Wednesday 5 October 2016

Happily ever after

I’ve been writing fairy tale pieces – as you may already know – and I’m also finishing off a young adult novel which will be published in December and it’s led me to think about happy ever afters.
It’s the ‘ever’ that bothers me. I mean, if you’re always happy, is it possible to appreciate the fact that you’re happy? And doesn’t it get a bit boring, constant happiness? Basically, if you’re going to be prosaic about it, I can’t see how ‘happy ever after’ is realistic.

 So first, let’s think about fairy tales. The first thing to say about fairy tales is that they are not fully worked out narratives. The characters are pawns in the plot, ‘a princess’, ‘a king’, ‘a third son’. They have no depth. On the whole we are not asked to wonder too much about their happiness or otherwise during the plot, although we may become concerned about their happiness due to their circumstances, if for example they are lacking a baby or forced to spin straw into gold or thrust out into the world with a piece of bread and a cat who wants a pair of boots. So they get through the story and they reach the end where they have survived whatever fate has thrown at them and ended up in a better position than they were at the moment and then we are told that they ‘lived happily ever after’. But what it means, surely, is, simply that this story is finished and everything is as it should be. It’s not really telling you anything about the future, except perhaps, that it has left the main character in a secure enough position that whatever problem they’ve solved or strife they’ve undergone can be forgotten and whoever the story’s antagonist is has had their comeuppance and won’t be a problem again. So, happily ever after, as far as this problem is concerned.

So now, consider the same problem from the position of my young adult novels. I spend quite a lot of time thinking about what it is like to be a young adult. Mostly, from my old adult perspective, what I think is, phew! thank goodness I never have to go through that again. But the thing I think when I write is this: there is no possibility of ‘ever after’, happily or otherwise, not when you’re a teen. Everything is beginning. You don’t know who you are or where you fit or where you want to go or what you want to do. It’s much too soon to think of ‘happily ever after’ as any kind of a positive. And that is why I always leave my characters in a position where the future is open ahead of them, where what has happened in the story may influence what they decide to do next, but nothing is set in stone. Readers may want to decide what happens next, but I’m not telling them.

‘Ever’ is a very long time.


  1. Yes, I'd agree completely with your observations.
    But I wonder what that implies for the audience for YA & NA. For example, do you think teens / YAs prefer to read books which specifically offer the stability of an HEA, in deliberate contrast to the fluidity of their own changing circumstances? I'm thinking here of the huge popularity of the binary endings that characterise so much YA fantasy writing.
    Contrariwise, would that imply that an older age group is more likely to appreciate the HFN which is - as you say - "all" that YA can realistically offer?

    1. I think the desire for any kind of ending is part of the whole human desire to impose narrative on our lives. But realistically, there are no full stops, even in death, the things we start carry on after us. For me, teens are too often given a vision of the world where things are neatly tied up with little bows: do this and you will get a good job (implied: which will satisfy you for the rest of your life); this is your soulmate who will make you feel complete as a person (implied: for the rest of your life). In spite of the glaringly obvious examples in everyday life that THIS IS NOT TRUE, people at all stages of life desire these 'happy ever afters'.

      I think the contrast I might make is with eg crime fiction, where it is possible to get an effective 'happy ever after' which implies that all the ends are sewn up. Though contemporary crime dramas tend to veer away from this too!

      As far as endings go in general, I'm all for endings where you are not absolutely sure where the characters are going to go next. These allow the story to live on in the reader's mind and I think they allow the kind of fan-fiction interaction that particularly the YA and fantasy audience enjoy. However, I do feel very strongly that an author and their publisher have a duty to the reader to give each and every book a properly satisfying ending, even if it is part of a series. By which I mean that whatever the premise of that particular story is must be sewn up at the end in a way that is sufficiently satisfying. I've thrown down far too many YA books lately that leave you hanging at the end waiting for the next installment in a year's time. GRR.


What do you think?