This morning I had a brief exchange with another writer about stories and endings. It’s easy to write someone going downhill because it’s easy to go downhill. People do all the time. It takes effort not to. But whether you write about someone’s rise or fall, only a satisfied audience creates a hit, that is, connects with your story. People always remember how you make them feel. True in life; true on the page.
Going down is easy. It’s easy to write about destructive and self-destructive characters: addictions, laziness, not paying attention, there are all kinds of ways to go down. These are the stories where life sucks and then things get worse. Well, hooray. There’s nothing to hang on to.
What about the stories of people who pull themselves out or handle misery with humor or style? Those are the ones that seem to last, that resonate the most with people. And I think they are also the most challenging to write. If a character completely changes, the audience won’t believe it. Same goes for the “happily ever after” ending. Rob Roberge (yeah, I’m going to quote him again because he’s the best writing teacher around) made a strong case for a good ending being where the story can open up into a new place. If you can master that, you will avoid the trap of the Hollywood ending as well as the kind of ending that makes readers want to slit their wrists in despair. My friend’s agent asked for an ending where the reader is somehow assured the people in the story would be okay (which suits that story). I’m not saying you can’t write tragedy. Funny and sad go together. Tragedies happen and there’s usually a tragic element in the most memorable stories. Speaking of tragedy, you should know what it really is and for that, I give you David Greenspan (it’s only 2 minutes):
Consider something besides the currently popular downward spiral. Consider the upward spiral. That doesn’t mean your characters won’t suffer. Think of an autumn leaf taken up by the wind. It can be a harrowing journey, but harrowing doesn’t always mean down. It takes time, understanding and a tolerance for learning about human suffering – something our culture is only too happy to try to deny, fix or avoid. But any good novelist knows that when their characters try to deny, fix or avoid the suffering they’re experiencing, well, that’s when things get interesting. And when you explore that, your readers will remember how you made them feel.