J. Grace Pennington

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Ever Afters

knight

I was thinking, earlier today, how much of the most basic story structure and formatting is exemplified in fairy tales. The simplest and strongest fairy tales often contain clear good and evil, heroes and villains, motivations, conflicts, story goals, and much, much more. When we make novels and movies and all those other things, we often just make everything more complicated.

Not that that’s a bad thing. I adore a good complicated murder mystery, or a fast-paced action thriller, or an emotionally tangled romance as much as anyone. The stories I myself write have a tendency to be extremely complicated. But sometimes when we start to get lost and confused in the mass of story threads, it helps to get back to the basics.

There’s one element that I’ve noticed is missing in many stories that leave me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. Stories where I read or watch through to the end, then get up feeling somehow cheated. For awhile I didn’t know just what caused this. It was a good ending. Story goal completed. There was depth of character, interesting conflict, fascinating moral themes, everything that should seem to make a story good. I often pointed out something seemed wrong with the ending, but I couldn’t really put my finger on what it was.

Well, what’s wrong with this (rather oversimplified) fairy tale?

Once upon a time, a handsome prince fell in love with a beautiful princess. But she was kidnapped by a fierce, fire-breathing dragon, and taken away to a far tower. The prince set off to rescue her, and finally found the tower. There was a long and arduous battle, and the prince finally slayed the dragon, and the princess was free. The end.

Woah. Hold on. The end? It can’t end yet. That was too… sudden. Well, why? Prince charming set off to slay the dragon and free the princess. He did both things. The story goal is fulfilled, thus, the end.

But… what about “they lived happily ever after”?

Insert those words just before “the end” and the story suddenly seems a little bit better. But why?

Because we don’t really care about the prince slaying the dragon. If the prince were just killing the dragon because he got a kick out of killing reptiles, or because rescuing damsels in distress was his (rather dangerous) personal hobby, the story could end there. But we wouldn’t really care about that story. What we care about in this story is love. Love is the motivation for the prince’s actions. He loves the princess, enough to be willing to sacrifice himself and everything he has for her. We want to see him rewarded by happiness. As we all know, in a fairy tale, “happily ever after” means they got married and were happy together to the end of their days.

This is called a denouement. It’s from a French word meaning to untie. It’s not just important that the plots and subplots the messes and conflict end up untied–we want to see the knot come undone, every little nuance and intricacy. We want to see everything resolve.

That doesn’t mean it has to resolve perfectly… some stories don’t have happy endings. But everything must still untie. We can’t jump right from seeing the main part of the knot be untied to seeing it suddenly all smooth. Somewhere in between there’s an “ever after” that tells you what happened to the characters afterwards. How the adventure changed their circumstances for better or worse. Even if only inside them.

One of my favorite examples is The Lord of the Rings. While a lot of people joke about its “multiple endings,” I’ve always felt that it was just right. Tolkien could have ended the story as soon as the Ring was destroyed. It gets melted and bam. The story’s over.

But that wouldn’t work at all. We need to see what happens to Frodo and Sam, whether Aragorn becomes king, whether the hobbits ever get back home again, and if they do, how their lives have changed. We need time to reflect on what’s happened, and its consequences, and let it sink in emotionally before the very end.

So don’t just let your prince slay the dragon. Have him go home. Taste the fruits of his victory. Show how the princess feels about him. Show how he’s sobered by the dark things he’s seen. Show how his life has changed, how he’ll never be the same again, how the spark of love that set him on his quest has been fanned into a flame that will last forever.

Show him living happily ever after.

18 Responses to Ever Afters

  1. BushMaid says:

    AHH! Love this! It’s so right! :shock: I find this “something’s missing” feeling often with a lot of books these days. There’s no epilogue, no “after bit” (Jeremy James) and no fallout or aftermath of the final shakedown. Since I’m a “ducks all in a row” kind of person when it comes to books or movies, I am never completely satisfied with a read unless I feel it “ended right”, and this is the kind of elusive right I believe I have been trying to discover all these years. Thankyou for clarifying, my Gracie! :D

    • Grace says:

      Wow, I’m so glad you liked it, my Bush! It’s something I’ve been thinking on for awhile (I especially noticed it with suspense films) but I just made the fairy tale connection yesterday, and thought that might help explain. :) Glad it helped!

  2. I agree. I’ve heard it said that a sudden ending is most effective, and while this is true in some cases, other stories need more.

  3. Varon says:

    What story was it that ended with “I won’t say they lived happily ever after, because nobody ever does, but they were happy.”? (Curse those confusing punctuation grammar rules.)

    That’s how I like the endings. Not the happily ever after, because as it said, nobody lives a life that is always happy. Life just has to many ups and downs, but despite that, they were still happy together, even in the darkest tragedies.

    I think I like my endings a little more unresolved, because for me, the story doesn’t end at The End, it keeps going, but it’s the author who has just stopped telling it. Thus, my alt-Earth timeline starts 12,000 years ago, and is currently plotted to about 7000 years in the future. For me, the ending of a book is just the ending of a chapter in the larger story of the storyverse that goes from Creation to the final End, so they all flow from one to the other, with plot threads tying them all together.

    But that’s just me, probably caused by early exposure to Star Wars and Star Trek with their expanded universes from the original stories.

    • Grace says:

      Very good thoughts, Varon. I probably should have clarified in the post that I don’t really think everything needs to be resolved, especially in a huge, epic story. But the subplots need to resolve, I think, and you need a little time to let that grand big adventure emotionally sink in.

      Also, I think that’s sortof how a “happily ever after” works… we realize there’s so much more to their lives than we see. But we know it was happy, and that’s at least something. A story that resolved every single thing would be downright impossible, I think. o.O

      Thanks for the comment! I also like feeling that there’s more to the story, that it could go on forever, in a sense… but that this one bit of it is over. It’s sortof how I see endings as new beginnings, I think. :)

      • Varon says:

        In most genres, I think, but I don’t think it works like that in fairy tales. I think in fairy tales they actually do live completely happy for ever after.

        Yes, very impossible, as nothing is ever truly resolved, I think, just from looking at history, because most major events cause things in the future that need resolved, and attempts to do so cause more problems and so on.

        You’re welcome. That makes sense.
        I like painful bittersweet endings. I don’t know why though.

        • Grace says:

          Yes, fairy tales tend to be exaggerated. ;)

          I like painful/bittersweet endings in general. I’ve noticed that I like sad endings only if there’s hope portrayed in some manner. A sense of purpose, that sort of thing.

  4. Jeremiah says:

    This is a great post, Gracely. *likes all of big sister’s posts on story* I think I have experienced similar disappointment, and I know I even felt a little bit of it with LotR– where are the entwives?? O.O
    Mostly, though, I get this frustration and disappointment with my own stories because I can’t figure out how to really end things well. I shall have to refer to this post again sometime. :D

  5. Mark says:

    I have yet to decide where I stand on “Ever Afters”, but I am inclined to agree with you.

    *ponders what to say* I guess I’ll just mention that I disagree with you on the point of Jackson’s rendition of The Return of the King. I do not believe it is applicable due to reasons completely unrelated to plot. :)

    • Grace says:

      I’m glad you’re inclined to agree with me. ;)

      Yes, I saw that Skype conversation. *grins* I’m pretty sure we’ll have to agree to disagree, you purist you. ;)

      Thanks for commenting!

      • Mark says:

        *chuckles* Guilty as charged, but my dislike for the multiple endings and belief in its lack of applicability has nothing to do with being a purist. ;)

        You’re welcome. :)

  6. Annie Hawthorne says:

    *prompty bookmarks *

    Excellent point, Grace! Books with abrupt endings tend to leave me frustrated and wailing “Why!!!”(glares at North and South) I like everything, well, mostly everything, resolved and I especially like to find out what happens to the people in the stories. I like the “happily ever afters” and even if it isn’t a happy ending I still want to know what becomes of the characters in the end. I’m going to have to keep this in mind when I draw near the ending of my books.

    I’m just like you regarding Lord of the Rings. It would have been far too abrupt and unsatisfying if it ended right after the ring was destroyed. I think Tolkien and Peter Jackson were both very wise in what they did. Also, I was just thinking about books in a series. What are your thoughts on how a book in the middle of a series should be ended? Do you prefer cliffhanger or do you like everything to be neatly tied up with a few loose threads hanging?

    • Grace says:

      Thank you, Annie! I’m glad you agree, and find it helpful. :)

      I’m also glad you agreed with me regarding Lord of the Rings. ;)

      In the middle of the series… definitely trickier! I tend to like to have a mixture of both resolution and suspense… so neither all resolved nor all cliffhangery. Even if it’s mostly a cliffhanger, I find I don’t like it very much if there’s not at least a hint of hope to satisfy the hunger for resolution.

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