Updated: Jun 27
My adorable three-year-old niece is obsessed with fairy tales right now.
And I do mean obsessed. As only a three-year-old girl can be about such things.
With those big hazel eyes of hers and that cute chirpy voice, she'll beg, “Tell me the story of Cinderella.” Or “Tell me the story oft Belle.” Or of Sleeping Beauty. Or of Snow White.
And when telling the story of Cinderella or Belle or Sleeping Beauty or Snow White… I had better end things correctly. It’s always got to be, “And then they lived happily ever after. The end.”
Otherwise, believe you me, I’m going to get a lecture about how I told it wrong.
Because, in a three-year-old girl’s world, “happily ever after” is the way that every story should end. Which is natural and endearing for their darling, developing little minds.
However, since you’re not a three-year-old girl, you might want to try something else on for your story’s size.
Thinking about Beauty and the Beast’s ending, I distinctly recall the happy couple dancing around their castle's enormous ballroom in elegant outfits.
It’s been a while since I watched the other three stories my niece likes to hear… but I’m going to go out on a limb and say they’re similar. Even if they somehow don’t involve swirls of taffeta and yards of lace surrounded by sparkly settings, you know they still end perfectly.
That’s how fairy tales are supposed to close.
But if you’re writing pretty much any other kind of genre, you might want to consider a different approach. Something with a bit more authenticity, perhaps.
Add at least a twinge of reality to your ending.
Happily-ever-afters are a beautiful notion in theory. And, as a Christian, I’d argue that they are, in fact, eventually achievable. Once we’re up in heaven. But as for down here on earth? They’re utterly elusive. There is no such thing thanks to the fact that we humans aren’t perfect, and neither is the universe we exist in.
As such, reality-based stories that feature fairy-tale endings can sometimes sound silly. That’s why, instead of going for full-out bliss, you may want to look for ways to add a little edge to your story’s end.
Before you order a hit on me for suggesting such a thing, I’m hardly advising you to kill everyone off. I'm only encouraging you to think about removing the “happily ever after” from your last line.
(And just like that, the hit might be back on.)
There are moments in reality involving absolute bliss, absolute triumph, absolute hope, or absolute acknowledgement of the truth. Those are amazing, and they can certainly feel like a “happily ever after” while they last.
But they won’t last forever. They’re eventually going to end – sliding into moments of absolute misery, absolute defeat, absolute despair or absolute adherence to lies. Those are horrible, and they can certainly feel like never-ending hell while they last.
But they won’t last forever. They’re eventually going to end, sliding into better times all over again.
Throw in some significant doses of boredom or routine, and you’ve got yourself reality right there. It’s a constant journey of ups and downs.
A story ending doesn’t have to blatantly acknowledge all of that in order to be realistic. But it should probably embrace it on some more subtle level.
For instance, instead of implying a “happily ever after,” have the heroine joke about how much snoring she’s going to hear now that she’s married the love of her life. Or let the detective acknowledge his job well done while still recognizing that, tomorrow, he’ll be right back to work.
That way, your readers can rejoice with the protagonist just like they wanted to… while still feeling as if the story they just finished could actually play out in real life.
Who knows. Perhaps even for them.
Editor’s Note: Read the next post on story endings here.