Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 04/07/2023

Episode 29: The Psychology of the Happy Ending

The Psychology of the Happy Ending

By James Melvin Lee

From September 1908 issue of "The Editor."

As a rule writers are very charitable in their views of editors. With now and then an exception those who write for a living seem to be well aware of the fact that the editor has troubles of his own;

Hence, they say very little when the editor holds a manuscript longer than seems actually necessary "for a careful consideration.” Authors, though often actually needing the money, are usually willing to wait till the publication of manuscripts for their checks, knowing full well that all editors would pay upon acceptance were it in their power. The one thing they can not forgive in an editor is his insistence that stories shall end happily. This is one unpardonable crime of which most editors are guilty.

Most of the discrepancy between editors and contributors on this point arises from the fact that the latter do not appreciate just what the editor means when he says that stories to be acceptable must end well. One thing that such an assertion does not mean is that stories must always end:

“They were married in Greece And ever after lived in peace.”

The "happy ending” of all stories of crime is—or should be—the complete punishment of all offenders. This is the logical reason why many publications, especially those having what may be called a home circulation, refuse to consider stories of successful crime.

But the contributor continues to assert that in real life all stories do not end well and hence why should they when told as fiction. For some reason the contributor does not grasp the fact that stories are not the actual record of facts. The man who draws from real life in every detail is a historian and what he writes is not fiction but history. True is the old saying, "Truth is stranger than fiction,” but this fact does not alter the case. Pathological studies may be, and often are, very interesting, but they should be confined to medical journals, as they do not belong in the pages of a popular magazine.

Fiction writing is an art and should be considered as such. The minute a painting becomes an exact representation of the object or objects it ceases to be a work of art and becomes a photograph. Fiction under the same conditions, as has already been said, becomes history. The difference is that in one case the appeal is to the heart and in the other to the head. The tendency of true art is to uplift and please and hence the story, considered in its true sense as a work of art, should uplift and please.

The darker and tragic sides of life are not by any means excluded from fiction because of this view. Painting and sculpture consider such phases and so should fiction. Aristotle would have made a good magazine editor even in this day, for it was he who said, in speaking of the tragic elements in the Greek drama, “They purify the passions by pity and fear.” if it can be said of a story that it “purifies the passions by pity and fear,” it has, in a technical sense, a “happy ending,” no matter what becomes of the characters in the tale.

Shakespeare would have been a great magazine editor had he lived in the twentieth century, for even in the Elizabethan Age he realized that

“All's well that ends well.”