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.