Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Sandra Gulland - Why I Love Unhappy Endings

Why I love unhappy endings
by Sandra Gulland (www.sandragulland.com)

I like a good cry — when it's for a good reason, and forming an attachment to a fictional character that's so strong that it reduces me to sobbing tears is indeed a good reason to weep. It's also quite rare; weeping indicates that I've made an emotional bond with a character that I will never, ever forget.

My favorite historical novel is A Walk with Love and Death by Hans Koning. It's a slim novel that shimmers with elegant beauty, an enchanting love story that ends with the ultimate sacrifice: as the enemy approaches, the hero kills his beloved and then himself — to spare her.

I like literary historical fiction, and literary fiction, as a general rule, tends to end unhappily. Why is that? I'm not sure, but I think it has something to do with what one looks for in a novel: comfort . . . or reality. One is not superior to the other, just different.

I'm not adverse to a happy ending. I find Austen's worlds, where everything works out as it should, deeply satisfying. But when it comes to my own work, I seem to like to make my readers weep. Cruel, I know — but at least I'm weeping with them as I write.

Writing the ending of my Josephine B. Trilogy reduced me to a puddle of tears: I could hardly see the computer screen as I wrote. My editor's husband was alarmed to find her sobbing at the kitchen table after reading the draft of The Last Great Dance on Earth. "Josephine!" was all she could say, in anguish. Later, at a meeting with my editor and agent, we joked about packaging this last novel with a package of tissue. At readings, I sometimes warn people not to finish that novel in public, and invariably stories emerge: of a young woman who wept so hard on an airplane flight the man sitting next to her asked if she was okay; of woman who alarmed her young children with the violence of her grief.

I'm trying to get over it, frankly, this apparent attraction to misery. My last novel, Mistress of the Sun, does not, in romantic terms, end happily — but the ending is a lot happier than what I had first intended, a brutal, gut-wrenching scene in which the heroine shoots her beloved horse Diablo. (To spare him, interestingly enough: is this not a theme?) An editor I work with argued against this: "I'm only trying to save Diablo's life!" he exclaimed at one point, with considerable emotion. I had written two endings, and ultimately, I had to choose. Days before I sent the final draft to my publisher I opted in favor of life . . . and I'm really glad I did. The ending is sad, still — quite, for me! — but at the same time, there is something glorious about it now, I think. (I won't say more: no spoilers allowed!) But, of course: sad-sweet tears, as well.

Right now I'm working on my next novel. The forty-page "rough" plot has gone through eleven drafts. It was only with this last round that I realized how dismally the story ended. The poor heroine never got what she wanted! And so, I've worked in a little softener, a sweet-hearted man to temper a harsh reality. There will be smiles in that last scene, I think ... as well as tears. At least I hope so.

Other stops on Sandra Gulland's April blog tour are:

April 7 -- Historical Tapestry: http://historicaltapestry.blogspot.com/ Guest blog: "Why I love unhappy endings."

April 10th -- Reading Group Guides: http://www.readinggroupguides.com/content/index.asp Guest blog: "How a bookclub changed me as a writer."

April 15 -- Reading the Past: http://readingthepast.blogspot.com/ Guest blog: "What to leave in . . . and what to leave out: crafting a story from history."

April 16 -- Marta's Meanderings: http://martasmeanderings.blogspot.com

April 17 -- Travels of the Bookworm: Hosting a giveaway right now! http://travelsofthebookworm.blogspot.com/

April 20 -- Historical Novels: http://historicalnovels.info

April 23 and 24: Peeking Between the Pages:http://peekingbetweenthepages.blogspot.com

April 24 -- Epicrat: http://epicrat.blogspot.com

April 29 -- Planet Books: http://planetbooks.wordpress.com/

April 29 -- Booking Mama: http://bookingmama.blogspot.com/

May 1 -- The Tome Traveler: http://thetometraveler.blogspot.com/

May 1 -- Racous Royals: http://blog.racousroyals.com

May 4 -- Shhh! I'm Reading: http://shhhimreading.blogspot.com/

May 5 -- My Friend Amy: http://www.myfriendamysblog.com/

May 7 -- Enchanted by Josephine: http://enchantedbyjosephine.blogspot.com

May 8 -- Skrisha's Books: http://www.skrishnasbooks.com

May 14 -- Linus' Blanket: review and give-away http://linussblanket.com

May 15 -- Kris Waldherr http://kriswaldherr.com/blog

Yet to be scheduled -- Scandalous Woman: http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.com/


  1. What a wonderful post! I too believe that when a book moves me that much- well, I feel bonded to the character (almost for life:) It makes it so real and so intense. I think everyone who reads the Josephine trilogy, especially the last book, cries incessantly. I did for almost a week! Thanks for this terrific post:)

  2. Almost a week, Ms. Lucy!? That's a record. (Although, in truth, I believe I wept for months.) Thank you for your kind words.

  3. Sandra, thank you so much for your wonderful post. I too am attracted to stories with unhappy endings. Sometimes, I wish I could just read frill chick lit and such, but it's so not my thing. LOL!

    I loved Mistress of the Sun! A big thanks to your editor and you for sparing Diablo's life. That would have been too much for me to bear! I am such an animal lover!

  4. Oh dear, I cry easily when I'm moved and I have all your books in the TBR pile. I must prepare myself. :-)

  5. I'm a crier from way back. The fact that I do most of my reading on crowded public transport can be a little awkward when I am sobbing my heart out. I love it though when books move me so much emotionally!

    Thanks so much for such a great post!

  6. Love this post! I love comfort books with happy endings but I also like a good unhappy ending too. And I had to add Walk with Love and Death to my TBR pile. Thanks!

  7. That is a great post! I can wait to follow this one on the rest of the tour.

  8. I don't mind unhappy endings per se, but I tend to enjoy them if I feel as though I'd been set up to expect one. I'm pretty good at guessing the trajectory of the plot of many novels and films, but nothing sours my mood quicker than a book or movie that ends unhappily without foreshadowing the possibility of one.

  9. I am happy to have discovered this site! This article struck a chord with me. As an author of historical fiction, I have always been partial to "darker" endings of novels and films. I just feel that these conclusions are more "true-to-life" than their more predictable, rosier counterparts and stick longer with the reader/viewer. They also help to promote empathy with what people actually had to go through in earlier epochs. Those who enjoy HF might like to check out my new novel, The Fuhrer Virus. It is a WWII spy/conspiracy/thriller for adult readers, and can be found at www.eloquentbooks.com/TheFuhrerVirus.html, www.amazon.com, and www.barnesandnoble.com.


    Paul Schultz

  10. I like unhappy endings too, they seem more real that way.
    great post!