Hollywood has sold us a dream. Ever noticed how almost all the movies that come out have a rather formulaic plot? There’s the conflict, the characters, the love sub-plot, the bad guy who adds to the conflict, the build-up of tension, the near-fatal moment where we think all is lost AND THEN it all resolves nicely just before the credits roll. Even if a few beloved characters are killed along the way, even if half the world is destroyed, even if the original goal was not achieved, somehow it gets turned around and the audience is left feeling all warm and fuzzy as if all is right in the world.
Now, I know there are examples where the formula is switched up and turned on its head. I know there are prime examples of unhappy endings, but the vast majority still follow this formula to this day. Consider, then, do books do the same?
I believe (generally speaking) that they do, and there is a very good reason for it. We engage in hobbies like reading and watching movies to immerse ourselves in a fantasy world. We want horror movies to frighten us, while in reality we sit comfortably with popcorn in our laps. We want a romance to make us feel all smooshy inside even if we’re lonely in real life. What we don’t want is to invest time and money in something that leaves us feeling confused and/or depressed at the end of the story. We want to leave the characters behind with a smile on our faces as we slowly return to reality and waddle off to our real lives in a daze.
Consider this when you’re writing your story. You don’t have to have a happy ending, but what happens in the end will be the last moment your readers experience in the world you’ve created, so make sure it’s meaningful and worthwhile, give your readers something to remember and send them away feeling fulfilled and gratified. You can do this, even with a sad ending if you put enough care into it.