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Images & Voices of Hope | December 2, 2020

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Redefining ‘happy endings’ in nonfiction storytelling

Redefining ‘happy endings’ in nonfiction storytelling

As children, we grow up reading fairytale-like stories with happy endings. Problems are solved and people end up happy and in love. Everything is wrapped up nicely with a pretty bow.

As we get older, we realize that not everyone lives happily ever after. Life’s not that simple.

As media makers, it can be difficult to focus on happy endings when covering violence, corruption and tragedies. I was reminded of this when reading a recent piece by Martin Fletcher, a former NBC journalist who left his job to write fiction full-time. He writes about what the transition was like, saying:

…After so many years covering wars and destruction, intruding upon people on the worst day of their lives, at last I was able to impose a reparative process on my world. In psychology, that means making mental repairs to a damaged internal world. For me, dealing with a damaged external world, I was at last able to make things better for the people I was involved with, my fictional characters.

In other words, I love a happy ending.

Critics have written that my books manage to find hope in the grimmest of worlds. My Holocaust survivors find love. A beaten character finds the joy of a newborn baby. A lonely son finds his long-lost father.

Fiction storytellers have the luxury of determining how a story will end. For nonfiction storytellers, finding a happy ending is harder, and it can feel forced.

But what if we redefined “happy ending” in the traditional sense and gave it a more realistic definition? I would argue that a happy ending doesn’t have to mean everyone is “all better,” successful, or content. Instead, it might mean that someone who was depressed has finally found a reason to get out of bed every morning, or that one family in a tragedy-stricken community has started to heal.

This is something we’ve been thinking about at Images & Voices of Hope as we explore a genre of storytelling we’re calling “Restorative Narrative.” It’s the type of story that highlights opportunities in times of disruption; it reveals hard truths but shows signs of resilience and recovery. One example is The Dallas Morning News’ “Girl in the Closet” story about Lauren Kavanaugh, a 20-year-old girl whose mother and stepfather tortured, sexually abused, and starved her in a closet for six years when she was a child. The story explains what Lauren went through and shows that even though she still has a lot of trust and relationship issues, she is trying to move on; she is now off her medication for depression and is taking classes at a community college. For a story about a young girl who endured so much pain and suffering, that’s a happy ending.

The more I read and think about happy endings, the more I realize they’re different for every person.

Ishmael Beah, who was a child soldier during the Sierra Leonne civil war in the 1990s, elaborated on this point in a NPR interview earlier this month. While talking about his new book, “Radiance of Tomorrow,” Beah suggested that happy endings don’t have to revolve around life-changing events. For some people, they’re about small moments.

…Certainly the happy ending necessarily doesn’t mean that, you know, everybody goes prancing in the sunlight and dancing. Sometimes it’s the possibility of things about to change, or people’s consciousness have changed to a certain extent, you know? …

What I try to say in this book is that people who live in certain conditions actually understand what true happiness is and take that moment whenever it is — even if it is only one minute, 30 seconds — to actually be truly happy because they know it’s a rarity in many places. That actually to have it — to have that moment of peace, it’s precious. They understand that, and so when they’re happy, they’re genuinely happy. That’s also a strength of my people. Otherwise, we would not be able to survive some of the things that have happened on this continent.

Of course, not all stories have happy endings. Daniel Jones, editor of The New York Times’ “Modern Love” column, suggested in a Refinery29 interview last week that happiness stems from the journey that leads to a story’s end.

To me, a happy love story is one in which someone learns something, not necessarily one where everything works out. I think we’re fed, especially in romantic comedies, this idea of what a happy story is. One thing that’s interesting in seeing such a volume of stories is seeing how many people live their lives according to the movies. They think, ‘What would someone in Sex And The City do in this situation?’ It really has infected people’s thinking. I read this piece about a man who went out with a manic-pixie dream girl, and he knew at the time that it was just a Hollywood invention, but he kept expecting his life to work out with this woman in the way that it would if they were in a movie together. And, when it didn’t, he was like, ‘Wait, I guess she really wasn’t that type.’ And, it shocked him. But, media really guides us by the nose through a lot of these stories, and I’m not interested in giving advice, or in leading people to a happy ending. I’m really interested in exploring complication.

Beah’s and Jones’ remarks suggest that some writers are already rethinking the definition of “happy” in storytelling. If more media makers gave thought to this, perhaps they’d become more aware of powerful stories about small moments of happiness and hope.

As media makers, how do you define happy endings? How hard do you think it is to find these happy endings? Let us know in the comments section below.