I watched a TV show last night while ironing shirts that really got me thinking about happy endings. The show was one of those things you dig up on Hulu late at night after you’ve seen all the current episodes of Modern Family and Community. A drama about an American and a Brit trying to make a go of a transoceanic relationship, it was canceled after only seven episodes. And for good reason; each episode was more depressing and joyless than the one before.
Yet I kept watching, because I thought I understood the rules: rewards in fiction have to be earned; these characters would be tortured, put through every dramatic twist the writers could conceive, and only then would they get their happy ending. Except they didn’t. The show got canceled and we left the main characters at a low point in their relationship.
The show has been bugging and nagging at me ever since. This morning I realized why. Happy endings don’t just have to be earned by the characters, they have to be plausible, possible, and believable. This was where the show had failed, and would have continued to fail even if it hadn’t been canceled. The two main characters were all wrong for each other. They were polar opposites in values, taste, friends, attitudes, and in their approach to relationships and family. All they shared in common was the fact that both were attractive and wanted to sleep with each other; I could imagine no future for them that wouldn’t be filled with fights, recriminations, and heartbreak. Basically, the show’s creators wrote two very interesting characters who had no business being together and then built an entire story around the premise that they belonged together. Even if they’d made it to their happy ending, it would have felt false.
Writers are told all the time that the conflict resolution in their stories has to be to earned. This is true. If you introduce a character with a desire line, give him or her a problem to solve, and then let them overcome that problem and get what they want without setbacks or costs, the reader is going to feel cheated (and rightly so). But there’s more to it than this. The resolution needs to be earned, but it also needs to be true and authentic with respect to the characters involved. If you give your characters a happy ending that isn’t consistent with who they are, what they believe, and the choices they make, then it won’t matter if they’ve “earned” it or not. It will still ring hollow and leave the reader frustrated and dissatisfied.
This point seems quite obvious in hindsight, and it’s been floating around in the misty reaches of my brain for some time. It just took some silly show to crystalize it for me. Or perhaps I’m just trying to justify the several hours of my life I wasted watching television last night. I guess sometimes it takes something trite to make you realize something important. Ever had this happen to you?