Friday, January 13, 2012

Endings: Happily Ever After...Or Not?

I've had lots of alternate endings for one of my romance WIPs.  It's the story "Ghost of a Promise" and, as you might imagine, achieving this"happily ever after" in the ending of a ghost story has been a challenge.   At times, even I have been a bit clueless as to how it was all going to work out.   I even wondered if, *whisper* maybe I wasn't writing a romance after all.  Because, really, how could it be a romance without the guaranteed happy ending? 

But of course, love them or hate them, romances, in the broader sense of movies and classical literature, have not always had happy endings.  And if tragedy seemed a more logical ending for this love story, maybe there were some strengths or benefits of tragedy to consider.  (At least until I figured my way out of this mess, that is!)

So, if you ever find yourself in this dilemma, here are my ideas of some benefits of tragedy:

1. Tragedy is, above all, memorable. Movies such as "Somersby," "Ghost" (of course!), "The Time Traveler's Wife" or "Gone with the Wind," etc, all have the loss of a hero or at least an unresolved  ending.  But in tragedy they linger in our thoughts. Tragic endings invite us to spend time making up 'what ifs' or reconciling a tragedy by imagining if only that one step had been different. We would even change history or cheat death if we could.  Above all, we don't forget when we reinvent.

2. In tragic endings, there is immortality and a sense of loyalty to "one great love."  In a sense, time stands still after a tragedy. The continuation of the heroine's life after a loss of a hero (although she is still young) is not imagined in a forward sense.  And, although we might imagine changing the events leading up to the ending, once the tragedy has occurred, we don't replace the hero or imagine the heroine with a second chance at love and happiness.  A new man in her life? Heaven forbid! That would be disloyal.

For example, even in the movie "Titanic," Rose has a long life that takes place in the years between the loss of Jack, her true love, and the last dreamlike scene of their reunion in death on the ship's staircase. It's actually a contrived happy ending to reunite Rose and Jack. The audience feels happy (so did I), and forgets what would be a real tragedy (other than the sinking of the ship!); this being  if Rose's only true happiness in a lifetime consisted of just a few days. Instead, what happens in between we don't think about.  We can't.  Tragedy immortalizes the hero and the romance.

3. In some cases, happiness isn't logical.  Tragedy, if not exactly easy, is logical. Bad things happen and, in the real world, ships sink.  Even in a paranormal romance, there are boundaries of logic.  Happiness has to to fit. The happy ending is all about conviction - - an absolute believability in the continuity of the relationship between the hero and the heroine. A love without end.

Seems like a tall order. 

This is a challenge of writing romance, and I don't think it's limited to ghost stories.  For instance, I've often wondered if writers (other than me!) have written themselves into a corner with their "black moments."  After all we work so hard to develop conflict, building on the premise that when things are bad, make them worse, that it might not be so easy to put the brakes on a train wreck in progress. We might do our job so well that the black moment in the story can seem like The End instead of a transition to that final resolution and reward of happiness.

But romance writers figure it out.  The characters and the reader gets a happy ending.  Thank goodness.

And I still wanted a happy ending for my ghost story.

So, while tragedy has its place, I've continued to tweak the right alternate endings for my my story.  Quite often, I've gone back to the thought I'd written myself into a corner -- and a "tragic" corner it was! Every attempt to turn it around to "happily-ever-after" seemed contrived.  But like the  die-hard "if only" fan of happy endings that I am, I persisted in my search of a happy ending, even if persistence meant leaving the story alone for a while.

Oddly enough, I found some missing pieces for this "happy ending" dilemma while working on a different story, which is a sequel.  Now, I do see a glimmer of the bright and shiny happily ever after for this particular story.  However, it's not so much the "tag-on" alternate ending I seemed to be searching for to set everything to rights.  Instead, some clues of "unlikely, but possible" are finding their way in earlier in the plot. 

So, if there's one thing I've learned about turning around a tragic ending to become a happy ending, it is that it's a bit like crafting a "who-done-it" mystery.  If all along you've pointed the finger at the butler, the big reveal that it isn't the butler can either be a satisfying surprise or feel out of place.  My big light bulb moment is that the only way to make a happy ending seem less contrived is to look for where to insert a few "clues" along the way.

Of course, this is one of those writing tips that won't help at all knowing up front.  These "clues" weren't possible while I didn't have the solution.  I do wish someone had told me my ending earlier! *sigh*

Sometimes, it's quite a layering process to make a happily ever!  But we'll keep on doing it because the "if only" of tragedy might keep calling on us for a few changes...

Any movies or books with tragic endings you've rewritten in your head to end happily? Any movies or books where you've thought the ending contrived for a happily ever after? Ever write yourself into a corner with your black moment...or even your entire story premise?

1 comment:

  1. Melissa, this is a great post. I've actually read it twice, and had to think about it for a few days before I had a comment to add! I think that for a long time I avoided conflict in my stories precisely because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to resolve it, or if I did, it would feel contrived. I hope it will get easier with each story I write. And you're right -- it's a layering process, and maybe you can't see where things go until you've made it through to the end. LOL

    I remember rewriting the ending of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", because I couldn't bear to have it end with them being shot. LOL

    I'm glad that your ghost story will have a happy ending. :) I'm not sure I could bear for it to end tragically. It's already sad enough to me that he's a ghost. :) I want everyone to be happy. LOL

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