As we discussed when talking about different types of endings closure doesn’t have to be complete, like life not all the questions need to be answered. This, of course, relates to the ‘Happily Ever After’ ending. The traditional Happily Ever After is all questions resolved, they get married and, obviously, live happily ever after. This ending is associated largely with fairy tales, morality plays and basically any genre where good defeats evil and love triumphs.
The Happily Ever After ending is associated with genres with strong moral message because happily ever after is the hero and heroine’s reward for their triumph over evil, which usually dies in some fashion, depending which version of the stories you read. We could try intellectual snobbery and say that modern audiences expect stories that are more morally complex but this wouldn’t be true. At their root most stories are some form of good defeating evil, whether it’s a detective catching a criminal or some Hobbits defeating an evil sorcerer. Love conquering all is still a popular theme too, so why did we fall out love with happily ever after?
Part of it might be that as stories got longer and had more subplots it became harder to tie all of them off happily without it appearing contrived. Perhaps part of it was social and cultural factors as formally Christian societies became more secular and moved away from the idea that you would get your reward in heaven, happily ever after. Or, perhaps, we simply lost the romance and Happily Ever After became Happily Until Divorce.
Whatever the reason it means that Happily Ever After became more complicated than its origins. There are still Happily Ever After stories but they tend to be more ambiguous, our protagonists may get happily ever after but the rest of the characters might not, or the characters might a form of HEA but it isn’t what they expected or thought they wanted.
More stories end up at the opposite end of the scale as well with dead lovers, broken dreams and hopelessness. Sometimes the protagonists even get what they thought they wanted and it turns out not to be their HEA after all. Neither of these ending are more valid than the other. Even if you choose the tragic ending then there is generally a subplot with some form of happy ending so all is not hopeless, but not always.
The sort of ending you choose depends upon the story you want to tell, not the one someone else wants you to tell, or even the one literary conventions say you should tell. When we are considering all these different aspects of storytelling it’s important to remember that these story conventions we’re examining only exist because someone wrote them first, before them the conventions didn’t exist.
It simply helps us to break the rules and conventions if we know them first.