Friday, April 1, 2016

Happily Ever After

So apparently there's a rule in the publishing industry: if it doesn't have a 'happily ever after' (HEA) ending, it ain't a romance novel. You could see the rule being applied quite religiously in movies, too.

Now, I'm not into romance at all. But this arbitrary rule got me thinking a lot about the nature of storytelling as a whole.

Must stories have happy endings?

Happy Endings Everywhere

Yes, according to hordes of avid romance readers. And they do make some damn good convincing points.

When they pick up a book from the 'Romance' shelf, they're looking for an escapism from the bleak world of affairs, divorces and heartbreaks. Just like picking a bag of chips from the convenience store, it's a guilty pleasure. They want to sink into a cloud of bliss. They want to live in a dream where true love prevails over all - just for a moment or two.

And why pick on romance only? Other genres are equally formulaic, they argue. Mysteries must end with the mystery being solved. Action must end with the good guys triumphing over the bad guys. Porn must end with an explosive climax...

Okay, I think you get the idea (and that last bit was mine). That people turn to stories to be entertained and go away feeling happy.

No pain, no pleasure

Food For The Soul

But not all stories are like candies, and not always are we satisfied by candies alone.

The greatest stories happen to be quite tragic and sad, actually.

For romance, classics like Romeo and Juliet and Gone With The Wind rank highly in the all-time favourite list. And many movie aficionados would put Casablanca and 500 Days Of Summer ("This is not a love story. This is a story about love") as modern classics.

For crime thrillers, the bad guy (and girl) got away in The Usual Suspects and Gone Girl.

For action, the Joker had the last laugh in The Dark Knight and the entire Star Wars prequel was mostly gloom and doom.

For political satire, George Orwell lifts our hopes high in Animal Farm and 1984, only to bring them crashing down in the closing chapters.

Even Shakespeare was particularly fond of spinning tales of tragedy. Can you name a Greek hero that actually lived happily ever after? Well, I can't.

(Of course, that don't mean stories with HEA endings are any less epic - Pride and Prejudice, Harry Porter, and so on.)

Point is, truly depressing stories actually do stand out in our minds and carve a special place deep in our hearts. Perhaps they're like steak and wine - appreciation comes only through years of acquired taste. Or perhaps they're like a buffet spread - one has to come fully prepared hours in advance with an empty stomach for everything to sink in.

"Die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain" - Albus Dumbledore

My Story Diet

So it's perfectly understandable why people are hungry for stories with happy endings. People need candies and chips. People need their fixes.

But some people - like me - don't need them. Just bring on the steak already. I'm in the mood for a big buffet, anytime. Don't even bother showering me with candies and chips. Yes, I'm an elitist health freak that way. I won't allow my body to be poisoned with worthless morsels. I rather save my appetite and time chewing on a bloody red steak. I'm not a cheap drunk either. I want to savour the finest tinge of bittersweet grapes in my mouth.

Hence, I chose what I read carefully- I rather read the news than soak myself in some wild fantasy involving ribbons and cuffs. Same as movies - life is too short to be wasted on watching super-humans, robots and monsters bashing each other in a nauseating blur of CGI-laden chaos.

Happy endings in stories don't make me happy. I prefer tragic stories. They reveal the flaws in our world and failings of humanity. They put me into deep thought. They make me question the meaning of happiness. They inspire me to make a change.

It's not that I'm against happiness. I'm all for happiness, actually. It's the same way I feel about romance. The most romantic stories are not love stories, but simply stories about love.

The happiest stories are not stories with happy endings, but simply stories about happiness.
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(Postscript: So what's high on my happy meal list? Okay, scratching the top of my head, here goes... For movies: Akira Kurosowa's Ikiru, Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, Woody Allen's Annie Hall and Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (yes, all of which are rather tragic)... For books: anything by the late Sir Terry Pratchett.) 

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