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By Karen Rock
Warning: some spoilers for model books.
Many jobs entail courage and risk. Writing is one of them. Creating unforgettable endings that are not ‘Happily-Ever-After’ may be one of the bravest and most honest things an author can do.
Sure, it might mean opening your P.O. Box with one-eye shut, bracing yourself for penned diatribes. Some fans may chastise you for leaving out the rainbow-unicorn finish.
Brace yourself. The conviction to end your novel in a true and realistic way isn’t easy, but it’s invaluable.
In a recent workshop I gave at the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference with fellow YA author, Trisha Leaver, we dubbed these haunting, unforgettable finishes, Happily-Ever-(Not)s, or HE(N).
Sherman Alexie, National Book Award-winning author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007), had this to say about books with HE(N) endings in his blog “Why the Best Kid Books are Penned in Blood” (Wall Street Journal, June 2011), “There are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books- especially the dark and dangerous ones- will save them.”
As authors, it’s our calling, as well as our profession, to reflect the human condition and existence. We are charged with accurately depicting children’s lives.
If everything always turns out well in fiction, how will children learn, in safe ways, to cope with adversity? Loss?
If the Snowman magically gained the power to withstand the sun, would kids understand that their grandparents won’t come back? Their pets?
Human experience is full of sacrifice, suffering and pain. By not showing that, we’re not being honest. If the words in our story aren’t honest, than they are just words.
“Not everyone in life gets an HEA and therefore, characters shouldn’t either,” says Trisha Leaver, author of the upcoming YA suspense thriller/horror novel, Creed (Flux, November 2014).
Kids whose lives aren’t HEA need characters that speak to them and their experiences. They’ll realize that there is nothing wrong with them. Take Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web (Harper & Brothers, 1952). He has a classic conflict: identity. Until a spider friend weaves descriptive words, he doesn’t understand his own worth. He gains confidence, but it isn’t until he loses Charlotte–a must– that he learns a critical skill. Resilience. Like many children, he’s lost a parental figure, but he will go on. He doesn’t need others to validate his self-worth. He can and will survive.
The same rule applies in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton, 2012). Many children contend with series illness, injury or disability. John’s novel gives us two, strong protagonists battling cancer, one winning and one losing. This is a balanced, realistic peek into the world of doctors, treatments, desperation and hope. An HEA ending would have been a disservice. Readers leave John’s novel with a better understanding that life is meant to be lived and celebrated, regardless of our circumstances.
An HE(N) ending isn’t meant to leave the reader feeling bereft. In fact, within tragedy there is hope! Wilbur can pass on what he’s learned to Charlotte’s offspring. Winter will return and another snowman will be built. Hazel Grace has Augustus’ memories and the new desire to live her life, even if it no longer includes him. The reader will understand that they can survive hardship and come out even stronger. Life goes on and young readers need to know that they will too, no matter how much life has let them down.
Writing a HE(N) ending requires us to dig deeper. To go to painful, emotional spaces that are realistic to our story. Not all writers want to go through dark places with characters we’ve grown attached to- to even kill them off or hurt them. It takes an emotional toll. Yet it’s one we must pay to write the story that demands to be told.
Derek Landry, best-selling children’s author, wrote in his post It’s the Beginning of the End for Skullduggery Pleasant (TESCO Books Blog, August, 2012), “I really hope they have a happy ending. But sometimes the story goes where the story goes, and the characters will do what the characters do, and the writer just has to sit back and document it all.”
When a story entails a HE(N) ending, here are a few tips to guide you:
- Identify the central conflict of the book. There are competing threads that can be very powerful and vivid. However, it’s important to separate them out and focus on the best resolution to the main obstacle.
- Characters are a product of their fictional environment and their decisions reflect that. Find the most high-impact environment and toss them in.
- Find a strong voice and let it dictate the tone of the manuscript. Is the narrator sullen? Hopeful but desperate? Using humor to shield himself or herself from pain?
- Weave the theme through the story using the literary elements to hone the message that is ultimately and absolutely underscored by the ending.
- Don’t slap on a sad ending; it’s not that simplistic. This is about tone, characterization, theme and voice. Not merely plot points.
- Take care with unsettling endings. Readers don’t want to be left feeling confused. An unhappy ending is not an untidy ending.
- Closure doesn’t equate to happy feelings. However, there should be an illusion of hope, no matter how small that sliver may be.
- Maintain full character arc. Make sure the main character has finished making the growth needed, even if that entails tragedy. Often it does.
- Competing threads need to be addressed and a death is not a fait accompli. The saying “life sucks and then you die” doesn’t work here. In Rodman Philbrick’s Freak the Mighty (Blue Sky/Scholastic, 1993), Max (Mighty) pens a memoir after his best friend dies. Had the book ended with Kevin (Freak’s) death, Max’s illiteracy thread and the central conflict (Max’s sense of worthlessness/lack of identity) would not have been resolved. Additionally, the protagonist’s character arc would have been incomplete.
When challenged by editors, agents, beta-readers, and even fans about writing an unforgettable, HE(N) ending, just remember this from novelist Aryn Kyle in her article “In Defense of Sad Stories” (The Writer, June 2011), “‘You should write something happy’, people tell me, and I don’t understand. Happy like Anna Karenina? Happy like The Grapes of Wrath? Happy like…Catch 22 or… ‘Hamlet’?”
The stories that stay with us speak the truth. If we write that we will never disappoint the most important person in the writing process-ourselves.
|Karen & Trisha at their 2014 New England SCBWI workshop.|
From Karen: “I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments section below. Please feel free to contact me directly through my webpage. Thank you!”
Karen Rock is an award-winning YA and adult contemporary author. She holds a master’s degree in English and worked as an ELA instructor before becoming a full-time author. With her co-author, Joanne Rock, she’s penned the Camp Boyfriend series with Spencer Hill Press under the pseudonym J.K. Rock. She also writes contemporary romance for Harlequin Enterprises.
When she’s not writing, Karen loves scouring estate sales for vintage books, cooking her grandmother’s family recipes and hiking. She lives in the Adirondack Mountain region with her husband, daughter, and two Cavalier King cocker spaniels who have yet to understand the concept of “fetch” though they know a lot about love.