Last night I was reading a book called Girls Poker Night by Jill A. Davis. It’s funny and heartbreaking because the heroine knows her flaws, but continues to make the same mistakes. I couldn’t tell if this woman was ever going to be brave enough to change. I’ve been a bit down in the dumps lately and I did not want to read a book with a depressing ending. So, I did something I never ever do; I flipped to the back of the book and read the ending. Spoiler alert: she gets her act together and finds love and happiness.
I’m sharing this story because when you are writing your screenplay or novel, it is important to understand the conventions of your genre. Your audience not only expects the genre tropes, they demand them. And when you don’t deliver, they get mad. This anger can translate into bad reviews, box office, and word of mouth. You do not want to disappoint your audience!
Most movies and books have happy endings. The lovers get together; the bad guys are caught; the wrongly accused get their justice. In the world of entertainment, tragedies are rare. The real world is hard, and that’s why entertainment thrives. It takes us away from our troubles.
When there is not a happy ending, audiences feel cheated. My mother still brings up LaLa Land at least once a month. How dare the filmmaker not let those two people end up together! It was a musical about a love affair, two genres which demand a happy ending.
The threat of an unhappy ending keeps us turning pages . But an actual tragedy happening to characters that we have come to know and love can be what I call story traumatizing. Titanic is 20 plus years old and people still argue that Jack could have lived. There was room on that door! In my opinion, that movie would have been just as powerful if he had lived because the two lovers beat incredible odds to stay together and survive.
There’s even hope in horror movies. In slasher films, we know going in that most of the characters are going to die. But we also know somebody’s going to live (the Final Girl trope).
Happy endings never take away the nail-biting suspense from a well-told story. We know it’s all going to work out in the end, but the suspense that it may not keeps us watching. The bomb will get diffused. The lovers will get together. The evil empire will fall. We care so much about the characters we keep watching and we keep reading to make sure that everything turns out okay in the end.
Happy endings are important because we’re making entertainment, not documentaries. We’re helping people escape from the real world and the pressures of daily life. So, the next time you’re feeling arty and you want to kill off one of your main characters, think long and hard. Is this really serving your story? Is this going to make your audience angry? Instead of a fan, are you creating a true hater who will never watch or read anything you produce ever again? Embrace your genre. Embrace the happy ending and trust your audience to enjoy the ride.
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