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Thursday, June 05, 2014

And They Lived


Dan Walsh is the award-winning and bestselling author of 10 novels, including The Unfinished Gift, The Discovery and What Follows After. He has won 3 Carol Awards and 2 Selah Awards. Three of his books were finalists for Inspirational Book of the Year. Dan is a member of ACFW and Word Weavers. He lives with his wife, Cindi, in the Daytona Beach area where they love to take long walks. You can connect with Dan on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest through his website at www.danwalshbooks.com, or get a sneak peek at all his books. 

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You know what comes next, right? They lived…happily ever after.

Growing up as a kid in the late 50s and 60s, I got used to stories ending this way. Certainly, every Disney movie did. All the other family-oriented movies did also (and there were plenty of those in the theaters). Most of the love stories ended happily, too.

It’s one of the reasons people read books, watched TV and went to the movies. To be encouraged and entertained, occasionally inspired. Back then, just like now, life was hard. Even though some of the best stories depicted hard times, we could always count on the storyteller leading us through to a happy ending. Before that last page turned or the credits rolled on the movie screen the guy would get the girl, the runner would win the race, the crime got solved, the bad guy is killed or captured, and the world gets saved.

This conveyed a basic message: There is always hope for a better tomorrow.

By the end of the 60s, certainly throughout the 70s, things began to change. Under the banner of realism―and, perhaps yielding to the new air of cynicism brought on by the Vietnam War, Watergate and a series of tragic assassinations―it wasn’t uncommon to find books and movies ending sadly. If not sadly, then vaguely. As if the writer’s message was: “Now, go home and think about that.”

In recent years, particularly in secular storytelling, I’m starting to see a resurgence of this same air of cynicism and commitment to “gritty realism” that we saw back then. The plots are often very dark, the hero or heroine are more than a little flawed; they’re almost as bad as the villain. The endings often seem as dark as the rest of the story.
In my writing, I try to combat this trend when I can, especially in the way I end my books.

I make no apologies. I believe in happy endings.

I said “happy” endings, not sappy (a distinction I heard my friend, Allen Arnold, make at a conference a couple of years ago). Maybe a better word than happy is satisfied. I don’t believe all our stories should end with unicorns and rainbows. But as I said, I think a lot of what’s out there today is way TOO dark, and the endings often leave us stuck feeling frustrated and unsatisfied.

In part, I understand why. Life is hard and, for many people, it’s been hard for a long time. For those who don’t know the Lord, the outlook is often bleak, even hopeless. I think our books need to reflect some of that to remain relevant and connect well with readers. After all, conflict is the essence of good fiction.

But this is also where I think believers can make a real difference. We have a real message of Hope to offer, not a fictional one. I believe one of the goals of Christian fiction should be to lead people from that dark place to a place of hope. God’s ways are all about redemption; through Christ He offers us a “narrow way that leads to life.” We have to include the "narrow" part, but we should also conclude showing how it "leads to life."

I’m a firm believer in writing what I call “Romans 8:28 Endings.” “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”

I think that’s part of my calling as a Christian fiction writer, to reveal at least some of God’s ways through stories that accurately reflect those ways. And His ways, or plans for us are filled with hope and, I think, even a measure of happiness.

That happiness doesn’t come overnight. But in time, it does come. I’m simply suggesting we keep writing our story until we reach that part, the part where hope is born, where faith in God and His goodness is seen to be a credible alternative to the bleak, despairing outlook offered by writers who have no such hope.


Take my latest novel, What Follows After, for example. The same exact story written just the way I wrote it would have had a dramatically different feel if I'd ended it 2 chapters earlier. Or if I hadn't included an epilogue-style last chapter that brought us back to the present. But I kept writing because one of my deliberate goals is to end my stories a certain way.

You know what I want my readers to experience when they finish one of my novels? I'm hoping for a contented sigh, perhaps the need to reach for the tissue box. Maybe for them to experience a fresh appreciation for life, love, or their families and friends.

Apparently, I’m not alone in this desire for satisfying endings. Last year, I did a survey of fiction readers laying out the 7 components of every novel, asking them to tell me the 3 things in a book that matter most to them. One of the Top 3 responses was...A Satisfying Ending.

How about you? In the books you read and movies you watch, how big a deal are Endings for you? For writers, how much time do you put into crafting your ending vs the time you put in writing Chapter One?

10 comments:

Ron Estrada said...

I love to cry at the end of a book (in a manly sort of way, of course). But not because the ending is tragic, but because the characters are overcome with tragedy but still find a glimmer of hope on the other side. It's how we would want to respond to tragedy. To get through it, shed our tears, and keep going. As I write this I'm almost finished with Moon Over Manifest (audio). This is the kind of book I want to write. Where the characters can be silly children while learning the often horrible truths of life. They grow because of the tragedy, not in spite of it. In a series like Hunger Games, however, I was not satisfied with the ending. Katniss was the same girl she was in chapter 1 of book 1. Which is why I'm glad to see Christian authors like Bonnie Calhoun jumping in with their version of dystopian, where there is always hope at the end.

Dan Walsh said...

Ron,

I'm like you about getting choked up at good endings. Not just with books I write, but in the stories I read and watch. I talked to my son recently, about this change in the way stories are presented, and the way they and. He's very interested in contemporary movies (would like to be working behind the scenes in the film industry). He said millennials aren't as interested in happy endings, because it doesn't seem like "real life."

Sadly, they haven't seen a lot of stories end happily in real life, so when they do in movies it doesn't seem "realistic."

Nicole said...

I agree with your perspective, Dan. And "satisfying" is the just-right term. "Happy" can't always be found - notice I said "always". I'm a terrible sap who cries at commercials, let alone films and novels. If you get tears from me, you've hit your mark.

Here's the place where many (particularly Christian) readers differ. Approaching and constructing "reality" or just plain "real" in novels varies widely. Some readers (and writers) think certain avenues shouldn't be taken, written about in any detail (and I'm definitely not speaking of graphics here), or depicted as challenging, etc.

I don't advocate those readers select any material that is offensive to them, but neither do I believe they should criticize those who choose to write in a different mode from what they prefer.

I agree that hope is essential and separates us from worldly fiction. We don't have to write light and fluff to present hope and faith. We need to portray a reality that comes from our human and spiritual hearts - and not be criticized or judged for it.

Good post, Dan.

LadySaotome said...

I agree. I don't require happy endings but they have to be fitting, satisfying and contain some element of hope. Having Christ in our hearts it's our responsibility to infuse our world with hope in their hopelessness.

Dan Walsh said...

One of my favorite writing quotes is (though I don't know who said it): "Every great story involves creating characters people care about, then doing terrible things to them." A funny way to highlight the necessary tension for good fiction, but I've tried to take both parts of that quote to heart in my writing. I think many Christian writers struggle to embrace the 2nd part.

Dan Walsh said...

Of course, that's not a great quote for endings, more for the beginning and the middle.

Natalie Monk said...

Thanks for this post, Dan! Loved reading your thoughts on happy endings.
You've made me think. I don't remember ever recommending a story with a sad ending, and that wasn't on purpose. There's something about a happy ending that gives us hope, I think.

One novel I read several years ago will forever be "that novel that didn't end good" in my thinking. The writing was amazing. I was there in the setting, in the character's head. I lived the story...all the way to a disastrous, heartbreaking ending. I didn't want to go through that again or cause anyone else to, so I haven't picked up another title by that author. Maybe I will someday, but like you said, endings are powerful!

Thanks for sharing!

Shari England said...

At one time, I naively thought "how can a suspense novel or any fictional book be a 'Christian' book"? I'm happy to announce that I have since changed that narrow view. I applaud those who are able to do this as we understand that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers of the darkness. I agree, no one likes syrupy sweet stories, but a sandwich of good triumphing over evil. The world needs hope right now as sit gets increasingly dark.

Dan Walsh said...

I'm the same way. If an author dishes out a bad ending, we're all done. If a movie has a bad ending, I don't care how good it was before that, I don't recommend it.

Dan Walsh said...

Sometimes what's "Christian" about Christian fiction is not that the gospel is preached boldly (as it should be in church and evangelistic outreaches), but perhaps it's showing the same kind of suspenseful story you might see in a secular book, but showing how credible believers would respond to the situation and the people around them in such a crisis.