And They Lived . . .
by Dan Walsh, Summer Conference 2014 Co-Keynoter
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 would be solved, the bad guy killed or captured, and the world saved.
This conveyed a basic message: There is always hope for a better tomorrow.
By the end of the 60s and 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 is 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.
Three Cheers for Happy Endings
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 there . . . 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. (See Matthew 7:14.) 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” (nasb).
I think that’s part of my calling as a Christian fiction writer, to reveal God’s ways through stories that accurately reflect those ways as they are taught in Scripture. God’s plans for us are filled with hope and even a measure of happiness.
That happiness doesn’t come overnight, or all at once. But, in time, it does come. It definitely does come. I’m simply suggesting that 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, often despairing outlook offered by writers who have no such hope.
You know what I want my readers to experience when they finish one of my novels? A contented sigh, perhaps the need to reach for the tissue box. Maybe a fresh appreciation for life, love, and their families and friends.
Apparently, I’m not alone in this pursuit of satisfying endings. I did a survey of fiction readers, laying out the seven components of every novel, asking them to tell me the three things in a book that matter most to them. One of the top three responses was . . . a satisfying ending. Which is why I’ll be spending almost an entire session teaching other writers how to accomplish this goal in my morning coaching class, “Mastering the Things That Matter Most to Readers,” at OCW Summer Conference.
Dan Walsh is the best-selling author of 10 novels published by Revell and Guideposts, including The Unfinished Gift, The Discovery, and The Dance. He’s won three ACFW Carol (Book of the Year) Awards and two Selah Awards, and three times his books have been finalists for Romantic Times’ Inspirational Book of the Year. A member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and Word Weavers International, Dan served as a pastor for 25 years and now writes fulltime in the Daytona Beach area. He and his wife, Cindi, have been married 37 years and have two grown children and two grandchildren. You can find out more about his books or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest from his website at http://danwalshbooks.com.