Happy Endings Only!

So, I just got a rejection letter for a story I submitted to Analog. This, in and of itself, is unexceptional (sadly) and part and parcel of this whole ‘trying to be a successful writer’ thing. What made it interesting to me, though, was the list of things they tag onto the bottom of their form letter. Ordinarily these lists are comprised of somewhat disingenuous reminders of what makes a bad story (i.e. a list of most common reasons why they reject things) and they are typically quite uninformative for someone who knows their way around plot, character, and the genre in general. This one, though, had a peculiar one that had me scratching my head. It went like this:

—Science fiction readers are problem solvers! Stories with downbeat endings, in which the characters have no hope of solving their problems, are strongly disliked by Analog readers. In a good SF story, the characters strive to solve their problems—and even if they fail in the end, they go down fighting, not whimpering. 

This, to me, basically says ‘we prefer happy endings and victory to tragedy and defeat. If the guy loses, at least make it awesome.’ Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I don’t think so.

Now, I’ve noticed the trend for science fiction stories to end on an upnote before. The one most consistent thing I’ve gleaned from reading the Writers of the Future anthology is that the vast, vast majority of scifi stories end in victory of some kind – occasionally bittersweet, but consistently upbeat in some fashion. This note on my rejection letter left me wondering ‘is this a thing?’

Yes, it is a Thing

If you haven't see this movie, I've ruined it for you. That's okay, though, since so has everybody else, ever.

I’ve spent a bit too much time this morning trying to think of science fiction titles with downbeat endings – tragedies, in other words. I generally think of scifi as a genre that lends itself to the grim and dark but, the more I thought about it, the more I started to see my error. Think for a second: how many downbeat scifi titles that end ‘negatively’ can you name? Here’s my list:

  • The Planet of the Apes
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  • Frankenstein
  • The Sparrow
  • A Canticle For Lebowitz (sort of)

And…hmmmm…nothing much else. Even those are a stretch.

Granted, I’m definitely missing a few in that list, but if you go down the list of the darkest, most depressing scifi stories ever and you’ll still get the upbeat ending, nine times out of ten. Terminator? John Connor wins! Aliens? The Aliens are always defeated eventually. Zombie Apocapypses? 99% of the time the last band of survivors finds a cure, escapes from trouble, or what have you. Even Children of Men, one of the darkest, most dismal scifi universes ever, has the woman with the last child escape England and vanish into the mist – that, my friends, is hope.

What’s up with that?

What is Up With This

This book made the bestseller list, after all.

I suppose this trend isn’t unique to science fiction – most stories in any genre end happily somehow. They might be troubled victories, but the protagonist seldom loses, seldom sees his plans thwarted, seldom finds his efforts futile. I guess, on some level, we all like to think that the happy ending is out there for all of us, no matter how terrible things look. Alien brain slugs might be eating our neighbors, but we, dammit, are going to find a way to survive.

Part of this also might have something to do with science itself. Science is an inherently positive discipline in some ways, or at least it is perceived as such. We like to think of it as constantly striding forward, fixing problems, uncovering truths. Such a glorious and wonderous discipline cannot lead to tragedy! Why, that would mean we, humanity, were fundamentally wrong about something, and we can’t have that. Oh no no no! We dare not even think of such things!

Is this a Bad Thing?

I am a big believer in the power of tragedy, myself. My natural predilection is for my stories to have at least partially tragic endings. It has taken a surprising amount of effort on my part to pull myself away from that habit, and I am stuck asking myself sometimes why I’m trying so hard.

A good tragedy isn’t depressing, it’s somehow fulfilling. It’s like a meal – it sticks to your ribs, makes you think about it for months afterwards. They can hurt your heart, but it’s a good kind of hurt; it’s the kind that makes you realize you’ve grown somehow. You’ve understood something that a victorious ending might not have illuminated. You’ve grown.

Now, I’m not saying every single thing I read or write should end sadly – far from it –  but I am suggesting that, if this is a stipulation of the genre, we ought to bend it a bit, if not break it outright. Not every tale of our future selves ends well; we should be courageous and willing enough to explore that.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on April 27, 2012, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Sounds as though you’re running up against the same thing that has plagued film writers for years… Art versus Commerce.

    I bet if you were to ask the actual people who work for Analog that they probably share your sentiment on Tragedy. I suspect most authors find Tragedy just as compelling, if not moreso, than upbeat endings. After all… I think there’s a reason why when you mention Shakespeare’s name, it’s Hamlet, R&J, Julius Caesar and Macbeth that are the first ones that come to mind.

    But the problem is… they are also probably being very upfront and honest about the fact that the consumer base *on the whole* prefers upbeat to tragic. And since Analog’s first duty is to commerce… making sure the magazine gets purchased, and thus making the company the money needed to do it all again next month… the Art takes a backseat. And Hollywood is rife with this as well. To sell to the largest swathe of audience, you appeal to the lowest common denominator… and on average that leans towards the “happy ending”.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if your tendency to write towards the downbeat end is a direct result of that being under-represented in science fiction. There’s probably a much wider net to say something truthful in an original way, when you don’t have so much flotsam and jetsam of thousands of other “upbeat stories” muddying the waters.

    • It may well be, and I think you are right about the Art Vs Commerce thing–scifi is commercial fiction, no doubt.

      What’s interesting about my tendencies, though, is the fact that it is (or was) mostly subliminal for a long time. I didn’t do it on purpose, I just did it.

  2. I feel like their emphasis may have been more on ‘go down fighting’ than that it was a tragic ending. Without having read said story, granted. But even in Planet of the Apes, it’s a tragic all-for-naught ending, but you sure can’t say he doesn’t go down fighting up until that point.

    Childhood’s End is missing from your list and has what I absolutely consider a completely tragic, utterly hopeless ending. My god, what a downer. It depressed me to read that ending, not to mention freaked me the hell out, and I didn’t like it at all. Now, that by no means makes it a bad way to end that story, it’s just my personal taste that I didn’t like it. And it may be the case that if I read it now (versus when I did, in high school), I’d feel differently about it, or at least would have new thoughts on it.

    But yeah — in general, I think people do appreciate more an ending where if the hero loses and can never win, at least he tried, dammit. Don’t take that as a reason to necessarily change your story. If it is what it is, and you like it, stick to it and to hell with those guys. But rejections of these ilk may be the result for that particular story, and that also is what it is.

    • But Childhood’s End *does* end positively – humanity has ascended to collective godhood. Clarke didn’t intend it to be depressing in the least. He meant it to be revelatory.

      Also, ‘going down fighting’ is different than tragedy. There is no moment of catharsis; no point at which the hero realizes his fatal flaw and stares, dumbfounded, at the destruction he himself has wrought. Charlton Heston doesn’t go down fighting in Planet of the Apes, he realizes, to his horror, that what he was fighting for all that time was a complete and utter lie. His fight was pointless.

      The story that was rejected doesn’t really end badly, per se. I suppose it’s more along the lines of Childhood’s End. Whether or not it’s sad is a matter of perspective. Don’t worry, though, I’m still sending it out. Just resubmitted it, in fact.

      • I guess “your mileage may vary.” I considered the end to that book to be horribly tragic, frightening, and hopeless. It legitimately terrified me that humanity became this hive mind personality-less…thing.

        Re: Planet of the Apes: I suppose this another place where interpretation comes in. Yes, the fight was pointless in the end, but we DID see him fighting the obvious oppressor for most of the story, that is, the apes. And he got away from them, even taking Nova with him. I think, too, that this functions differently in film than in a written story. In the former, we see that hopeless moment and his breakdown, but it ends there and we leave thinking whatever we like about it. In the latter, you’re given the details of the revelation of hopelessness and it cannot be avoided by the audience, whether they like it or not.

  3. Having just refreshed myself on a few more details of the ending of Childhood’s End: yep. Still terrifying and tragic, IMO.

    • I also find it fairly terrifying. It isn’t, however, Clarke’s intention to depress any more than it is a parent’s intention to depress a child by saying ‘one day you will grow up.’

      YMMV though, of course.

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