In a workshop I teach, a student recently pointed out that a lot of stories we’d read had sad endings. This prompted a discussion of whether it’s possible to write a happy ending; it is, of course, but it’s not necessarily easy. Some writers are not temperamentally inclined toward uplifting or positive conclusions. Some are. But what if your nature runs toward difficult endings but you want to send your characters and readers away from the last page with joy in the hearts? How can you tilt a narrative in favor of a happy ending?
A great example of a novel that begins and ends this way is Phaedra Patrick’s novel The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper. You can listen to the opening pages at Mira Harlequin’s website.
How the Novel Works
We meet the novel’s main character, Arthur Pepper, on the one-year anniversary of his wife’s death. He begins sorting through her things and discovers a charm bracelet that he’s never seen before. He decides to track down the source of each charm, and this quest provides the plot of the novel. Arthur is British, as is his creator, Phaedra Patrick, and so astute readers may sense similarities with the recent British novels The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and These Foolish Things, which inspired the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Both are about older characters on quests, and both end happily. Certainly, the title of Patrick’s novel suggests a happy ending. The word charm has positive connotations, as does curious. And yet the novel’s premise doesn’t automatically guarantee a happy ending. After all, Arthur has learned that his wife led a life that he knew nothing about. There is plenty he could discover about her that would make him miserable.
So, why does the reader feel quite certain, after reading a short ways into the novel, that things will turn out all right? The answer, in part, is in the way the conflict and mystery are framed.
When Arthur tracks down the person who gave his wife the first charm, a nice guy in India who had a crush on Arthur’s wife, here is Arthur’s reaction:
Arthur knew nothing about this part of his wife’s life. But he knew this was the same woman that they had both loved. Miriam’s laughter did sound like tiny bells. She did have a bag of marbles, which she gave to Dan. He was still reeling from astonishment, but he could hear the longing in Mr. Mehra’s voice.
The news that another man had desired his wife could lead to a lot of reactions, many of them not so pleasant. Yet Arthur immediately “felt a glow in his stomach.” This is important: the revelation adds to Arthur’s sense of the world—the basic nature of the place where he lives and the people he’s trusted. The revelation doesn’t cause him to lose all sense of certainty. Of course, it could do that later. Arthur could find out that his wife kept men on every continent and lied to him every day. But (not really a spoiler), that’s not what happens. Arthur’s mental landscape of the world remains intact; in fact, it’s been enlarged and given new areas to explore.
The second part of the novel’s frame shapes how Arthur acts on this news:
Arthur was surprised to feel a tiny kernel of excitement taking root in his stomach. He had found out something about his wife’s past life and his inquisitive nature was compelling him to find out more. The only feelings he experienced these days were sadness, disappointment and melancholy, so this felt new.
Shortly after this passage, Arthur decides to take a trip—and that trip begins the story of the novel.
At this point in the novel, this reaction seems of a piece with what we expect. But, again, it’s not the only possible reaction. Arthur could be momentarily astonished at the news—and then sink back into melancholy. Or he could feel excited and decide to take a trip—only to break his hip or get his credit card hacked. In the other words, the world isn’t required to play along. But, in this case, it does. That’s the nature of the world of this novel.
I suppose a skeptic could say, “But that’s not how life is,” but a great many people are happy, which means the world does, in fact, play along with our hopes and dreams sometimes.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s set up a happy ending, using The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick as a model:
- Give your character a problem. Arthur’s wife has died, and it’s the anniversary of her death. That’s a situation that would be problematic for anyone—a big problem, more severe than, say, a stubbed toe. Don’t take it easy on your character. Give him or her something that is difficult to grapple with.
- Introduce revelatory news. The goal is to make your character see the problem in a new way. Arthur finds the charm bracelet, makes a phone call, and learns that his wife had a completely unknown life before he met her. What piece of news or information would cause your character to suddenly view the problem in a different, unexpected way?
- Make the news affirm the character’s basic sense of the world. Arthur doesn’t suddenly suspect that his wife was an imposter in their marriage. The woman he knew is the same woman he learns about; the identity is consistent throughout. So, don’t scramble the character’s understanding of the world or the people in it. Let the character maintain a basic sense of how things work. This lets readers see the character as wise and trustworthy. That said, the character’s sense of the world doesn’t need to be positive (for example, the belief that people are good and things will work out). Every character’s happy ending will be different.
- Instead, let the news expand that sense of the world. Arthur doesn’t question essential things about his wife, but he does learn that there are unknown dimensions to her. How can you use the revelation to suggest that there is something a character doesn’t know—but will want to know?
- Let the character act on the revelation, and let the world cooperate. Arthur pursues the thing he doesn’t know. How can your character pursue his or her own mystery? Because the world plays along, readers begin to suspect that the character will find answers to the mystery. Of course, it’s always possible for the story to take a permanent turn for the worse, but the longer that the character’s sense of the world is confirmed and the world cooperates, it becomes more and more likely that the character will get what he or she desires—and for most characters, this means a happy ending.
The goal is to set up an ending by framing the story’s conflict and world in a way that makes a happy ending more likely than a disturbing one.