"I Don't Believe in Stories with Happy Endings"

I heard director Todd Field say this on AMC's Shoot Out program while promoting his film Little Children. The statement has stuck with me like an irritating thorn ever since. It certainly doesn't encourage me to see any of his films (I don't seek out stories with unhappy endings), but is he right? Or perhaps a better question: Is that perspective useful?

Field said he doesn't believe in stories that have happy endings, because stories that have happy endings are not complete; all stories, if carried to their "conclusion," are sad.

Jeez! Isn't the opposite just as likely to be true? We hear of good coming out of tragedy all the time. The human psyche won't let a tragedy lie unmolested. We try to bring something good from the unhappy event, even if it is only a shift of perspective (spin). We don't like unhappy endings.

I see this as a glass half-empty/ half-full debate. Both sides are right. All stories have happy and unhappy elements, what we might call "endings." But where we land depends on the point of view we choose and on where we stop telling the story. We can choose to end a story happily...or not. But the continuum, the story's potential really doesn't ever end. As artists, we make choices that appeal to our sense of "what works." Sometimes that choice highlights an unhappy ending. Most of the time it highlights happy endings. But endings are never final. Sure, death may steal from us a character, but with a small shift, that death can be spun as glorious. (see Jesus Christ, Nathan Hale).

So, yes, all stories CAN have unhappy endings -- or happy ones. It's a choice artists make. Field seeks out the unhappy endings, and that choice may work wonderfully for him. But I don't accept that an unhappy ending is the ultimate conclusion to all stories. It always depends on what you choice to emphasize. And our collective psyche seems drawn to happy endings (not that we don't like a change once in a while) because happy endings provide us with a sense of hope. Hope is reason we seek out and create stories (myths) in the first place.

Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction - by Jon Franklin

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