Earning Your Ending: Following Through On Story Themes And The Frustration Of Stories That Don’t

One of the things I admire most about Animorphs has always been the ending. It wasn’t a downer, exactly – the world was saved, after all, and if the cost is the souls of six children…well, many would call it a small price to pay. It was tragedy in the truest sense. The good guys weren’t rewarded with happily ever after. Not because they didn’t deserve a happy ending, not because it’s just, but because it’s war. And like in any real war, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, it just was. There is no such thing as a glorious war. Necessary, perhaps, like the one around which Animorphs revolves. But even a necessary war will result in a lot of dead and injured and grieving.

Everything about the ending of the series felt earned. Like this was where it was always headed. It wasn’t a triumphant victory where cutting off the head of the snake or capturing a MacGuffin resulted in the good guys winning. No, it was years of them chipping away at an unstable empire, poking at different places and seeing what worked until it eventually collapsed. And there’s something about the narration…It’s childish. It’s simplistic. It’s so, so real. Because it’s not just a question of them being books for kids, it’s about how they’re written about kids. They’re children’s books from the perspective of a child. There are bits of gorgeous prose interspersed between scenes of horrifying violence and hilarious ones of aliens discovering chocolate. There are references to poems like The Second Coming and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as well as works like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. It was children’s literature pointing out the best and worst of humanity, how we don’t have the best track record of tolerating differences, how we kill each other for praying differently to the same god.

A happy ending would have felt dishonest. And the sheer boldness of book 54 still takes me aback. This was a children’s book. Not a young adult one, an unashamed children’s book. A children’s book with no happy ending. That was the gutsiest writing choices I’ve ever seen. That book is probably why I am – or used to be, at least – a bit more susceptible to writer fake outs than most people. Because where most people see a major character death or what looks like an upcoming tragic ending and think, like you would really do it, I remember Animorphs, which did do it. For that reason, book 54 is pretty much my favourite book in the series and one of my favourite books altogether. I am fully in support of happy endings. But there’s a reason it’s the bittersweet ones that stick with me.

Something I’ve found is that epilogues that skip a significant amount of time into the future are dangerous. They run the risk of being contrived happy endings, where we’re told something is happy, but they don’t really feel happy, partially because we don’t see how the characters get to that point. There are two obvious examples of this – the first is the most famous example of young adult dystopian fiction. The second is the children’s series that completely changed the course of children’s publishing.

The Hunger Games was about children being forced to fight each other to the death for entertainment and a rebellion against an oppressive government. At best, I expected it to end bittersweetly. After all, we’re talking about one of the closest equivalents there is to Animorphs. Targeted at a young audience, a huge amount of graphic violence, heavily anti-war themes, a lot of the books dedicated to the characters’ trauma…when Mockingjay came out, I thought I knew, generally, where it was going to go. I even continued thinking that through maybe half the book. It seemed poised to deliver a sad ending. Maybe not quite a tragedy, but certainly not a happy one. And at first it did. But then came the epilogue.

The last chapter of Mockingjay was much more satisfying to me than the epilogue. I didn’t love the book overall – I thought it was by far the weakest of the trilogy. But the last chapter didn’t feel like a cop out. It hinted at future happiness without being too overt and saccharine. District Twelve was in ruins and pretty much everyone decided to leave and never come back. The people that stayed were the ones that thought everywhere else was worse, that had lost everything, that were so traumatized by everything that had happened, the only thing they could think to do was go home. But despite that, Peeta, Katniss, and Haymitch were all alive and together and recovering. They found things to focus on. They lived with the only people around that understood what they’d gone through. Katniss and Peeta rediscovered their love for each other. It felt right. But instead of just leaving it at that, there was that epilogue that skipped years into the future to have Katniss watching her children play in a meadow. Maybe it’s just me, but that felt disingenuous. It felt like running away from the earned ending.

On a similar note is Harry Potter. At the time The Deathly Hallows came out, I’d spent my entire life with these characters – the first book was published the same year I was born. I started reading them when I was like four. I wanted a happy ending. I still think the epilogue was a pretty good kind of cheesy, but it was jarring when you compare it to just a few pages before.

I’m not one of those people that hates the Harry Potter epilogue or what Harry named his kids. But skipping ahead nineteen years, skipping the recovery period…it felt kind of cheap. It felt far less fitting than the last chapter. The last chapter wasn’t a downer. It was bittersweet, and much more sweet than bitter – lots of people were dead, but Voldemort was one of them. The war was over. There were still things to do and loose ends to tie up, but it was clearly pointing in a hopeful direction. It wasn’t The Hunger Games, which practically gave me whiplash with the contrast between the epilogue and the rest of the book. It was closer to a logical extension. But it still didn’t feel right.

On the other end of the scale is stories that, instead of forcing a happy ending instead of the earned sad one, are stories that pull a downer out of nowhere, out of the misguided belief that True Art Is Angsty. Like, I recently read My Sister’s Keeper. To me, that came across as such a huge Shoot The Shaggy Dog story, I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t a contrived happy ending, it was a contrived and manipulative sad one. Instead of genuinely exploring the characters’ emotions, Jodi Picoult opted for melodrama and cheap twists. I find endings like that just as – if not more – annoying than those that pull a happy one from thin air. Because when it comes to me and endings I find satisfying, it’s more than about earning a happy ending. It’s about following through to the ending you’ve earned, the one that makes sense for the story. That’s not to say a brutal, devastating story can’t have a positive ending, or a mostly positive, hopeful story can’t have a dark one, but if handled poorly, it feels like a cop out. That’s precisely why so few things have ever lived up in my eyes to the Animorphs ending.

The format of Animorphs was both a blessing and a curse. Sure, it resulted in books of wildly varying quality being pushed out at a breakneck pace. It meant the series was never going to be taken seriously by a wider audience. It meant that it would never work as a movie adaptation. But I have to love it, because if we had fewer, longer books, or if they were published at a different time or for a different audience, we never would have gotten something like the final book.

That entire book is dedicated to the “what happens now”. And that makes you expect that it’s going to turn around, that it won’t be bleak, that the book will be about them them moving on and getting better. And it does…at the same time as it doesn’t. It has everything every book in the series does – it makes you feel every emotion possible in less than two hundred pages. Even more impressively, it does that without a real driving plot.

Book 54 is more focused on character development than it is with having its own individual plot. It’s about wrapping up the character arcs and plot threads from the preceding books. It’s slow. Or maybe that’s not quite it – slow is close, but the wrong word for the feel of the book. Maybe measured? Introspective? It’s calm. Compared to the frenzied pace of pretty much all the other instalments, it’s downright placid. It gives readers time for it all to sink in. It takes all the brutality of the series and brings it to its natural conclusion, because as it made clear from the beginning, there are no happy endings in war. It’s honest about it – there are no right answers. There are no glorious wars. Some people will be able to move on, even thrive. Others won’t. Because even the most necessary of necessary wars with clear lines between good and evil, right and wrong, will end with death, grief, and horror. That’s why I always find myself coming back to Animorphs. It’s one of the greatest endings I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It’s just too bad it kind of ruined me for books that don’t follow through on what they’ve earned.

Do you have any books with endings that completely satisfied you? Let me know! I’m always looking for new things to read.

Has Any Writer Of Young Adult Fiction Ever Gone To High School?

Years ago, I read a book called Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie. It was okay. Maybe a little on the side of trying too hard at being clever and a bit gimmicky, but it was a pretty entertaining read. I recently – this morning – discovered there was a sequel (Sophomores and Other Oxymorons). Me being me, I had to read it (after rereading the first book as a refresher, of course). My only thought upon finishing was, huh. And now that I think about it, there are a whole lot of other YA books that evoke a similar reaction in me. The way I see it, there are two options here: 1) The authors of YA fiction and I had vastly different high school experiences, or 2) The authors of YA fiction are very much misremembering what high school is like.

Okay, so fine. I went to a small magnet high school that wasn’t particularly cliquey. It was instead filled with pretty smart, motivated kids that were all largely supportive of each other and made a lot of IB jokes. No sports teams. So maybe my experience wasn’t quite standard. But seriously? Are these real problems that any high schooler faces? For me, high school was a time when I dedicated an absurd amount of time to robotics, learned to play the bassoon, and stressed out a lot over everything under the sun. But my worries were more along the lines of I’m socially awkward help me and oh my god I have a lot of work and if I can’t do this and get good grades I’ll flunk out and have to live in a cardboard box. Seniors taking my lunch money was not one of my concerns at all.

Sophomores and Other Oxymorons is more in line with what I understand to be the high school experience than its predecessor. It’s less reliant on clichés like “jocks vs nerds” and a main character with a crush on someone he idealizes while knowing nothing about. But it’s also oddly heavy handed. It’s Scott learning a bunch of random lessons rather than things that actually fit together thematically. It felt like more a series of ideas piled together than a story. It covers practically everything from “piracy is bad” to “creationism should not be taught in classrooms” to “people that think they know everything after learning a little bit are annoying”. Things I agree with? Sure. But not much of an actual plot. It was cluttered and felt like it had way too much going on. Maybe it was somewhat intentional – after all, there was a line near the end about every event not being a thread in the plot of a novel. But seeing as it is a novel, I don’t think it really worked.

This book reminded me of why I’m really not into romantic subplots. Full on romantic novels may not be my thing, but at least there, the romance serves the story rather than potentially muddling it. Interestingly enough, that distinction between a romantic subplot and a romantic novel can be seen when comparing Sophomores and Other Oxymorons to its predecessor.

In Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, the romantic element serves as a plot trigger. Scott wanted to get closer to Julia, so he joined the newspaper, stage crew, student council. It was because of this that he learned he liked to write, that he made friends with Wesley. Everything in the book felt related. By contrast, Sophomores and Other Oxymorons is a much messier and clumsier read. Scott’s character development from the first book means he doesn’t do as many stupid things in pursuit of Lee as he did with Julia, which is good follow through, but it also means that his spending a year trying to figure out how to ask her out was just another thing thrown into an overstuffed book. Again, probably intentional. But intentional or not, it didn’t really work for me.

I enjoyed Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie when I first read it. I thought it was a funny, entertaining read. Upon rereading it and reading the sequel, I still think it’s a decent enough story, despite its ridiculously dramatic interpretation of going to school. However, it’s also possible I only think that because it looks good in comparison to the sequel. Neither book is terrible. It’s an okay way to kill time. But if there’s another option…I’d recommend picking that one up instead.

Romantic Subplots, Love Triangles, And The Strange Need to Vilify the Hypotenuse

The other day I was thinking about love triangles and the different ways in which they’re resolved: death sometimes, friendship rarely, and one of the vertices being portrayed as a villain often. I don’t like love triangles, or any kind of polygon, primarily because of this. So often, they involve pitting characters – especially women – against each other when a much better story would involve them being friends. When I started writing about that, I realized that I had much more to say than I thought I did, so this will be the first of three posts about the resolution of love triangles. This one will focus on the vilification of a character in said triangle.

Oddly enough, one of the best examples of this is a series that I’m kind of embarrassed to admit I’ve read – the Vampire Academy books. They’re not my type of book at all. But a friend of mine got me to read them several years ago when the last book had just been released – I was about twelve, I think – and I’ve never gotten over the poor treatment of Tasha Ozera.

Tasha started off as arguably the best character in the series. She was my favourite by far. She appealed to me in large part because I have very little patience for romantic drama. I’m twenty, and perhaps my teenage experience wasn’t quite standard – I went to a small magnet high school that took kids from around the county, there wasn’t really all that much drama, and we were all pretty supportive of each other – but  it always seemed to me like most of these high school novels that are supposed to appeal to teenage girls are written by people that don’t remember what high school was like at all. Tasha? Up until the end, she was tangential to the romantic drama, not an active part of it.

While everyone else was obsessing over their love life, or being really creepy about a girl in high school, she was being politically active. She was smart. She was proactive. She was out to protect children that her own people wanted to shove onto the battlefield and use as human shields. She wasn’t distracted by how much she loved someone else, or how she was fighting with her best friend, or by anything. She was on top of political developments, and was focused on accomplishing what she had to.

Even years before the events of the series, Tasha – young Tasha, barely out of school, without any training or help – fought off both her brother and sister in law to protect her nephew. And she did. She was outnumbered and scared and facing people much, much stronger than her, people that she loved and was not prepared to fight, but she still managed to hold them off, even after one of them ripped out half her face. That’s just badass. Her story was tragic, and in just about any other genre, she’d be the mentor, if not the hero herself.

Meade expected the audience to believe that this woman – the woman that’s always supported Rose; always been kind and compassionate, even as she was cunning and politically aware; always fought for what’s right, that taught her nephew how to use his magic to fight back instead of expecting other people to protect him; always been brave, smart, and strong – would frame someone else for murder for no other reason than jealousy over some guy.

She was the first character to ever bring up how the Moroi weren’t contributing and were instead just relying on the dhampirs, who didn’t even have voting rights, to keep them safe. She and Christian were the first characters to use their magic offensively. Tasha taught Christian, which resulted in Christian lighting a Strigoi on fire, not only saving Rose, but becoming the only Moroi to kill a Strigoi within the series.

Tasha stood by her convictions. She wasn’t ever speaking theoretically, or because she was looking to score points somewhere – what points could she possibly score from alienating the people with power to support the marginalized? She sincerely believed their society needed change, that they had to fight for equality. She and her family were already ostracized, but she loved Dimitri enough that she was ready for even more societal scorn from having dhampir children. But she was turned into the villain because she was a competing love interest.

The killing the queen part of it? I took absolutely no issue with that, because that was a logical extension of the character’s actions. It made sense. That alone would have been a fantastic direction to take the character – how far would this smart, goal oriented woman go to achieve what she felt she needed to? But framing the protagonist because of…what, jealousy? And not any legitimate reason for wanting her out of the way? That took a good character – one that, had she gotten a little more development, could have even been excellent – and turned her from the only mature adult around to just another petulant child that the author wanted to “get out of the way”.

Several of the most interesting points in the series never got a real resolution – the way the dhampirs never got to make their own choices, the way they were ostracized for not going into a life of personal protection of the rich, the deep classism of the society, the political system. Rose and Dimitri ended up together, the lead characters were alive in the end, but the status quo that the books began with didn’t change. I guess maybe that’s the point of a teen romance, but all the same, it never felt like anything was accomplished. A lot was made of Lissa being a revolutionary, ultra liberal leader, but what did she do to support dhampirs and their right to have their own lives? The primary thing she did was not change the age requirement. For me, it came across as incredibly shallow – like today’s white liberals, focused on putting out fires as they arise and celebrating minor achievements instead of working for real, meaningful, lasting change. The real revolutionary was vilified. The one pushing for real reforms was depicted as just a scorned lover. Perhaps it would have been a totally different story if it focused a little less on romantic drama and a little more on individual characters and the politics of it all, and I know that I can’t judge a work based on what it’s not, but I think what it was could have been much better.

On TV Tropes, this method of resolving love triangles fits into the category of Derailing Love Interests. This category is broader than making one of the characters into a villain – it extends to giving said character any kind of random character flaws to divert sympathy away from them and justify them not becoming the final love interest. It’s lazy. It’s one thing to turn a character into an antagonist. It’s one thing to have development and consistent characterization that explains just why they shouldn’t end up in a relationship with character X. It’s even okay to say, “hey, maybe they would work, but not here”. It’s another to decide that the supposed obstacle needs to get out of the way.

The way I see it, if you need to completely change a character’s characterization to completely resolve a romantic relationship, it’s not a well written relationship. Either that, or you’re not confident in your writing to believe that you’ve crafted a good enough romance to be compelling even with other love interests. Romantic drama can exist without love triangles, and can certainly be resolved without the derailment of another character. If a love triangle has to exist for whatever reason, though…I’d hate it much less if a writer managed it without any character derailment.

Part Two
Part Three