Happy Endings Redux (And Good News)

By John Gilstrap

First the news flash: I am thrilled to report that I have just re-upped with Kensington/Pinnacle for two more Jonathan Grave thrillers. That means he’ll be guaranteed at least four books to make his mark on the literary world. I can feel the bad guys in my head scurrying for cover already. Best of all, I will continue to own the lead spot for July (Hostage Zero this year, and the new books in succeeding years), which means I get to launch each book during ThrillerFest. I’m a very happy author right now.

Shifting away from shameless self-promotion, there’s a blessing and a curse associated with following Michelle Gagnon in the Killzone batting order. The blessing, of course, is that she’s very good at what she does, fielding thought-provoking questions and opinions. The flip side–the curse–is that her posts frequently spark something in my psyche that prompts me to sideline the post I was going to write to expand upon the idea she introduced.

So let’s talk some more about happy endings. But first let’s wrestle with semantics. The phrase, “happy endings”, is itself trite and cliched. It brings to mind blue birds and insipid hugs. I like “satisfying ending” a little better, but what works best for me is “respectful ending.”

Authors must respect their readers.

I make a silent pact with my readers to deliver a certain kind of ride. They can expect honest, dedicated good guys, bad guys whose badness is well-motivated, and a screaming pace from beginning to end. Where violence is necessary, the violence will be graphic, because I believe that violence must have consequence, both for the characters involved and for the reader who’s coming along on their adventure. If I do my job well, everybody’s going to be a little out of breath at the end.

I think it would be unforgiveable if, after painstakingly developing this fragile trusting relationship with my readers, I let the good guys fail and the bad guys win. I’m not above making victory hurt, but I can’t imagine creating a book-length story where the good guys didn’t prevail.

When I think of the stories that have most disappointed me over the years, the common denominator is the writers’ lack of respect for their audiences. Remember Hannibal? Terrible. Clarice Starling goes to the dark side. WTF?

Or what about the movie Pay It Forward? Forgive the spoiler, but they knife a little boy to death so that the producers can have the excrutiatingly cloying river of candles marching in his memory. Urgh.

Y’all probably have a thousand other examples where you’ve felt cheated or just plain pissed off by an ending.

In my book, if a good guy is going to die, his death had better by God be for a cause more noble than startling the audience. Do we really want to see Jonathan Grave or Winter Massey or Jack Reacher get dropped by a stray bullet just to make a point that life is capricious? That kind of thing happens in real life, but fictional realities have no allegiance to the harshness of the real world. I believe that people who read about bigger-than-life characters do so for the vicarious victory that they can reasonably count on.

Not necessarily a “happy” ending, but most definitely a respectful one.

That said, let’s tie this into the short story discussion we’ve been having here. In a short story, all bets are off, as far as I’m concerned. On that small canvas, I get to flex my irony muscle. My pact with my regular readers is null and void for the short story. I’m just sayin’.

14 thoughts on “Happy Endings Redux (And Good News)

  1. John, congrats on the multi-book deal. In today’s shaky publishing world, that’s saying a lot about your books and your skills.

    I totally agree with you on how you view endings. I go back to my example in Michelle’s post by using the remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL as an example. It was one of those “when is something going to happen?” movies, and I can only assume that they ended it when they did because they ran out of script or got bored. Either way, it will make you throw something at the TV, then set the DVD on fire.

  2. John,
    I also agree 1000% with your stand on endings, even as far as short stories are concerned.

    Great follow up post. Oh yeah, congrats as well!

  3. Great news about the series’ continuation. It has to be a great feeling.

    I like your use of “respectful” when describing endings. I don’t want to see the hero capriciously killed, either, but too many books–and even more movies–go to such lengths to make sure nothing too bad happens to anyone we care about that it ruins the credibility of the whole story. The hero should live, but everyone else is fair game.

    Of course, that gets into the swampy ground of what I call Star Trek Disease, where you can spot who’s going to die–and who won’t–a quarter of the way into the story.

  4. Congrats on your deal, John! That’s not good news, that’s GREAT news!

    I agree. The ending of HANNIBAL is number one on my all-time list of bad book endings.

  5. Congrats, John! Looking forward to more Grave doings.

    You know, one reason people read thrillers is for “fear management.” Lee Child made this point in a talk once. The earliest storytellers were doing that around the campfire. So the ending most readers desire is one that vindicates the collective hope and morality of the community, the yearning for justice to be done.

    A writer can go the other way, toward nihilism, but is not likely to catch on for very long with that.

    The challenge is to make our endings surprising and fresh, even while vindicating the yearnings of the audience.

    Beginnings are easy. Endings are hard.

  6. Don’t forget about the ending to Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind”! Great story, but I just hated, hated, hated how she ended that one! I wonder if she planned on doing a sequel, but just never got around to it? Thank goodness Alexandra Ripley did when she wrote “Scarlett”, and did an awesome job. Now there was a satisfying ending! BTW, I detested the movie version of “Scarlett”, too many unbelievable, unnecessary changes and not enough staying true to the novel itself. There may be people who feel that way about the movie version of “GWTW”, too, but I haven’t met any.

  7. It is so nice to know I’m not the only one who hated the end to Gone With the Wind. I felt cheated after spending so much time with the movie.

    But, every time I end a piece now, I’m reminded the reader needs to feel satisfied.

  8. Thanks so much for the kind words, John, and congrats on the book deal, that’s fantastic news!

    I’ve really been wrestling with this issue lately. I’m currently concluding book 4 of my series. I write without outlining, which means that sometimes I’m as taken aback as the reader by what transpires. And at the end of this installment, at least in it’s current incarnation, something very bad happens.

    So I’m trying to decide if it’s bad, yet satisfying, or if will prove too upsetting to the reader.

    I keep going back to this season’s finale of Dexter (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t watched this season yet, stop reading immediately).

    A major character was killed off in the final minutes of the show. I actually suspected that was going to happen- and when it did, although it was upsetting, it was ultimately satisfying because it really brought the story full circle, and opened up numerous possibilities for next season. I can’t wait to see how they handle it.

    Yet I also received an email recently from a fan regarding the ending of my last book, who said that his wife feels that, “you broke the cardinal rule and are messing with the main characters. Its one of the reasons why she doesn’t watch NCIS or the CSI’s or Torchwood or Lost, etc….anymore. She wants everyone to always be OK on the shows. She wont even watch the Dr. Who season end because the last guy is leaving and its too stressful.”

    So if you go in that direction, there’s always the risk of losing readers.
    I just can’t imagine the book concluding any other way now, although I’m still struggling with it.

  9. Forgive the heresy, but I’ve never read GWTW, so I can’t weigh in on that one.

    Michelle, your dilemma is a tough one. I guess at the end of the day you just have to follow your instincts–just don’t screw it up. ๐Ÿ™‚


  10. John-if you’ve seen the movie version of GWTW and liked it, then you have to read the book! Way, way better! A lot of stuff is told that didn’t make it into the movie. That was part of the problem with the movie version of “Scarlett”; they ignored what was in the book and totally made up some junk in its place. If they had used what was in the novel, it would have made a lot more sense! So, read GWTW and then read Scarlett. Awesome!

  11. well, tho’ agreeing with sign lady that the movie adaptation of the sequel to gwtw, ‘scarlet’ was pretty bad….it was a monumental mistake to do a sequel…. on so many levels. unless they could resurrect margaret mitchell…not a good idea to let someone else take her story to the next level. and find someone to replace clarke gable and vivien leigh…..are you kidding me…..never should have happened. i will take the ‘not gonna ride off into the sunset’ ending, and be done with it. better than the lame excuse for the follow up story by ripley.

  12. MICHELLE! I finally got a copy of Boneyard after many false starts (an amusing tale in its own right) and I loved the morally ambiguous ending (along with the excellent use of large rocks . . .).

    I read Boneyard right after your post on happy endings and thought you really nailed it in the book.

    OMG – do not be afraid to mess with your characters if that is what your instincts tell you to do.

    I watch all the shows your reader mentioned just because they are not afraid to reach in and mess somebody up. To me, perfect fairy tale endings in gritty crime dramas are jump-the-shark fodder.

    I am now devouring Gatekeeper and am completely curious about book four.

    John – way to go on the book deal, No Mercy was just a taste of the world according to Graves and I am very pleased the series will continue. Now, like other writers I follow, you’ll just have to write faster!


    PS: Sorry Gang, I loved GWTW just the way it was and was not fond of “Scarlett”.

    Some stories and some characters are too big to wrap up in a neat bow, I like having the option to imagine my own alternate resolutions.

    Colleen McCullough also resisted happily-ever-itis in her towering epic “The Far Pavillions.” At the end, pretty much everybody is dead and the two main characters load up their pack ponies in search of a lost dream, the last line was something along the lines of “and perhaps they found it . . . “

    The ultimate morally ambiguous ending is “The Grapes of Wrath.” Just read the Amazon reviews one dull morning for a good laugh from those who expected the Joads to live happily ever after.

  13. THANK YOU!!!!! Thank you for putting into words what I’ve been trying to say forEVER!!! And now I have the perfect way to explain it to some one “Satisfying ending”.

    Thank you!!

    Congrats on the book deal!!! A happy author will produce satisfying endings, I’m sure.

Comments are closed.