The Ending Debate: Make Mine Hopeful

Ending of FictionBilbo: What about helping me with my book, and making a start on the next? Have you thought of an ending?
Frodo: Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant.
Bilbo: Oh, that won’t do! Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?
Frodo: It will do well, if it ever came to that.
Sam: Ah! And where will they live? That’s what I often wonder.”
—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

How do you want the stories you read or the movies you watch to end? Should they always end happy? Is it alright if the end is sad? Is there something in between?

This week, I’m taking part in a cross-blog debate about endings.

On Monday, Lisa Hall-Wilson gave the reasons she wants her endings to be 100% realistic (even if that means they’re sad), and on Tuesday, Melinda VanLone explained why she doesn’t just think happy endings are the best way—she thinks they’re the only way. Today I’m picking up the debate.

I want my endings, both the ones I read and the ones I write, to be hopeful.

People don’t need to be shown more sadness and death and criminals escaping, never to be caught, “because that’s real life.” If I wanted that, I could watch the news, sit with a struggling friend, or volunteer at a food bank or cancer hospice. I don’t need a novel to tell me that sometimes things are dark and brutal. The world tells me that enough already.

When life seems to be falling to pieces, we need someone to tell us about how they’ve come through a rough time like this and things got better, or how they learned and grew through the experience, or how, in the end, their situation turned out to be for the best. We need them to remind us that even when we have no control over what’s going on around us, we still have control over ourselves, our reactions, and our emotions. We need them to remind us not to give up.

Because that’s just as real and much more powerful. People need hope.

Hopeful endings show life the way it is, but through them, we also make a choice about how we want to look at life. And about how we want to live it.

Rain is just rain. It’s all about what we do with it that counts.

When it rains on a day you had plans, the person who wants 100% realism tells you about how their plans were ruined. They talk about how damp, cold, and depressing things were. They leave you with tears in your eyes and a knot in your gut. It sucks. That’s life.

A person who only believes in happy endings pretends that the rain didn’t matter. Who cares that it rained? It didn’t really ruin anything. In fact, I didn’t really want to go anyway.

A hopeful ending acknowledges the disappointment in the ruined plans, it mourns for them, but then it grabs an umbrella and goes out and jumps in the puddles. It tosses the umbrella aside, turns a face up to the drops, and spins like a whirling dervish. And when it finishes, it goes inside to make a mug of hot chocolate, get some dry clothes, and create fresh plans for a new day. It moves forward.

You can focus on how sad it is that it rained. You can ignore the rain. Or you can hope for the rain to clear and find a way to make the best of it if it doesn’t.

Real Steel, starring Hugh Jackman and Evangeline Lilly, is a movie with a hopeful ending. Real Steel takes place in the future where robot boxing has replaced human boxing. Jackman’s character Charlie is an absentee father who ends up taking care of his eleven-year-old son during the worst time of Charlie’s life, when his last robot has been destroyed and he’s in enough debt that people want to kill him. The woman he loves won’t have anything to do with him because he’s immature and irresponsible, and Charlie doesn’t want anything to do with his son.

Charlie and his son pull a “sparring bot” from the junk yard and restore it just to earn a few hundred dollars in throwaway matches. At least, that’s Charlie’s plan. His son has a different idea. By the end of the movie, they’re taking on the top robot fighter in the world. Even though they don’t win, they come close.

Things aren’t unrealistically perfect at the end of the movie. Charlie doesn’t get back the custody he already signed away to his son’s aunt. They didn’t win the match. There’s no wedding or even proposal between Charlie and the woman he loves.

But you know that everything is going to be okay. Charlie’s a better man than he was when the movie began. He and his son reconcile, and he ends up with the woman he loves. You know that with all the endorsements and other support they receive, their robot will succeed the next time.

We got to see the value in love and sacrifice. We got to see courage and determination, honor and duty. We got to learn about the consequences of actions both good and bad. And we got to do it in a way that made us feel like the fight was worth it.   

Because learning about love and courage and honor mean nothing if you walk away feeling sad and defeated and like there’s sometimes nothing we can do. Lessons of love and courage and honor aren’t enough on their own. We need to also be inspired to act on them because we believe that we have a chance of success. That’s what a hopeful ending does.

Hopeful endings make you think just as much as a “100% realistic ending” where the bad guy wins and the good guy loses it all. They’re no less honest and no less true. What makes us assume a sad ending is the only true and real one? In a story, we have the ultimate control. We choose. Why not show how hard life can be and then show a character triumphing over it? Why not show people how they can make their lives better if they refuse to give up? How bullies only win if we let them? How they can choose to be happier and choose to make a difference?

Those are the stories I want to tell because those are the stories I want to live.

Join the four of us for a special Twitter chat about endings on Friday, June 29, at 5:00 pm EDT using the hashtag #storyend. And make sure you stop by Diane Capri’s blog tomorrow for her post “The Ending Debate: Make Mine Multiple.”

What’s one ending (book or movie) that you’ve always wished you could change? What would you have changed about it?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

Photo Credit: Renate Kalloch (obtained via

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