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On Writing Novels With Happy Endings, by Onil Lad

You can start your novel with the premise that everyone is broken to start with or soon will be and then proceed to put them through conflict and pain, but you still have to write an  ending true to the tone of what has gone on before. Can you put your characters through hell, take away their love interest, take away their dreams and then come up with a non-contrived happy ending? Having a hero that can wind back time or fly through the air to complete his quest is not allowed.

Imagine you’re writing about a marathon runner who has been hobbled before he even gets to the race. When the starting gun fires, someone kicks him in the kneecaps and punches him on the nose. Once he’s finished tending to his injuries, he looks up to see that the rest of the field are way ahead. He gets going, but his injuries progressively get worse. It would appear impossible for him to do anything other than show a stiff upper lip, put in a brave effort and scrape across the finishing line in last place. But this is fiction and you’re writing for an audience who crave a certain feeling. You’re compelled to try to make him win. To achieve this in a credible way would take some writing, if it can be done at all.

Once I’ve started the relentless march of giving your characters a good kicking, it feels natural to continue on in the same vein. When the conclusion inevitably beckons, I wonder whether I have written my characters into a hole so deep and dark that there’s no escape.

I recently read an acclaimed book set in a not too distant future where the world has fallen to pieces and the end of social order is near. It left me with no lingering thoughts and was memorable only in that it was so depressing. Life may not be a walk in the park, but I can do without being told there’s no hope. We need to be uplifted, even if it is just a small triumph of human spirit in a losing cause.

Most of my favourite books don’t have a truly happy ending, but each one has delivered at least one worthwhile message or emotion. We read for different reasons and there are books to be read for sheer escapism, in which everything works out. That’s not the path I’m heading down with my novel.

In reference to another storytelling art form, literary critic, William Dean Howells said:

“What the American public want in the theatre is a tragedy with a happy ending.”

That seems like a tough job. For me, it’s more about striking a chord and giving the reader something to which they can relate. Every struggle leaves its mark. At the end of Lord of the Rings, Frodo, who has seen too much strife and been too deeply hurt to go back to the Shire, has to be shipped off to the Undying Lands.

I’ve never made it past half way in any of my novels to date. I’m experienced in putting my characters through all the life-is-tough things, but not in tying up the loose ends and finishing the final chapter. I wonder how this one will work out. The chances are that I’ll give in and make them all live happily ever after.


Onil Lad’s bio page

Burning LiesStillwater CreekThe Fortunes of Ruby WhiteThe Fragment of DreamsRotten GodsJ.R.R. Tolkien 4-Book Boxed Set: The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings (Movie Tie-In): The Hobbit, the Fellowship of the Ring, the Two Towers, the Retu

Writing Novels in Australia


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