On not writing happy endings – Nicole Blades

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By Nicole Blades

Spoiler: This story does not end well. ♥

Last fall, I put the finishing touches on my third novel, Have You Met Nora?, and delivered the manuscript to my editor on time. Two days later, I flew to Paris. That part was planned way in advance, but still served as a giant carrot on a stick during the slugfest (a.k.a. the revisions process).

All told, I had been working on this book for nine years. Trying to recast, reshape and reimagine this story about race, identity and the lengths we will go to construct and protect our ideal selves was not easy. I had to build a new world around a flawed character — now an adult — and figure out how her complicated, but nuanced story, filled with deception and scandal, would resolve. Could her many tangles somehow smooth out in the end? My answer, from the beginning, was solidly: no.

You don’t need to debate the benefits of happy endings with me. I get it. Happy endings give us hope. With all the obstacles and cruelty and gloom that our real world serves up on a hot plate every day, happy endings help to wash it all down, like a sip of lemonade after a bitter pill.

But I would also argue that there are lessons to be learned from the unhappy ending, too. There’s value in watching a protagonist carrying around all of these shattered pieces, some of them only held together by a thin strand of faith, but still they trudge through, without the rainbow or pot of gold anywhere in sight. Instead, maybe all that’s left on the last page is a door slammed shut or a colossal fall from grace or a missed opportunity for forgiveness.

Yet you, the reader, can close the book wondering (or, better, dreaming up) how a character like Nora will get out of bed in the morning and carry on. Because as wounded as someone like Nora is, she’s shown you throughout her entire story, despite everything that’s happened to her — both of her making and at the hands of others — what fortitude looks like. And maybe that makes it easier for you to recognize it in your own world. There’s definite value in seeing that up-close, and gaining a deeper understanding of how the human heart can crumble to dust, but continue beating.

It’s why I choose to write endings that are rooted in a reality that I have encountered, experienced or observed, where love is not always enough, the lies blossom into bigger, bolder transgressions, and the sinner moves on seemingly unscathed. Sometimes that means there’s a layer of “happiness” buried just beneath a complication that nobody — not even our unreliable hero — saw coming. And sometimes it means that the joy doesn’t come in the morning, but on a day well beyond the last page.

Nicole Blades is a novelist and freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, Good Housekeeping, WashingtonPost.com, MarieClaire.com, SELF, Health, and BuzzFeed. Her next book, Have You Met Nora?, will be released November 2017, and her latest novel, The Thunder Beneath Us, is available now. Listen to her new podcast, Hey, Sis!, about women finding their focus and place in business, art, culture, and life.


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