Last month I attended a panel on how to write stories that achieve a happy ending without being contrived, sentimental or manipulative. Don’t go sending your cowgirl off into a sunset of cotton candy clouds; what we’re after is a hope that is earned through her knowledge of the past, or her understanding that the future threatens it. How does one create such tension in an ending? Here are three variations suggested:
- The character achieves happiness, but leaves the reader feeling uneasy.
- Some of the characters are happy, others are not.
- The reader is pleased with the ending that leaves the character uneasy.
Chad Simpson’s story collection “Tell Everyone I Said Hi,” (which I will be passing on to those interested in second-hand reading material), is filled with tempered happiness, with yearning. In “You Would’ve Counted Yourself Lucky,” an unnamed boy struggles with the sadness and anger he holds against his sister as she grows up, takes on various boyfriends, and breaks away from the family. Toward the end of the story, the sister is sneaking in after curfew and the boy surprises her, freezing her in the yard with his flashlight.
The boy is worried she’ll recognize his voice, he’s worried he won’t sound intimidating enough, but he tries to make it sound like the gears churning in an enormous machine when he says, “No.” When he says, “Stay where you are.”
Miraculously, it works. His sister swivels toward him, her hands back int he air. The boy pins the flashlight to her chest again, and he thinks of the butterflies he pinned to a corkboard last year in school. They were so pretty and delicate, so dead and unmoving. Soon, the boy knows, his sister will be inside with his parents, and they’ll be hashing things out in one way or another, but right now she is a monarch. She is a swallowtail. She is all his.
His sister looks genuinely worried. She looks afraid. She says in a trembling voice, “What do you want?”
The way she asks this simple question makes the boy falter. The light bucks on her chest. He tries to regain his confidence — he doesn’t want to think how Leanne used to be, how she would make him breakfast on the weekend when his parents slept in, how she’d read him books each night before bed — but his eyes are getting hot. He’s worried he’s going to cry.
“I want you to stay right here,” he says. “I want you to stay right where you are.”
I know “You Would’ve Counted Yourself Lucky” resonated with me because I see this tension mirrored in my own children: The 15-year-old begins to read the first Harry Potter book to her 6-year-old brother, but the promise to finish it is broken because she’s too busy with school and friends and work — her emergent life. This frustrates the little boy. My twin 12-year-olds imagine a life where the family is no longer a complete unit because their sister will be away in college. They touch such thoughts gingerly before jerking away, startled that they feel like bruises. Such is hope tempered by a threatening future. An ending that carries the scent of a thunderstorm leaves me satiated, my heart content — happy.