Happy Endings Redux (And Good News)

By John Gilstrap
http://www.johngilstrap.com/

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’.

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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?

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