty, many people employ fiction as an escape mechanism. For a few short hours, they can forget the awfulness portrayed on the nightly news as they lose themselves in a happier world between the covers of a book.
Other readers may disagree. After all, real life isn't all roses and honey. Not everyone wants to read books that deliver a moral message, preferring to escape the pervading political correctness of our times with a book that doesn't attempt to sugar-coat life. Novels that reflect the myriad problems affecting our world can reach out to readers more authentically, because they enable them to identify more strongly with the plot-line.
An unhappy ending also avoids clichés. We're almost conditioned to expect a neat, happy wrap-up at the conclusion of a novel, so when the author delivers something quite different, it can come as a refreshing change.
Unexpected endings can jar the reader
Not always, though. Sometimes endings can jar the reader. I suspect this is often because they don't deliver what my friend requires - the triumph of good over bad. Perhaps that's why the end of Gillian Flynn's novel 'Gone Girl' (review here) has attracted so much criticism, with many readers hating it. Without wishing to give spoilers, Flynn doesn't provide a neat wrap-up in which the novel's resident psychopath meets a well-deserved comeuppance. Her finale is refreshing for that very reason, although I confess I also found it somewhat unsatisfying.
Let's look at another example. Take how Thomas Harris concludes 'Hannibal'. OK, so the final chapters of this book have been derided as being totally unrealistic - 'that would NEVER happen!' is a typical response - but like with 'Gone Girl', I suspect some of this is because the ending offends many people's sense of morality. Where is Lecter's punishment for his terrible crimes? What's more, not only does evil come out on top, the closing events portray the corruption of Clarice Starling, a former federal agent, someone supposed to defend right versus wrong. Lecter perverts whatever's decent in Clarice by leading her to share his cannibalistic depravity as well as making her his lover. End result - evil triumphs over good. Unacceptable to many people, I suspect; hence the criticism.
The fun that a good villain provides
For some readers, it's easy to set aside questions of good versus evil, of course. Many people adore a villain. There's something about the bad guys and girls of fiction that's oddly compelling. Take the popularity of Patricia Highsmith's series of Ripley novels. Tom Ripley is a psychopath who kills as and when it suits him, but he's also a charming and engaging individual. Polite, cultured, moving in a glamorous world of travel and luxury, he delights the reader with his total lack of a moral compass. When he fails to get his due desserts at the end of Highsmith's novels, we don't mind, because Ripley has entertained us so much along the way.
Perhaps that's why we also love Hannibal Lecter. He's a depraved cannibal, sure, but he's also intelligent, witty and cultured, a dichotomy that intrigues us and draws us in, as we endeavour to understand what drives such a man. We're revolted by the idea of him eating Krendler's brain, but also filled with admiration for his brilliant mind and ruthless cunning. Ah, the contradictions of human nature! Aren't they fascinating?
Do you prefer a happy ending?
Let's hear from you! What do you require in order to be satisfied with a novel's ending? If you're a romance reader, do you need A and B to live happily ever after, or are lots of tears and a death or two OK? If you're into dystopia, do you believe a happy ending runs contrary to what the genre should deliver?
Are there any novels that ended in a totally different way to what you'd expected, and if so, were you pleased or disgruntled? Do you read to escape real life, or are you somebody who prefers novels to deliver a social commentary in line with the world's issues? Leave a reply and let me know!
I'd like to give a warm welcome to Amy Morse, author of the Sheridan and Blake four-book thriller series. who has written this blog post about why you shouldn't judge a book by its movie. Take it away, Amy!
A book is more intimate...
It has often been said that the book is always better than the movie - I saw a quote recently that said 'don't judge a book by its movie'. But why is that? A book is more intimate. When you read a book you are experiencing your own private screening of a movie being beamed directly into your brain.
A unique experience for every reader...
Movies are a visual feast...
The actors cast in the roles of the characters can also alter the feel of the story. Take 'Interview with a Vampire', for example. I must admit, I did love the film, but predictably I enjoyed the book more and was a big Anne Rice fan as a consequence. Never in a million years did I picture Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise as Louis and Lestat. Both actors were brilliant, but it tarnished the sheen the book had left me with and altered my perception of the original story. Movies are a visual and auditory feast and a shared experience. You can talk about a movie and adopt catch phases with your peers in a way that you rarely can with books. After a few of us at work went to see 'American Hustle', the office microwave is now forever known as the science oven!
Imitation is the highest form of flattery
My ultimate dream is to have the Sheridan and Blake series made into movies, and in my head my hero Tom Sheridan would be played by Clive Owen and my heroine, Sasha Blake, by Kate Winslet. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. I love movies, I really do. It's difficult to eat popcorn when you're reading a book! My advice? Read the book first, and when the movie comes out, try to think of them as two different stories that happen to have the same title.
More about Amy Morse
More about the Sheridan and Blake Series
Bristol-based archaeologist, Dr Sasha Blake, is recruited by a covert organisation specialising in the repatriation of stolen antiquities from the black market - The Agency.
Partnered with Tom Sheridan, a man from her past, they must deal with their tumultuous relationship and learn to trust each other.
Together, Sheridan and Blake embark on an increasingly hostile mission to locate a stolen artefact - a mysterious bronze box, the keys to the box and an ancient manuscript needed to open it.
In this international conspiracy that spans the ages, told over four books, they must find the artefacts before a ruthless criminal, known only as The Libyan. Click or tap the images for more information (affiliate links):
Thank you, Amy!
Thank you, Amy! I couldn't agree more that a miscast actor can ruin a film. There can be exceptions, though. For instance, I found it hard to believe that Tom Cruise, not the tallest actor around, was cast as 6' 5" Jack Reacher in the film of the same title. Somehow, it worked for me, but I suspect only because at the time when I saw the film, I'd not yet read any of Lee Child's Reacher novels. And Tom Cruise is a good actor, in my opinion.
What do YOU think?
Have there been any books that have been spoiled for you by the movie version? Or vice versa? Leave a comment and let me know!
For some, there's nothing like a real book
Ah, the pleasures of reading...
'I get how convenient e-books are,' a friend told me recently. 'But there's nothing quite like snuggling up with a real book, is there?' She's not alone. Since I started publishing novels, I've lost count of the number of people who have told me they prefer to hold an actual book in their hands as opposed to a tablet or e-reader.
Personally, I'm happy to use both. I have a Kindle as my chosen e-reader device. I love it, but I also read hardbacks and paperbacks borrowed from my local library. I believe our free book borrowing system is amazing, so I'm keen to support it, and there's also an ever-growing range of e-books available from them as well.
Ebooks, defend your corner!
So why are e-books so popular? Let's look at the advantages.
1. Immediate gratification. In a world where change is occurring at an increasingly fast pace, e-books provide near-instant enjoyment. With Amazon's 'one click' facility, it's a matter of seconds to get the latest blockbuster on your Kindle.
2. Portability. E-readers and tablets can hold thousands of books, great for travelling. It takes seconds to add or delete books, and it's a doddle to move them between devices.
3. E-readers are customisable. Need to read in a larger font? Simple. Like to make notes you can erase later? Easy-peasy. Want to read in bed at night but your partner is asleep beside you? No problem - simply activate the built-in light on your Kindle or Nook.
4. Price. The price of most full-length novels on Amazon UK is around the £3 mark. Paperback novels tend to retail at £8 or £9. E-books have made reading far cheaper and often free. The advent of Amazon's Kindle Unlimited programme has helped boost ebook reading.
Let's hear it for physical books!
It's reassuring to note there's still a gratifying rise in the sales of actual books as well. So what makes so many people love snuggling up with a physical version of their chosen read?
1. Ah, the pleasure of a brand-new book! Many people give this as a reason for preferring paperbacks and hardbacks to e-books. There's something incredibly sensual about holding a new book purchase, smelling its pages and feeling the smoothness of the cover beneath one's fingers. How can an electronic version compete? Straight answer - it can't. Set beside their physical counterparts, e-books appear somewhat homely at best. And doesn't a well-stocked bookcase add something wonderful to a room?
2. Whilst textbooks are becoming increasingly digital, there are some books that undoubtedly do better in physical format. Cookery books, for one, with their glossy pages full of photos of wonderful culinary delights, look much better in a physical format. So do the types of books destined for life on the coffee table - exotic travel tomes, photographic books and the like - against which digital versions can't as yet compare.
3. For me, it's easier to flip backwards and forwards in a physical book. I can skim through the pages of one really quickly with my fingers. Not so with an e-book using the content/search facilities on my Kindle - sure, I can do it, but it takes longer.
4. Finally, plenty of people are technophobes. I'm not, but I do know a few! They're simply not comfortable with using electronic devices for reading.
What's your preference? Ebook or actual?
So what's your stance on the e-book versus actual book debate? Are you one of the many people who savour the feel and smell of a real book in their hands, something which will grace their bookshelves and hallmark them as a bookworm? Or do you love the convenience and cheapness of e-books, loading your e-reader or tablet up with the latest bargains as they hit the digital shelves? Maybe you're like me, mixing the tangible with the digital as it suits. Leave a comment and let me know!