Ignoring Happiness

Last Thursday, I focused on writers and story endings. Today, I'm focusing on the church and story endings. Is it an odd topic? Nope, not really.


Over the course of my thirty-odd years of life, I can think of only a handful of times in which I seriously contemplated throwing a book across the room. The first was with the Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper. The ending did not meet my expectations, and I was ticked.

More recently, I read a book called Blood from Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani in which the main character faces some serious struggles. She is poor then becomes rich, and gives it all away to become poor again. At first, the ending annoyed me: I wanted her to have a better life, but as I thought about the story and the character, I realized she did have a better life.

Cotton Candy and Steak

Most of us want happy endings for ourselves, our loved ones and in the stories we read. We want to finish a novel and be content with everything being right in the world - or at least our own little portion of the world. For some of us, the need for a happy ending is a direct result of our worlds being far from happy.

One day, someone suggested I read a series about weaving, so I picked it up from the local library to check it out. The books were about weaving ... sort of in a very small way. I suppose it's like saying that the Chronicles of Narnia is a series about England. Yes, the characters are English, and they usually begin and end their adventures in England, but other than that ... nope, not really.

In this "weaving" series I picked up, the books were focused on the romances of the main characters - and that's really everything. The storylines behind the characters were there to provide a historical context, but didn't fit, and weaving played a negligible part of the plot. At the end of the book, however, the main characters got together. I liken the experience to gorging myself on cotton candy then reeling from the sugar low.

I read a great deal of mystery novels, and recently I picked up a series set in the near future (NYC 2060). They follow a detective in the police department as she investigates crimes - fairly normal mystery plot. Each of those stories left me satisfied - more like a fine meal than a cotton candy gorge.

Would it intrigue you if I told you that the weaving novels were Christian fiction, and the mysteries were non-Christian? This is part of the reason why I hate the term "inspirational" for Christian fiction - it rarely, if ever, inspires me.

Happy and Satisfied

We often associate happiness and satisfaction together therefore we are happy when we are satisfied, and satisfied when we are happy. As a writer, I see them as two separate emotions not often connected to each other. I am rarely happy with my finished novels, but at some point, I am satisfied enough to submit them. It's not a perfectionist issue - it's me wanting to put my best out there.

Over the past few weeks, we've talked about women in the church, and how the church needs to relate to women - single, married, young, old. Our fiction is, by and far, unsatisfying - cotton candy gorges. There are a great many novels out there that are good (take a look in the fantasy section), but across the board there are some troubles.

The romance genre has always had this element, though, regardless if it was Christian or non-Christian. For some reason, however, the Christian romances (which makes the majority of Christian fiction sales) leave me feeling empty. They are, by far, what I consider the biggest waste of my time.

Some of it is personality; some of it is the reason I read; and some of it is simply the need for a happy ending. By nature, I can be quite cynical so the happy endings rarely sit well with me. I read to learn, to think, to ponder, and I rarely read simply for something mindless to do. When I do read for mindless enjoyment, it's usually something like the Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings - books I've already read, but which still challenge me.

I think the last two are tied up with each other, however. We don't want to think, and we crave happy endings. As I said at the beginning of the piece, I've only come close to throwing books across the room a handful of times. For Cooper, I still think he was an idiot for his story ending; for Amirrezvani, I believe the ending is the best for the character. It's not necessarily happy, but it is satisfying.

Good Endings; Bad Endings

For many people, a happy ending includes the girl getting the guy. In all honesty, this is a generic story ending utilized in fairy tales down to the modern adventures. For most stories, outside the romance genre, this is a subplot, though sometimes the catalyst for the story. The ending is not a bad ending, but a good ending.

For clarification, let me explain something.
  • Good Endings are conducive to the storyline in which you feel satisfied at the end of the story. These endings naturally grow out of the storyline and feel appropriate.
  • Bad Endings do not fit the storyline and leave you unsatisfied. These endings may feel contrived, forced or tacked onto a story. It does not fit the characters or storyline.
Now, we add into the mix the happy ending concept in which everything works out, ties up, and leaves everyone singing songs in the field. This is a stereotypical fairy tale ending.

In the Christian culture we most often equate "happy" endings with "good" endings. A story that does not end on a happy note is a "bad" ending therefore not a good story, and often not considered a "good" Christian story. Because conservative Christianity feels that happy endings are the only good endings, they sometimes contrive the ending therefore making a happy ending a bad ending - follow me?

For example: throughout a story Jamison is opposed to God, wants nothing to do with God, and disregards God at every turn. At the end of the story, he is suddenly, and miraculously, saved and becomes a preacher, and (a) marries the good Christian girl who offered him water on a hot summer day, or (b) gets right with his wife so she comes to salvation or (c) gets right with his wife and gives her a great testimony because she's been praying for years.

Understand that this ending can be good; most often it is not because, most often, the ending is too quick. The audience has not had enough time with Jamison's character to see the turn. In those cases, the story is too short, the turn around too quick, and the happy ending becomes a bad ending.

To make the ending more satisfying, the audience needs time to invest in the character which usually involves lengthening the story. In a book, this is all well and good since a novel can be long, or it can turn into a trilogy or series. If it is in a play, however, there arises other problems which can be dealt with more plays (a night of one-act plays for example) or lengthening the time of the play.

In most cases, changing the ending so it doesn't feel contrived is the best choice, but in that ending we butt up against another problem which the church itself needs to accept and address: not everything will have a happy ending.

Church Relations

From my years of experience growing up in the church, I think it is hardest for Christians, especially conservative Christians to acknowledge unhappy endings. Because most of them take a fantastical view of world history - fantastical in this aspect meaning on a grand fantasy adventure scale - we see Christ returning in triumph at the end of the ages, much like a prince might return for his princess.

To have people reject that image, for many, is too sad to accept, and is part of the reason many Christian plays and novels have the characters getting saved or returning to Christ. To have a character not make a choice is paramount to heresy. You need to motivate people forward because the point of the play is to have people get saved after the production.

Some Christians are beginning to understand that good endings might be unhappy, and happy endings might be bad. I've had people tell me that these issues need to be addressed by the writers of the novels and plays. "If they didn't write it, I wouldn't read it," people tell me.

Yes ... and no. See, writing is a business. Most writers enjoy telling stories, but we all need to accept the business end of writing. We write what will sell; therefore, the buying public is as much at fault as the writers.

Put this into perspective: a writer finishes her novel. It's fabulous - it's got everything: romance, adventure, mystery, challenges and even a dragon. She submits her novel to a publisher who reads it, and decides that (a) they love it or (b) they hate it.

If they hate it, they return it to the writer with maybe a few notes depending on how nice they are. If they love it, they have to decide (a) will it sell or (b) will it flop?

For all good novels out there, many of them do not make it through the second gate. Why? Because even if it is a good novel, if it won't sell, the publisher won't pick it up. It's all about money. Publishers base their publishing schedule on the probability of the book doing well. They know what sort of book will do well, and they want more of it.

Why are there novels out there about Amish vampires? Because Amish and Vampires are big business now. Throw in a Christian veneer and you have a best-selling young adult novel. It's that simple.

The same is true for plays - churches purchase plays for Easter and Christmas with a strong salvation message. Because those are the most popular plays, play companies publish those plays and the cycle continues.

How do we break out of the bad happy endings? By putting our foot down, opening our wallets and making a choice. Do we choose to have easy or do we choose to have hard? Do we choose to have thought-provoking or mind-numbing? Do we choose to challenge or to soothe?

Take a look at the choices - I'm not having you make a choice between good and bad; right or wrong. Make a choice between what you want. Thought-provoking might come in a short saying, not a long essay. A challenge might take time to build up, whereas soothing might take less time. It matters more to what you want to feel or the audience to feel than it does to what is happening.

Choose between a good item and a bad item. A good play/novel may not have a happy ending, but an ending that is appropriate to the characters and tone of the piece. Choose those endings over the ones that are contrived, even if the contrived endings are happy. Not only will it make you a better reader, in the long run, it will make you a better human.

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