I’ve been writing stories literally since I learned to write. I’m also a bit of a pack rat. Just a tinge. Okay, so maybe I’ve kept almost everything I’ve ever written as well as every test and paper since the seventh grade. Don’t judge. They come in handy. Sometimes. Anyway, I recently found a stack of my stories from childhood. When I was four, I wrote about my baby “bother” and how I loved him even though he drove me crazy (much like my real brother when he was born five years later), but most of my stories were a bit morbid for a kid. I found one about it raining chocolate (This was before the “Chocolate Rain” viral video days; it was before we even had internet). It sounds like a sweet story (pun intended), but quickly turns south. I run outside with a bowl and drink up the chocolate, but I eat so much I explode and die. That’s it. The end. Boom goes the Sarahmite.
I don’t know why. I had a happy childhood and all, my writing just gravitated toward the macabre. It only got worse when I started reading Stephen King, who is the king of dark twisted tales (yeah, that one was intentional too; as my brother would say, butter me cause I’m on a roll!). I let my grandmother, we call her Karma, read my stories, and she pointed out that I don’t really have any happy endings, which caught me off guard. When I’m reading, I love happy endings. Or so I thought. But looking back, she’s right. Not only do I not read stories with happy endings, I end my stories weird, or bittersweet, never Pollyanna kittens and rainbows everything is all good happily ever after. I guess because real life is usually weird or bittersweet and not a Disney movie, and I like for my stories to feel more real. They aren’t bad endings, except for the chocolate rain Sarah-splosion (but really, isn’t there a lesson there?). My characters are always happy(ish). Their conflicts are resolved, they’re turning a new page, starting a new chapter, moving on to something else. That something else might not always be shiny and bouncy as we would think of it, but it’s fresh and new for them and happier than they were before.
I’ve got a short story I’m about to enter into a contest. It’s actually the first chapter of a book I started and stopped after the second chapter, so perfect short story fodder. I posted the chapter here not long after I started this blog. The way I’ve adjusted it, the main character decides to end all his cancer treatments and enjoy what’s left of his life. Karma told me despite how the story ends, she holds out hope he’ll continue treatment and have surgery and the cancer will go away, puppies and rainbows and all that. I can see how my ending may seem sad, especially for her because the character’s illness is based on my dad’s. But my character felt good with his choice, so isn’t that a happy ending?
After talking with her, I started thinking about my endings. I have all these stories in my head. Almost every day I come up with a new idea, and usually a first chapter. There’s a whole folder on my USB drive called “story ideas” that’s full of queries, synopses, and first chapters of shiny new ideas. While the details of my stories change as I write and get to know the characters, I always know how they end, and it hit me today that none of them has a Disney ending. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an optimist, and I guess this reflected in my writing, but is that a bad thing? What do you think, dear reader? Do you like happy endings, or do you like something that feels real? I’m not going to change my writing style because that’s just how I write. It’s me and apparently always has been, death by chocolate and all. I’m curious, though, what most people look for.
Personally, when I’m reading, I like for loose ends to be tied up, and I like to know the character is content. Look at most the books on my “Books You Really Must Read” list; they pretty much all have this type of ending. I don’t like stories that leave me crying and depressed and force me to watch something happy before I go to sleep (like “Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived” by Ralph Helfer. Good night that was a sad book! It was good, but so sad! I made the mistake of reading it while my husband was traveling for work and had to stay up half the night watching “Golden Girls” re-runs to stop crying), but I don’t like stories that are unrealistically happy ever after either (like “Breaking Dawn” by Stephanie Meyer. I mean, come on, everything ended up too perfect in the end. I get some people’s need for escapism in endings like that, but it’s just not my cup of tea). I prefer Stephen King’s endings. Everything isn’t perfect, and isn’t always good, but it’s always finished, and usually weird, and maybe bittersweet. Read “Lisey’s Story” for a fantastic ending. For me, King beats Disney every time. Another great example, if you’re not into King, is “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith. You want to talk about a great ending? It’s real and raw and happy but poignant. Overall, an excellent book, but the ending especially left me satisfied when I closed the cover, yet wanting more, and to me, that’s the marker of a great ending.