Are Happy Endings Necessary?

by Michelle Gagnon

I’m currently guest blogging over at Criminal Minds. It’s a very cool site, sort of a virtual panel where every day for a week I answer a different question posed by the blog group. The only downside is that I’m a bit blogged out. I know, we just had a two week hiatus. My blogging muscle should be well-rested, but between surviving the holidays, trying to finish book four in my series, and fighting off a nasty cold and laryngitis, I’m tapped out. Which is my overly-long explanation for why today’s Kill Zone post will be on the short side. So if you just can’t get enough of my rambling ruminations, and you want to find out more about my illustrious career as a Russian supper club performer, mosey on over to Criminal Minds.

As I mentioned, I’ve been battling illness all week. I rarely fall sick, and this was one of those colds that completely derails you for five days. Three of those days I was too knocked out to read, which meant I was forced to subject myself to a string of truly awful films (DO NOT, under ANY circumstances, rent “Land of the Lost.”)

But I did manage to read a thriller on day four. I loved the book, but one thing struck me, especially as I’m currently retooling the end of my next book:

Does a thriller need to have a happy ending?

Mind you, I’m not panning happy endings. It’s just that at the end of the great ride this book provided, everything was wrapped up so patly it struck me as false. None of the good guys had suffered so much as a serious injury. The bad guys all died horribly. There was even a marriage proposal. All that was missing were bluebirds flying down from the trees a la Snow White.

And to be honest, I felt a little let down. Not that I wanted something terrible to happen to any of the characters, but I wondered: must all thrillers end like this? Because as I started to review the list of bestsellers over the past few years, I couldn’t recall many with unhappy conclusions. (Although I’d love to have someone jog my memory).

Crime fiction films seem less leery of this: I’m not entirely certain that “The Departed” qualifies as a thriller, but it certainly doesn’t have a happy ending. Same with “Seven” and “The Usual Suspects,” two of my personal all-time favorite films.

I understand that there is a level of comfort in having everything tied up neatly at the conclusion of a book, and that happy endings are inherently satisfying.

But notable exceptions like “Sharp Objects” and “In the Woods” really stuck with me after I finished them, since they dared to end on dark and/or ambiguous notes. Neither of those is truly a thriller, however.

So what do you think? Does a thriller need to end on a high note to be satisfying?

15 thoughts on “Are Happy Endings Necessary?

  1. “Does a thriller need to end on a high note to be satisfying?”

    Michelle, your question contains the answer, for me at least. I think the ending must be satisfying. Happy or dark, it must quench the reader’s thrust. I loved SEVEN and THE USUAL SUSPECTS, too, and was completely satisfied with the dark endings. Many Sci-Fi and Horror movies such as HALLOWEEN, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and FRIDAY THE 13TH all have dark endings but seem to work repeatedly. I guess what you don’t want to happen is for your reader or viewer to wish it had turned out different.

    BTW, please add the new remake version of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL to the list of movies never to be rented.

  2. A thriller probably does need to end on a high note to be successful; the question is, “How high?” And how much of a reach can it be?

    I know I’d feel cheated by the ending you described. I don’t watch nearly as many action movies as I used to–even those that are well received–because too many of them have bad guys who couldn’t shoot a bullet into the ground and good guys who can’t miss when it counts.

    Thrillers expect a large suspension of disbelief to begin with. Don;t make me work too hard at it.

  3. Maybe it’s cliche, but I like it when the bad guy dies at the end. I live for that moment of justice. That makes the reading satisfying for me.

  4. I am actually one who like cliff-hanger endings or endings where the protagonist or his close friends may win but not necessarily come out in good shape.

    In my day job I work with a group of people who got hurt in their chosen profession, a profession that tends to be rather violent for many of those who choose it. I see first hand that heroic types frequently end their stories with serious life long scars, both physically and psychologically. Many end that story in a box or scattered in pieces across their work zone.

    From there they are often memorialized in song or chant or with their names posted on buildings and street signs.

    Even those that make it through their work day both victorious and in one piece tend to be seriously different than before the day started.

    Give me realistic. Otherwise call it fantasy.

  5. I actually prefer ambiguous endings so long as they are still satisfying – so now I don’t need a happy ending at all. In fact I agree that sometimes it can actually be a bit of a let down!

  6. Put me down on the inconclusive side. And then on the dark side. And then on the happy side.

    IMHO, each book is different and shouldn’t necessarily be tethered to an inflexible rule for its ending. It’s like you’re artificially closing off all your options but one.

    I don’t know, I guess I’m trying to say that if a certain kind of ending feels right for your book, then that’s what you should write.

  7. I’m with Joe in agreeing that an ending must be satisfying, but I take it a step further by saying that if the ‘bad guy’ wins, it’s not a satisfying ending for me. SEVEN falls into that category. I loved that movie, until the end. So much so that I wrote my own ending, one that was still messy but doesn’t leave John Doe with a smile on his face.

    This is a great topic. In my opinion, books (and movies) with depressing endings don’t get re-read or re-watched as often as those with satisfying endings, regardless of how good the material is. The word of mouth must suffer as well.

    Hope you feel better soon Michelle.

    DL’s Blog

  8. Interesting comments, everyone (and Joe, I couldn’t agree more about DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Saw it on a plane, it was awful. That can be an addendum to the comments, let’s all chime in with must-not-see films).

    I guess that’s the trick, is to make the ending satisfying whether it qualifies as happy or sad. Which can be a tough trick to pull off.

  9. I really enjoy a book where the author has the courage to not have a happy ending. I sometimes toss a book aside once the reveal is done because I know that the cop/victim, cop/cop, cop/reporter, cop/informant, spy/counter-spy or whatever other coupling are imagined are going to look deep into each other’s eyes and be caught up in the white-hot-center-of-a-thousand-suns and all others will live happily ever after, some having learned a sad-but-true lesson yadda, yadda, yadda . . .

    On the flip side, how about the ending of “Pet Cemetary”? King, love him or hate him, does have the courage to have dark unsettling endings to his tales, as well as the courage to really mess with his heroes (Roland vs. Man in Black and then the Lobstrosities) or the death of Henry Leyton in “Black House” which I still haven’t forgiven him for.

    For every thousand utterly forgettable happy endings to thrillers/horror/crime/adventure tales, there is one dark unsettled ending that I will never forget. Those are the ones I will come back to time and time again.


  10. Uncertainty as to the outcome can make a thriller satisfying. If a happy ending is guaranteed the plot’s likely to be predictable. I also enjoy ambiguous endings. I think the ending is an opportunity to do something memorable and different. I watched NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN last week and the ending made me rethink the whole movie; like two movies for the price of one.

  11. Hope you feel better and get your blog muscles rested!

    Thriller with less than neat, yet satisfying ending: Bourne Identity (way back in 1980-something for the book), but spy thrillers are almost guaranteed to be not entirely happy.

    Satisfying ending = one where the author has answered the dramatic question posed at the beginning (for movies — perhaps thriller books can also be looked at this way?) If the author thinks the question is “will JoeBob stick to his morals no matter what” but the reader thinks the question is “will JoeBob triumph”, then there’s bound to be problems.

    I can’t say what movie I’m avoiding right now, the whole rest of the PLANET is seeing it…

  12. I’m glad you mentioned Tana French’s the Woods because, while the writing was brilliant, the ending was really disappointing. When I read a book that dangles some really suspenseful question, I think the novelist has an obligation to answer that question, whether or not it’s a happy ending.

    I really like the way Tana French writes but I’m afraid to pick up the Likeness because it may end in a similar fashion.

    Karen C.

  13. In classic lit, the “tragic” ending can still satisfy the moral universe, because there’s a reason for the tragedy (the “flaw”). E.g., Stephen King has some “down” endings that nevertheless “satisfy” because they affirm the collective conscience. His “Storm of the Century” is still one of the best mini-series ever on TV, for that very reason. Total shock ending but it makes perfect sense.

    The “down” endings that don’t satisfy me are those that are nihilistic. Those are the easiest to write, BTW. John Gardner called this merely “staring, because it is fashionable, into the abyss.”

  14. As long as the bad ending stays true to the protagonist’s character, bring it. Did Mike Hammer break his promise to Jack’s death, even after he realized the woman he’d spent most of the book falling in love with was the killer? Also, I believe that if you’re writing an ongoing series, a sour ending sells the next book, because your readership wants to know how their favorite characters overcome that obstacle or event.

  15. No, you don’t need to have a happy ending. Some of the greatest works do not have a happy ending. Orwell’s 1984 doesn’t, but it’s satisfying. And then there is the emperor god king of the Downer Ending, Franz Kafka. If you pick up anything and it is by him, you already know isn’t gonna end well and the protagonist is possibly not even going to survive the story and along the way is going to be tortured, humiliated and kicked in the face by a cruel universe that seems determined to single him out for harassment. The average Kafka story goes like this:

    “wahaha! Thwarted at every turn, you jerk! First, you are going to be trapped in the Department of Motor Vehicles, unable to escape, but you probably deserve it! And now you get hit by a bus and you’ll have to do your own paperwork before you die! FACEPALM!”.

    But the ending is always satisfying because he had a gift for making the reader feel as if he knew their pain. The man was a genius.

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