Guest Blog by Kate Hanney, author of SAFE.
So, this is the dilemma: you try to write about life, reality, what actually happens. You try to present characters and settings that you could find anywhere; anywhere you’re curious enough to look. And although you might allow yourself a little poetic licence with the plot, you’re never going to let it turn into James Bond.
But then you get to the end. And you have to draw it to some kind of a conclusion; a resolution, a denouement. You have to finish it somewhere. But does it, unequivocally, have to be a happy ending? Even if it’s tainted with tragic realism, must there always be at least a chink of light?
People in the trade will say, unequivocally, yes, for Young Adult fiction at least (which is my only experience of this). And because they’re the professionals, they know what they’re talking about, so you have to think they’re probably right. But what about life? What about all the stories that don’t end happily?
You spend 70,000 words or so creating empathy and engagement for your characters, you try to portray them and their situations as honestly as possible; complex, real, authentic - so shouldn’t the ending be all of these things as well?
Because if it should, then we have to accept that some endings will be tragic; they’ll be sad, distressing, unfair. Because that’s what happens to some people; they go through awful things, and sometimes they don’t make it out into a blazon of light on the other side.
Safe. I wasn’t going to be governed by convention, I was going to tell it how it is.
But my journey down ‘Learning to Become a Writer Street’ brought me very quickly to a stop sign, and what is said is, ‘this is fiction; it’s different.’ And what it meant is, readers have expectations, they expect their hero to be proactive in saving his mate/his girlfriend/the world. Even if we all know it’s probably not what would actually happen in real life.
And my conclusion after to speaking to various readers? The signage is correct.
A friend of mine read one of my stories in manuscript form once, then I told her what the original (tragic, and much more realistic) ending had been in a previous draft. ‘Oh, no!’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t have liked that at all.’
So what I’ve learned is, on the whole, readers don’t want sad, they want hope, even if it’s not realistic hope. And even if we as writers stop short of offering complete triumph, un-dying love and the ultimate happily ever after, we must always offer at least a glimmer to cling on to, no matter how tenuous, if it’s there, then good things are possible ... unlikely maybe ... but possible.
And I think that’s what my strategy has become now; to try and strike a balance. To tell it how it is, inject hard reality into a story, but to always offer at least a slither of optimism at the end. However, as in life, it’s vital that slither is tenuous, a flicker, and there must always be harsh reminders that it could, and still might, end very differently.
What do you think?
For over thirteen years she has worked as an English teacher in South Yorkshire, and has had the privilege of meeting hundreds of fantastic kids. Some are comedians and some are geniuses. At times some of them are desperately unhappy, and one or two of them are just plain scary!
Find out more about Kate on her website www.katehanney.com