Happily Ever After Fails

Hollywood has played a cruel trick on us; it’s spent the past few years trying to convince us that every story deserves a happy ending.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the reasons our favourite characters suffer, and why writers shouldn’t take the blame. The long and short of it is that we identify with our favourite characters because they struggle, yet continue to strive. But not every character achieves their goal. Not everyone makes peace with the way their life turns out. It’s a simple fact of reality; when the odds are stacked against you, not everyone succeeds.

I’m reminded of the long-anticipated Pirates of the Caribbean 3; At World’s End. There were lots of strong opinions on the movie, but the strongest targeted the ending. Even one of my best friends pouted as we departed, because she wanted her happy ending.

It’s only natural when you feel drawn to someone that you want them to succeed. We cheer for our favourite characters because we want to see them happy. We want to know there’s a light at the end of the long tunnel; we hope the same will hold true for us as we struggle down the long road of life. But the harsh reality is that we don’t always stumble free of the brambles into bright sunlight. Lots of struggles lead to more struggles.

And like the struggles we so desperately wish to shelter our favourite characters from, it’s important to realize that not every character gets their happily ever after. As the saying goes; everything worth achieving is worth fighting for. But we don’t all sail free of the storm to safe harbours. Every successful hero leaves a swath of failure in his or her wake. Plenty of comrades fail to reach the end of the journey. And the ultimate fate of our hero’s companions are just as important as the main character’s outcome. Because these deaths and failures remind us that the peril is real.

Think of your favourite action show. The heroes save the day, week after week. It may look grim but, in the end, the good guys always win. If this cycle continues long enough, the audience realizes that their heroes are never in any danger. Nothing destroys the tension of a high-stakes scene more than someone whispering softly to themselves they’ll be fine; they always are. How do the writers and producers of TV shows remind us that the peril is real?

They kill someone off. Usually around the third season.

No seriously. One day my husband and I walked home discussing Eureka, a sci-fi show we were into at the time. We were really enjoying the developing plot and we were just starting the third season. I looked at my husband and announced that it was time for someone to die. I then detailed exactly who I thought they’d knock off. Because the time had come to remind us that, while all the characters on the show were clever and bold, the danger they faced every week was real.

Later that night the show fulfilled my prophecy by killing off the exact character I named.

No one wants the sad ending. No one cheers for the sad ending. But there are plenty of stories that can’t shine without them. Sometimes, to do justice to the struggle, it has to end in tragedy. Recall the ending of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie; would it have had as much impact without the bittersweet ending?

Sometimes we need reminders that the universe isn’t all happiness and unicorns. It carves into contrast the meaning of our struggles. More than that, it helps us cope with disappointment and failure. Because the truth is, the road of life is bumpy. The path to success is littered with varying degrees of failure. In fact, failure is one of our most valuable teachers. Stories are a way for us to see the world through the eyes of another. Watching those struggles helps us deal with our own. It’s nice to know that the chaos and sorrow in our heads is shared by someone else, somewhere out there, at some point in their life. So the losses of our favourite characters help us endure our own.

Because the job of storytellers isn’t to delude us into thinking all will be well if we just keep dragging our feet. The job of storytellers is to recast the events of the universe so that they have meaning. Not every story is going to end well. Not every relationship survives. Not every goal comes to fruition. People don’t seem to grasp the true power of sad endings; a power much greater than happily ever after. Because no story ends with and then they were all miserable for the rest of eternity.

Happy endings give us closure, but sad endings give us hope. When we lose the things most important to us, when life reaches its lowest point, we can’t assume the fetal position and wait for death. We have to do what everyone does on the last page of a sad story. We have to find the lesson, and we have to go on hoping something better lies over the next horizon.

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