I used to be vocal about how you were better off writing happy endings for your stories.
For some reason that upset a LOT of readers.
I got SO many emails accusing me of being soft, of selling out, of suckering people into writing Hollywood schmaltz instead of being true artists, over and over, on and on.
As if Art can only be Art if it has a miserable ending!
I gave up arguing after a time.
Some people who wrote to me seemed so entrenched, so angry, about what I had said that, to be honest, I couldn’t be bothered.
But the other day Brian MacEvilly pointed me at this NY Post piece, which wonders what TV drama's constant urge to push the dark side actually says about the world we are making in 2016.
Any Game of Thrones fan will get the context to this.
The need for happy endings still stands. And it's more relevant than ever.
Look for the happy endings
That's the wisdom.
"Stories with happy endings get better word of mouth."
I believe that's true.
Simply, people don't like to be made to feel bad.
But there's more to it than that.
Yes, I have read Macbeth, and King Lear, many times each actually, and yes, they are truly great works.
But I believe that a great work that ends with a wedding is greater than a great work that ends with a funeral.
It’s to do with something far, far deeper than earning a buck, or getting the next job.
It’s to do with why we story tellers exist at all.
What is story for?
You've probably heard of The Hero With 1,000 Faces, and its idea of The Hero's Journey.
It’s the most profound book on story telling I’ve ever read.
Published in 1949, it distills decades of work by the brilliant Joseph Campbell, in which he carried out a cross analysis and summation of thousands of human stories, the most enduring stories from all corners of the world and human civilisation.
It goes way beyond an account of which beat goes where.
It shows how the best Story mirrors back to us the journey we all take between birth and death.
It tells us how to live
Campbell’s point is that people need story because story tells them how to live.
People look to writers to tell them how to negotiate their existence.
Therefore writers have a duty to choose the stories they tell very carefully.
You're got a duty, like it or not
When you write a story, whether you like it or not, you are part of this tradition.
Some people will always be guided by your story.
Do you really want your message to be that the world is cruel, and dark, and people are damned?
Is that what the best you've got?
You can go as deep and as True as you possibly can. That's your job as a writer. But if you're going dark, then find some joy in it somewhere.
It takes guts, and better craft, to do it
I believe a good, well earned, sound, and deeply felt happy ending is technically much harder to pull off than a tragic ending.
It’s easy to break things apart into fragments.
It’s easy to point your finger, and say ‘isn’t the world shit?!’
It’s hard (very, very hard) to make things that last, and endure, and give genuine joy.
The happy ending is justly scorned as a misrepresentation; for the world as we know it, as we have seen it, yields but one ending: death, disintegration, dismemberment and the crucifixion of our heart with the passing of the forms that we have loved …
Modern literature is devoted, in great measure, to a courageous, open-eyed observation of the sickeningly broken figurations that abound before us, around us, and within …
Too well we know what bitterness of failure, loss, disillusionment and ironic unfulfillment galls the blood of even the envied of the world!
Hence we are not disposed to assign to comedy the high rank of tragedy.
Comedy as satire is acceptable, as fun as it is a pleasant haven of escape, but the fairy tale of happiness ever after cannot be taken seriously; it belongs to the never-never land of childhood, which is protected from the realities which will become terribly known soon enough; just as the myth of heaven ever after is for the old, whose lives are behind them and whose hearts have to be readied for the last transit of the portal into night – which sober judgement is founded on a total misunderstanding of the realities depicted in the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedies of redemption.
These, in the ancient world, were regarded as of a higher rank than tragedy, of a deeper truth, of a more difficult realisation, of a sounder structure, and of a revelation more complete…
The happy ending … is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as transcendence of the universal tragedy of man …
[in a happy ending] enduring being is made manifest, as indifferent to the accidents of time as water boiling in a pot is to the destiny of a bubble, or as the cosmos to the appearance and disappearance of a galaxy of stars.
Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms; comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible….
… the effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world.
"The Hero With 1,000 Faces", 1949
Don’t leave us in the dark
Happy endings, the Hero's Journey, and Joseph Campbell are falling out of fashion.
Of course you need far more acts than three to tell a story over 5 seasons of 13 episodes, and even Robert McKee is telling people to forget the Hero's Journey.
The theory is that things have moved on.
Personally I think that's a disaster. Which explains so much about why there has been so much death, destruction and despair on screen in the last couple of years.
We still need guides for living. We always will.
Here's the trailer to Series Six of Game of Thrones:
Do you think they'll bring us back to the light?
I hope so they do. It’s inhumane not to.
[More on Joseph Campbell.]