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’.