What makes it so fulfilling when the hero wins the day or two people ride off together into the sunset? It is not simply the happy ending we as readers relish, but the fact that it was earned. This is done when the protagonists have sacrificed to earn their happily-ever-after through some form of a struggle. It is that sacrifice that balances the scales and makes the ending so sweet. A happy ending should always come at a price.
The author must choose with caution the form or forms this price will manifest. If the cost for a happy ending is too high then the story will be melancholy and leave the reader a bit depressed. If the cost is not sufficient then the efforts of the heroes may seem unimpressive or worse yet: uninteresting. Either way a balance between the cost of the struggle and reward must be struck.
This concept holds true for all types of stories. Depending on the setting and genre of a book dictates the level sacrifice that is required to make an ending satisfy the reader. Here are but a few as an example.
Loss of life; this is an obvious sacrifice that should be used with care. When an author manages to connect readers to his characters and then has them die it has a powerful impact. Used correctly this loss will bond the reader to the story emotionally and reward them well by the end.
Lost love; a character who has sacrificed a relationship of some kind is always a sympathetic figure. Sometimes the loss can be restored by the end or replaced by another, but losing intimate relationship of a lover, family, friend or even pet can be tragic.
Loss of station is the sort of sacrifice that works well particularly in romance. The King or Prince that advocates the throne for the woman he loves is a classic plot device. Power is always sought and the willful surrender of it is a bold gesture.
Loss of innocence is an elusive concept but also powerful to use. In story wrought with strife, even if there is no death, will frequently see characters loose their happy go lucky spirit and this loss can be profound. This is always the most notable in characters that are young women or children. Like loss of life, this sort of sacrifice should be used with care.
Loss of time; this is the default sacrifice. The time characters spend resolving the story’s situation instead of living in peace is the basic cost of any plot. In some cases this is enough and if used in conjunction with another form of loss it can satisfy the need for balance in most stories.
Good stories are about drama. To find drama there must be a struggle in which losses are suffered. Overcoming these losses is what imbues a happy ending with its uplifting affect. After all, if the situation is too easy to resolve then write the book?
Michael Matthews Bingamon