3 Reasons for Unhappy Fiction
Everyone loves a happy ending, but sometimes an unhappy ending serves a greater purpose. Whether that means the death of a character you love, or the fatality of a character you don’t, unhappy endings make us pause.
Reason #1: Discomfort breeds contemplation
As soon as that happy ending is wrapped up, we get a good feeling that everything works out in the end. Everything will be ok. It’s easy to move on and consume the next good read. However, an unhappy ending makes us question where things went wrong. We can’t just walk away, because if the work is well written, we are haunted by its implications.
Reason #2: The character’s hypocrisy is exposed
Authors like Flannery O’Connor ditch the status quo for dark comedy and shock. Here’s one example:
“The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The children's mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”
Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
Judgmental characters who don’t take the rod out of their own eyes, can’t see how at odds their reality is with true reality. Dark humor exposes the depth of the illusion the character carries. Of course, the kicker is whether or not the reader sees him or herself in the characters.
Reason #3: The Reader is Awakened
“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
Heart attack, drowning, shot to death—these endings are meant to rattle the unrattled. Who are the unrattled, complacent readers? Perhaps at times you and me. Perhaps the person who says they hold to beliefs they do not practice, people who think too much of themselves, people who become defensive to not reflect. The awakening to seeing things as they are is one very powerful tool of a frightful ending.
Want to learn more about how to incorporate humor, shock and the philosophical imagination into your own writing? Email us for notes from our latest workshop: “Seeing Thru Unrest: Disquieting Techniques to Awaken the Reader” taught at the 2020 Texmoot Conference.