Writing Resources

More Happy Endings?

In fit of writing procrastination I scanned through my published or soon-to-be-published stories, mostly looking at how they ended.

What did I discover?

Seven of the stories had unpleasant endings for the protagonist (or ambiguous endings that some readers, I think, would take as unpleasant) although one of those stories would technically be considered a happy ending by many readers as the protagonist is a real jerk.

Eight stories have what I consider to be a happy ending.

My early stories almost always had negative endings. This is ok sometimes — some stories have to end unpleasantly, if they are to end naturally. But I was finding that often I was writing the “oh my god that’s horrible” ending just for the sake of writing it that way and in the last couple years have tried to end stories a little more positively.

As a reader I don’t have a preference over how stories end though if the protagonist meets a cruel fate after trying hard to right their situation I’ll be a little disappointed unless it really feels ‘right’.

What do you think?

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.


  • Laurie Tom

    As a reader, whether or not I need or want a happy ending really depends on how I feel about the protagonist. If the protag is the ultimate bastard and the ending is him getting what’s coming to him (like the Death Note anime/manga) I’m totally cool with it. If the protag is the heroic self-sacrificing type, a sad ending can be perfectly fine if he/she gives up something for someone else.

    If I don’t care much about the protagonist either way (a good chance in short fiction where bonding time is short), then I generally prefer a good ending. Since I would not have been getting satisfaction from the protagonist, a good ending at least feels more satisfactory as a plot.

    I’m sure there are exceptions, but that’s my gut feeling.

  • Brent Knowles

    Yep that makes sense. I find it more difficult to write a satisfying unpleasant ending in a short story, especially a very short story.

    And reading a bunch of ‘sad stories’ back to back can be depressing.

  • Cori

    I like happy endings. The more ridiculously happy, the better.

    That said, I don’t *mind* a sad ending, provided the protagonist really earned it. But I’d rather live happily ever after.

  • Siobh├ín Mooney

    I’m ambivalent about negative endings. I used to write a lot of short stories when I was a teenager and at the time I tended to think that negative endings were more realistic, mature, and generally refreshing compared with the “standard” happy ending. But as the years passed I realised that if the negative ending becomes a new standard then it can be just as stale as the positive ending.

    One of my favourite endings of any game was Planescape: Torment – I got the “good” ending but it wasn’t a happy one per se. However, it was appropriate and just – there was no way my character deserved to get away scott free for the things he had done, so there was a satisfying sense of atonement to the punishment aspect of the ending.

    The game ending that had the biggest emotional impact on me was that of Dragon Age: Origins. There is just no way to “win” everything there, as far as I can tell. You always have to sacrifice something that really matters to you. And, in spite of getting all four endings at one point or another, I still can’t decide which is the best. That’s an impressive level of ambiguity. I applaud the writing decisions that led to such deep emotional payoff, but at the same time it hurt so much that I wouldn’t want every game to end this way.

    There are times when the pain of a DA:O ending is just too much. Sometimes, it’s nice to get a Mass Effect ending. Your character wins through adversity and achieves a heroic triumph. It feels good. You’re not (necessarily) left grieving for the horribly unexpected loss of a loved one or wondering if you’ve made a selfish choice that may doom thousands later on. You just get to be awesome. There’s something to be said for that.

  • Brent Knowles

    Thanks Siobh├ín, really good comments. I’m impressed too with the DA:O endings, really liked that about the game but agree that having diversity in games/stories/novels whatever is better than having them all end the same.

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