No Fairytale Endings Here

That could be my writing motto.

A recent short story submission for an indy press has brought up an unexpected realisation. The anthology I’m pitching to is generally leaning towards tales with upbeat, that-went-better-than-I-expected endings, as well as positive human messages. And while the story is coming along just fine, I find myself trying to square the circle with the closing few paragraphs. It has made me realise that I’ve already developed an important part of my writing “voice.” I’ve already developed the type of stories I tell.

GrimBy “type,” that oh-so ambiguous word, I don’t mean the particular descriptive or dialogue style that provides the backbone for my writer’s voice – I fear my work is still too much in its infancy for that to have developed yet (at the moment I feel like some horrible bastard child of Dan Abnett and Bernard Cornwell) . Nor am I referring to the genre I like to write for – thus far I’ve had fantasy, science fiction, horror and historical fiction all accepted across the board, and while the latter will always remain dearest to my heart I enjoy all four.

I’m not talking about any of these common writing characteristics when I use the word “type.” Here it refers to the tone of my stories. Put simply, whether the endings are happy or, in my case, sad.

Just like “type,” the words “happy” and “sad” are monstrously ambiguous phrases that fail to capture the nuances of any story ending, yet as an overarching theme the word “sad” is probably the best descriptor. A quick study of my published works to date have confirmed my suspicions. Of the eight tales, three see their main characters die horribly, two involve the main character losing someone dear to them, and one involves everything the main character believed being revealed as a lie. Of the remainder one is an ongoing serial whose finale hasn’t quite been planned out yet, and only one actually has anything resembling a “happy” ending (and a lot of dead vampires). As for my novel, Covenanted, deciding whether the ending is happy or sad depends on which characters you were rooting for throughout the book, but regardless of your personal tastes I feel it has an exhausted, world-weary, possibly jaded ending.

So what has led to such a downright depressing little collection of stories? Five minutes in a very hot shower (the secret Scottish way of determining any matter of philosophy, as evidenced by the Enlightenment’s hand-in-hand rise with personal hygiene standards) rendered up the answers.

For a start, as mentioned in my last post I grew up reading a lot of Black Library fiction. Games Workshop’s universes aren’t called “grimdark” for no reason. A bleak outlook when it comes to charting the fate of my characters has been almost genetically coded in my writing style.

The other answer seems to be linked to the very reason that I started writing for serious reals in the first place – it helped me to cope with good old teen angst. Looking back that may seem laughable, but I’m certain that by venting my moody yin upon unfortunate imaginary characters I was safeguarding the sunny real-life disposition I still *generally* enjoy today. Writing was and still is an outlet, and whilst it may not be every happy-do-gooder’s idea of a fun read, I’d certainly rather make the characters on my pages miserable than inflict it on everyone I know in real life.

This leads me to wonder, just how many of my fellow writers are only preserved by the safety valve that is their work? 

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “No Fairytale Endings Here

  1. Good article! I’m not a professional author, but like every other person on this planet, I am subjected to stories. And more often than not, they have a happy ending. Have you seen/read “Memoirs of a Geisha”? I was crying my eyes out while I watched the end, but I still thought it would have been better if she never received her true love. Happy endings can be a bit boring and unoriginal in some cases, but necessary in others.
    I enjoy writing, but it’s not what holds me together. However, I don’t think I have the heart to create unhappy endings. My characters suffer enough already. Nevertheless, there has to be authors who can stomach the quest of writing tragedy.
    I think the writing “type” authors lean towards are part of what distinguishes them as writers. A bit of what makes each one of us idiosyncratic in our writing.

    • Wise words. I like to think generally I enjoy a happy ending, but with a healthy dose of bleakness thrown in. I recall that in school my favourite Shakespeare play was his tragedy “Julius Caesar” (totally nothing to do with it also technically being historical fiction), probably because of the spiral of misfortune which you can just feel dragging everyone in. Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking comment 🙂

  2. I wouldn’t go as far as to say preserved, but I have certainly worked out a lot of sturm und drang in my work; lots of dealing with death, usually happy-ish endings, plenty of angst. But overall I like to think I’m a contented, if not occasionally cranky person. Great post!

    And thanks for following my Penny Angel blog.

  3. I’ve been reading that there is only one story (instead of seven or three); problem/conflict and how it is resolved. Who’s to say how that problem/conflict is resolved? Certainly there are conventions of genres and sub-genres which writers may feel compelled to follow, yet they might equally feel compelled to rail against them (unwittingly conforming to yet another genre or sub-genre). Dark and gritty might be fashionable at the moment, as evidenced by the success of Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, perhaps as a reflection of our cynicism after years of happy endings.

    • The seven/three/one story idea has always intrigued me. You bring up a very good point, maybe a third reason for my bouts of storytelling melancholy is due to the wider trends we’re all exposed to in society. Certainly more food for thought.

  4. I am a fan of the bittersweet story, myself. To me, life has an edge. I think that if you write what is most true to you, you communicate it most effectively. Storytelling is about communication and you should seek to do it in your voice. Even if your voice, er, changes. 😉

    • Exactly, I didn’t actually realise what I was writing the way I was until I took a step back, it came so naturally. Last of the Mohicans high-5 by the way, great book/film!

      • Thank you. 🙂 I confess to enjoying the film more, but Nathaniel in the book was a much more interesting character. (Did I say that? Yes, yes I did…)

      • I’ve always been a fan of the 7 Years/French and Indian War anyway, and now to compound it I’m studying it at University. LotM is a historical fiction classic.

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