Is a Happy Ending a Journey to Dullsville?

“A Protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” ~ Robert McKee from Story

While reading a Jane Friedman article by Ken Brosky, The Biggest Mistake Even Expert Writers Make, I understood the relationship between conflict (or antagonism) and character development in a new way. I saved the article in my email queue since January! I’m so glad I read it, and you may find it interesting too. Click on its title above to link to it.

I reflected on the dance between internal/external conflict vs. character growth. How to keep it a tango rather than a waltz? As a writer, I’m unwilling to make the plot a miserable terror driven action thriller or a negative soul-wrenching internal horror fest. I like stories featuring high stakes, but also fun and gentler moments. But how do I keep quieter scenes from reading as frivolous or boring? Or if I keep the tension at breakneck antagonism, won’t a happy resolution lack believability?

It dawned on me, character growth doesn’t imply the world eases up on them. (Internally nor Externally) Does the world truly ease up on anyone? No, we learn to handle it.

So character growth doesn’t require a sudden lack of issues. They learn to confront conflict – or at least their central story conflict – with more capability and confidence. In a good story, this doesn’t happen fully, and certainly not all at once. Solving dilemmas in life often leads to other dilemmas. Maybe you ease your stress level by begging out of a social date, but then you feel an added stress of letting down your friend. These subtle frictions keep happy stories interesting.

A physical example is summed up in our common saying, ‘Out of the frying pan, into the fire.’ But this doesn’t mean endless plot hell-raising. Waves are generally more satisfying, and so is a combo of inner and outer tensions. Story conflict can remain or ramp up yet be simultaneously resolved by the character’s change/growth, and then growth can cause more upset. Any discomfort for the character will urge the reader to turn pages till the end.

And a happy or satisfying ending doesn’t mean all challenges should be gone and somehow life becomes perfect. A journey where troubles/feelings are resolved that well can be a road to dullsville. It also risks destroying relatability and perhaps credibility.

Instead, a satisfying happy ending leaves the reader feeling the character will be okay, even when trouble comes. My goal is to provide trust that the character (and vicariously my reader) has learned to handle it.

Happy Travels! ~KJQ

10 Comments Add yours

  1. judeitakali says:

    Great advice.
    I do think happy endings can still be realistic, but yes, happiness does come with a cost.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This came up since I’ve met writers that believe they can’t give a pleasant conclusion that’s satisfying. I think it’s exactly that cost, or at least wisdom of overcoming obstacles that makes it compelling when ‘happy’. Thanks for your comment! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. judeitakali says:


        Liked by 1 person

  2. Well said. I like endings that wrap everything up, but oddly, that’s not what I write. Can’t quite figure that out!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mine vary, but there’s usually some element that doesn’t work out as expected for the character. This post was written in response to conversations with my critique partner about happy endings (as well as in response to the cited article.) They’re nearly a trademark for her works, and we discuss that often.

      I personally don’t prefer long endings that sew up every thread, but it depends on the story. I do like a sense all will be well, so I guess that’s ‘happy.’

      Genre can dictate type of ending too. I have one book (LIKENESS under my aka, Sheri J Kennedy) that leaves an, ‘oh no!’ potential at the end. It’s a thought-provoking romp, so it’s a funny predicament at the same time. My intent is to leave the reader laughing and yet continuing to contemplate what Could happen.

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      1. But you write a series so I think it appropriate to leave lose ends so we open the next book, don’t you think? At least, it worked for me with the Book 1 of your Miss LiV series.

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    2. Yes, in a series it’s important to leave some questions. Although it’s wrapping up the series, that I’m currently contemplating. It’s a delicate balance to answer things well but not have pat answers, and I think especially after we follow a character through 5 books, we invest in them and perhaps even come to love them, so a satisfying ending is especially important. Like a fond going away party for a friend. I want to feel that excitement and hope for their future while also feeling some regret that I’ll miss them.

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  3. That was an interesting article, Sheri. I liked your comment: “But this doesn’t mean endless plot hell-raising. Waves are generally more satisfying, and so is a combo of inner and outer tensions.” Those “inner tensions” can be just as gripping as the outer ones and are key to character-driven novels. Great share.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Diana. You deliver inner tension so well in your novels, along with incredibly well written action. It’s why I became a fan immediately when I read your Rose Shield series. The societal intrigue, battles and action of fantasy are so much more compelling when I feel how it pushes, pulls and even tears at the characters. Inner tensions keep me reading, with often more interest than the battle scenes, because I care and ‘need’ to know what happens to the characters.
      Action plots can be intriguing, but it’s the inner conflict and growth/triumph that make stories stay with me long after I read them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m the same kind of reader, Sheri. Action is fine, but I want to see what happening inside the character too. Thanks so much for the lovely comment about Catling and company. 😀 Hugs.

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