To Every Problem There Is A Solution – Or Is There?

Every story needs certain elements to be a story. We’ve talked about characters, settings, and problems. If we’re following the mnemonic below, that leaves us with solutions to talk about.

Cows = Characters

See = Setting

Pretty = Problem

Sunflowers = Solution

This works great for eight-year-olds learning the parts of the story they should include in a retell. Up to problems, it’s also helpful for writers to ensure they’re making the most of the elements. Are the characters interesting? Do they have issues? Does the setting add to the story in some way? Are the problems really problems, or are they goals?

Right around here is where things start getting fuzzy. Because solution isn’t really the right word.

no endingBecause not all stories have a solution.

What they have is a conclusion, and that’s different. Some stories have a conclusion that is also a solution – the classic “happily ever after.” The prince wins the heart of the princess. The kids find the treasure. The green eggs and ham are actually pretty good.

But other stories are less satisfying in their conclusions. Instead of a feeling that all is right with the world, they leave readers with…something else. Sadness. Frustration. Disappointment, but hopefully not simply because of how the story ended. We’ve been rooting for the characters for the duration of the tale, yet the white whale still wins. The gladiator dies. Bruce Willis was dead all along.

It’s just not what we were expecting.

I’ve heard people say stories should always have a happy ending, but I heartily disagree. I disagree for the same reason I think it’s a bad idea for any author to lock himself into the same kind of ending for every story.

Here’s the deal: If every story ended well, there would be no real suspense in any story. We wouldn’t worry about the prince because we know he’ll get the princess. He always does. We don’t worry about the detective tracking down the murderer because we know he will. He always does.

Get the idea?

It’s those other stories, the non-happy ending ones, that keep us caring about stories in general. The princess might tell the prince to bug off. The murderer might kill our detective. We don’t know, because anything is possible. It’s not always going to lead to a happy ending.

Just like every other element, the ending must serve the story. That means there won’t always be a tight solution. 

One of my favorite movies ever is Stranger Than Fiction. Setting aside the supposedly famous author’s use of “little did he know,” the story masterfully illustrates my point – there are comedies and tragedies. Peaks and valleys. Sometimes even when it looks like the good guy wins, he doesn’t.

Harold Crick

Photo credit:

The main character of the movie is Harold Crick, an OCD-leaning accountant with the IRS. He’s also the main character of a novel being written about him. He can hear the author’s voice in his head as he goes about his day. She narrates his actions and even provides him his internal monologue. Once he figures out what’s going on and tracks her down, he learns his story – the story she’s writing about him – doesn’t end well. She allows him to read the draft, and in spite of him knowing how things end for him, he doesn’t tell her to change it. Because her ending served his story very well.

That said, I feel I must offer a word of warning. Readers love happy endings and air-tight solutions. If you write a story with a not-so-happy ending, you’ll hear about it in reviews. A YA book I enjoyed was Reason to Breathe by Rebecca Donovan. The ending was shocking – it fit the story perfectly, but still, it was shocking. If you read the negative reviews, you’ll see many, many complaints about how it ended. But the book is still highly rated even with those negative reviews, proving that it worked for the majority of readers.

In my own experience, The Fourth Descendant doesn’t end well for some of the characters, and several reviews mention it. When Drake and the Fliers was with beta readers, one was overjoyed that it had a happier ending. I laughed, because even after just one book, I’d conditioned readers (or at least that reader) to expect unhappy endings from me. I’m glad I get to be unpredictable.

What kinds of conclusions do you enjoy? Do you prefer a tight “happily ever after”, or maybe a more complicated ending that makes you think?

17 thoughts on “To Every Problem There Is A Solution – Or Is There?

  1. I also value tragedies, or stories with mixed endings. But if you’re writing romance (I don’t), there had better be a HEA or readers will be ticked. I think everyone knows this. Yet romance is huge genre.

    I like the uncertainly element. The first three-part series I wrote (still unpublished, but that’s another tale by itself) had a tragic ending in the first book, but the third book had a HFN (happily for now). But it wasn’t something to send you into complete sugar shock. My characters were American, and we were looking at the start of WWII in Europe.

    I think the appeal is finding how the characters will work things out. And what each reader needs for suspense is highly individual.

    I certainly don’t want some sort of blanket HEA requirement in all genre fiction, though. We’ve already got enough rules/guidelines, some of which make NO sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great point about romance and HEA. Maybe that’s why I’m not a big romance reader. 😉

      There are a lot of rules in this endeavor – scripts to follow, certain things needing to happen at certain points, etc. It would be interesting to poll writers about the ones they think make no sense and which are must haves. Writing is definitely an art form and writers can feel quite strongly about how it’s done.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Audiences are funny, though. “Rocky” fans want the SAME ending every time. And before everybody gets their literary noses turned up, SO DO HARRY POTTER FANS. And Stars Wars fans.

    Basically, every franchise wants that.

    While reading the Harry Potter stuff, did you ever REALLY think Harry would die?
    Or that James Bond wouldn’t escape intact?
    Or that Hercule Poirot, Charlie Chan (or Bruce Willis in just about every movie he makes) etc., wouldn’t get the bad guy?

    So, we want what we want. And by we I mean you. And by you I mean the large collective of readers and moviegoers, not necessarily you, except it probably includes you.

    The TV show Friends is doing a 2 hour reunion, even though as far as I can tell the show has never gone off the air; it’s been in reruns continually since they stopped making originals ten years ago or whatever. So you can see Joey and Monica and the gang every night on Nick At Night if you want; no need for a reunion. Wanna know how they ended up? You know. Jenifer Aniston is still a megastar and the rest still aren’t. There. No need for a reunion.

    But gee, none of them ever died in a car wreck or suffered from depression. There were no A Very Special Episode of Friends where Joey dies of AIDS. Because sitcom, sure, but also because $$$ means give the viewers what they want.

    So, too, in many books and movies. Hell, just by knowing there are three or four or six Harry Potter books, you know he doesn’t die in the second one.

    But that’s why when a main character dies in one of these books or movies, it’s such a big deal. Harry had one. So did Star Wars. I won’t give you the exact examples in case it’s a spoiler (but trust me, I haven’t seen or read them and I know, so how much of a spoiler can it be, but still), you get the point.

    And that is why it is SO tragic of an ending – and far more memorable – when in Dr Zhivago that he has his torrid, heart wrenching love affair with Lara and they cannot be together and then finally they can and she doesn’t know it and he sees her from the trolley and she doesn’t see him and he gets off and chases after her and actually dies of a heart attack in the crowd before she ever turns around! He died with the love of his life twenty feet away and she never knew. He didn’t get to be with her but he almost did! The happy ending was right there and fate snatched it away at the last second. Readers and moviegoers were left teary eyed. Nooooo! He goes to his death not knowing what might have been. She gets away – for eternity? Nooooooo!

    I didn’t do it justice there, but you get the idea. Plenty of readers would have LOVED for them to meet back up and live happily ever after. That’s why his death, so close to his goal, is so tragic – and so memorable. It helped make Dr Zhivago a classic for decades. I have to believe it’s still a good story if it has a happy ending, but showing us the candy and then taking it away right before we get to taste it, and doing it in such a masterful way, made it a classic instead. I’ll take classic any day.

    An appropriate ending is what every story needs. Yeah, we like happy endings. But we love other endings – when they are appropriate to the story and they work.

    It is the occasional curve ball that brings the excitement to the story. Not knowing exactly how it’s gonna go every time is part of what keeps eyes glued to the stories we write.

    Readers want that, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, yes. Readers bring their own stuff to the table, especially with a series. I’m not sure any of the Hunger Games books ended “happily”. Goals were met, yes, but a lot of baggage remained, even at the end of the third one. But it worked. Having Katniss fully free of her past traumas because she won wouldn’t have fit at all.

      I think one of the reasons the Wool books have been successful is the curveballs. Wool was originally a series of shorter stories that I bought as an omnibus, so I’m not sure if what I’m about to describe happened at the end of one of the shorter pieces, but I think it did. Howey killed off the MC. All along you’re thinking “Okay, so he’s going into this knowingly dangerous situation, but he’ll figure a way out. He has to. He’s the hero.” Nope. Toasted the guy. So every MC after that was viewed with suspicion. Now they could die and failure was absolutely on the table. It kept me reading.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I remember you told me that. That’s also what viewers of Game Of Thrones were awed by – and it was somewhat controversial – killing off of MCs. Just when you started rooting for a character or thought for sure he/she was the survivor, BOOM they were killed. Often brutally. People flipped out. You had no idea what was coming or who you could trust, so tensions ;levels increased substantially.

        I’m gonna do that in one of my stories. It’s gutsy.


  3. I think the end must fit the book. It must be a satisfactory conclusion. That won’t always mean “happy” for all of the characters but, unless it’s a “to be continued” story, I like all the threads to be tied off. I have just finished “To Kill a Mockingbird” and absolutely loved the conclusion. I was rather surprised. I was very much enjoying the book and had wondered how it would end. There were a few suitable places earlier on, I thought, for it to end. Sometimes when a book finishes I am disappointed that there is no more to read. I want it to keep going. With Mockingbird I was totally satisfied with the conclusion and even felt a sense of excitement, but no disappointment, like partaking of a delicious meal that fully satisfies.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. As long as the ending makes sense for that particular story, it will work for me. The novel I am currently editing has a complicated ending. The solution to the main character’s problem has consequences. I also leave some issues unsettled because there’s no such thing as a nineteen-year-old who has all the answers (although some of them think they do).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Definite ending – I like that. Even the “cliff-hangery” ones that are meant to go into a sequel can close out the story at hand.
      I loved the ending of STF also. I especially loved that her revision meant more revisions. Ha!

      Liked by 1 person

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