Happy endings

Elisabeth‘s response to my post about writing when feeling “endangered” reminded me of an interesting discussion I’ve been having with one of my tutors, the delightful Lee McGowan.

Having read literally hundreds of literary short stories this year, I’m a little fascinated (and perplexed) by the preponderance of emotionally  “troubled” stories. I’m familiar with the idea that a short story captures some moment of significance – often a turning point – in the protagonist’s life. But the vast majority of short stories seem to focus on fear, doubt, loss, loneliness, alienation, betrayal, cynicism, failure, or despair. Why so few that touch on wonder, joy, renewal, hope, or triumph? Do all these writers genuinely see life as negatively-loaded? Are “happy” emotions considered the preserve of Hallmark and Disney, a no-go zone for the serious writer?

Or is it just harder to write an engaging, believable, interesting story in which the protagonist has positive experiences? Long ago, as a theatre reviewer, I was struck by how much easier it is to write in a funny and entertaining way if you don’t like the production. If you’re happy to pan things, you can be hilarious. You can also get a pretty good energy flowing if you absolutely adored the production. If, however, you just liked it – if it had its good and bad moments, if the young company seems to be moving in a promising direction – well, it’s very hard to put that in non-yawnworthy terms.

We seem to embrace the stirring, the heart-warming, the life-affirming, in films and novels. Why not in short stories? I’d be really interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

Lee, by the way, didn’t seem to have noticed. He has a penchant for “realist” short stories which are invariably gritty, bleak and depressing – that’s their sociopolitical mandate – so maybe he wasn’t looking for anything else. We both went off searching, though, and had to report back that “happy” short stories were thin on the ground. Lee pointed to Raymond Carver‘s “Cathedral” as a story that probably invites a positive interpretation. The winner of last year’s Hal Porter Short Story competition, Keren Heenan‘s “Beyond the Bay”, ends on a note of hope, but it’s a faint and trembling one at the end of a delicate, brooding story (you can read it at http://eastgippslandartgallery.org.au/uploads/pdfs/BeyondtheBay.pdf).

Anyone care to share some of their favourite short stories? Comment on how you see the emotional journeys of the characters in your own short fiction? Got a preference for “happy” or “sad” when it comes to novels and films? I’m keen to hear some other people’s views.

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About andreabaldwin

I'm a freelance writer, publishing travel articles and features. I also write short fiction and novels for adults, young adults and children. I've been a registered psychologist for 20 years, and my past careers have included clinical psychology, organisational psychology, and management. I'm interested in the interactions between people and places, particularly how the natural environment supports the health of individuals and communities, and the importance of caring for our environment. I'm also interested in the ways people use writing to better understand their own thoughts and feelings, and to connect with others.
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6 Responses to Happy endings

  1. Kathy G says:

    I think there isn’t enough leeway in short stories – by simple analysis of their being short – to bring the reader to a satisfyingly happy conclusion. It seems to me that you can embrace negativity with very few words, and I’m thinking specifically of Hemingway’s short story of three lines about the baby shoes, which copyright probably doesn’t allow me to reproduce here. You need a substantial amount of words to bring the reader to happiness, because generally you have to bring them down to start with. Sad stories are eminently more satisfying to me because I am easily amused, and it’s much harder to make me cry. When I read a sad story I always think how lucky I am, how blessed my own life is, and generally I am haunted by sad stories but not by happy ones. My favourite short story was written by Alan Dale. It was published in 1994 in Style, a South African magazine, and it’s called What’s in a Name. It’s something I read every couple of years, and every time I am moved to tears.

  2. Elisabeth says:

    So what is it about the sad or dramatic, angst ridden ending or similarly difficult events that draw us to the story and why is that the happy, mildly uplifting or just plain pleasant can be so dull?

    I suspect it has to do with the emotional energy required of the reader. As if we need to take deep breaths while reading about difficult and painful experience and we look forward to another possible and better ending, a shift perhaps.

    But the pleasant, happy good natured writing requires no such shifts. If it’s already good then there’s no need to hope for change.

    Expectation has a great deal to do with the pleasure we get from reading. And ultimately – to end on a grim note – all endings ultimately wind up in death.

    So if we can write about the awful and awesome and just plain tragic it becomes a rehearsal of sorts for that one great inevitability – death. That’s my take on it for today.

  3. helena says:

    You know me – give me a romantic comedy any day … and I like a positive end to a short story, too! Life can’t be all bleak, bleak, bleak … or violent.

  4. Maree Robertson says:

    hmm, have you read any of Susan Hill (A Little Bit of Singing and Dancing)?
    short stories, about children and death , deeply rooted in place.
    Someone I cant identify gave it to me when i was a 13 yo dealing with my sister’s death, & i had no idea until i was in my thirties that ALL the stories were about children and death…amazing.

  5. Both of my published short stories have sad events, it’s true, but as an author my aim was definitely on the side of hope. Pain has been a serious catalyst for my writing, so putting that into my writing seems only second nature. I don’t want my readers to draw away depressed, that’s for sure, so I always try to keep that in mind while writing.
    I think I save most of my darkness for poetry. The short story is such a balancing act and I’m not trying to say I’ve perfected the art, by any means. There are certainly a lot of considerations when weighing what to include and what needs to go in such a short span.
    Thank you for this post. It certainly gave me pause to consider my writing and what I might try to do differently in the future.

  6. Hi, thanks very much for this, R. I’ve been thinking more about this whole issue of emotional outcomes in short fiction, because I’ve been writing a lot of flash fiction lately. I might write another post about it. Meanwhile, thanks for sharing your reflection that your short stories, while containing sad events, come out on the side of hope. I’m also really interested in the idea of pain as a catalyst for writing – I think some people are saying that, in their comments on my post about Safety and Creativity.
    I’m following your blog – keen to keep in touch!
    Cheers, Andrea

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