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Unhappy Endings
In fanfic what are unhappy endings?

Does the term 'unhappy ending' apply to the characters? Or to the reader? Or to both?

Take the two following scenarios (I'm not going to make it fandom, pairing or even gender specific, just imagine they are your favourite pairing or any other two fandom characters in a longish term established relationship).

Scenario I

Character A and Character B have been lovers for about ten years. They love one another, their relationship has been good, had its ups and downs, but basically they've been happy. Then they suddenly both realise that even though they do still love one another, like one another, care for one another, respect one another, they are no longer happy in the way they were. They both know their relationship is over and they mutually decide to part as friends; to go their separate ways, and try to find happiness elsewhere. There is no other person involved; it is purely them. They are both content with their decision, there is some sadness at the parting, at the break-down of their relationship, it has been ten years after all. However, basically they know it's the right thing for them to do, and they are peaceful with their decision, their mutual decision. They part. The story ends with absolutely no possibility of a reconciliation; neither of them want that; goodbye is goodbye.

Scenario II

Character A and Character B have been lovers for about ten years. They love one another, their relationship has been good, had its ups and downs, but basically they've been happy. Then out of the blue Character A realises that for him/her the relationship isn't working; he/she still cares for his/her partner, likes the other person, but love has died. Basically Character A is unhappy and wants to move on and out of the relationship, there is no other person involved. Character B, however, is still very much in love, happy and doesn't want the separation. However, the do separate with much bitterness and sadness, especially on Character B's behalf. Character A goes off to start a new life, leaving Character B hurting and in pain and unhappy. The story ends with absolutely no possibility of a reconciliation; goodbye is goodbye.

Which of these scenarios would warrant the term 'unhappy ending'?

In the first the characters are happy, as their parting was a mutual decision. However, the readers are likely not to be, because their favourite pairing, or at least a pairing about whom they care, have separated with no hope of getting back together.

In the second Character B certainly isn't happy as the parting wasn't of his/her choice. And the readers are also likely to be unhappy because their favourite pairing, or at least a pairing about whom they care, have separated with no hope of getting back together.

Which of the above would warrant a warning for an unhappy ending? I know that a lot of people don't like, want or need warnings, and in fact avoid putting them (pretty much like me and ratings). However, I would think that most people, whatever they do on their personal LJ, website, mailing list they own, conform to the rules of the fandom specific community/mailing list/web archive and fanfic challenge communities. Thus, if one of the things for which there should be a warning was 'unhappy ending' which of the above would you believe warrants such a warning? Is it the characters' happiness or the readers' that is of primary importance? Or are they of equal consideration? My feeling is that if you are warning for an unhappy ending, you are doing so for the reader more than for the characters, basically that both of the above scenarios would warrant an 'unhappy ending warning', but that's just my opinion.

Poll #970032 Unhappy Endings

When posting a story to a community/archive which lists 'unhappy endings' as something for which there must be a warning, which of the scenarios described above should have a warning for 'unhappy ending'

Scenario I
Scenario II

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Current Mood: pensive pensive

76 Notes or Leave A Note
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obelix From: obelix Date: 20th April 2007 11:38 (UTC) (Link)
I agree with you that I believe the "unhappy endings" warning is for the readers not the characters.

Most warnings are for the readers so that they don't come across something that will make them upset or squick them, especially in fandoms where happily ever after is the norm. Some fandoms tend to be normally dark while other fandoms are more normally happily ever after, it depends a bit on the tone of the show I think.

nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 20th April 2007 15:37 (UTC) (Link)
That was my feeling.

And it's a good point that some shows are 'darker', indeed have canon separations, which I guess is like do you warn for a canon death? I think the whole thing is a minefield really.
doylebaby From: doylebaby Date: 20th April 2007 11:43 (UTC) (Link)
I definitely do not consider Scenario I as an unhappy ending - yes, the reader might but the story isn't so I would feel like cheating when I would have to put a warning on it.

If this would be a big issue on certain comms, I might avoid this scenario for it and just use it to post it to my own lj and the comms I know don't want that specific a warning.

That doesn't help much, does it? *grins* Sorry!
nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 20th April 2007 15:39 (UTC) (Link)
Now that's interesting, it really is. I can see exactly from where you're coming, and yes, I agree that from the characters POV Scenario I isn't unhappy, but . . . I can see your point about feeling that you were cheating, I really can.

It's the age-old issue you won't please everyone no matter what you do.

And you always help.
ptyx From: ptyx Date: 20th April 2007 11:55 (UTC) (Link)
I don't know how to reply: I have never seen an "unhappy ending" label. Maybe it's an HP fandom thing, not having such labels, I don't know. Speaking in abstract terms, I consider the first scenario a happy ending, but if I were a fan of the pairing, I would consider it an unhappy ending. So it depends on how your community usually labels such fics.
nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 20th April 2007 15:41 (UTC) (Link)
I agree with you actually. Scenario I from the characters' viewpoint is happy; but not from the readers.

How you would view the two endings if they were about your own beloved pairing? Which, if either, would you view as unhappy?
aingeal8c From: aingeal8c Date: 20th April 2007 12:00 (UTC) (Link)
I think the warning is for the reader and to me both of those fics should have an unhappy ending label because as readers often we want our favourite pair to be together for forever pretty much (I know I do) so yeah any ending that splits them up whether they are happy or not is going to make the reader unhappy (of course the reader might like to have the angst I wouldn't but I am a sappy, fluffy sort).

So yes it’s the reader. The reader might feel better about scenario 1 because there's still friendship whereas scenario 2 is full of bitterness and sadness. Scenario 1 has the possibility of there being something of the two of them together beyond the break-up, even if it’s not a relationship whereas scenario 2 breaks them totally forever with not the comfort of friendship. But that’s my personal opinion so the warning should be the same.

I know speaking personally I would not want to read either. I read a scenario 1 once. I cried. I'm just not cut out for endings that split the boys up. I can read the angst, the pain but they have to be together at the end for it to be worth it, for me anyway.

nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 20th April 2007 15:47 (UTC) (Link)
I do agree, that the warning is for the reader, thus indeed I'd give both endings a warning. And yes, I want my favourite pair to be together, always.

As a reader I'd feel dreadfully let down with either scenario, I must admit, and have felt that way when the story has ended with them not together.

So . . . Confession time. Are you sitting down? You better be, because otherwise poor Pilchard might get landed on.

I have actually just written and posted a story with Scenario I.

*Pokes Aingeal*

*Waves smelling salts under Aingeal's nose*

*Dispatches Ducky with tea and sympathy*

Are you back with me? Good.

It's all right, EB6 has not completely taken me over. It's not G/D nor is it F/V (Aingeal breathes a sigh of relief). It is actually Starsky & Hutch. It's a story that I've had in mind even before I stopped writing S&H, so when I did the 12_stories challenge, it seemed an idea time to write it. Originally it was going to be very long and take me over a whole season, seeing how things changed, etc. etc. but at the end of the day the ending was going to be the same. So . . . I even had the title 'Sometimes Love Isn't Enough' sorted out in my mind all those years ago too.

solo From: solo Date: 20th April 2007 12:01 (UTC) (Link)
Both. Warnings are for readers who worry about having to read something that makes them uncomfortable; they aren't for the characters. Therefore, since both scenarios are likely to leave readers unhappy, both would need warnings.
nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 20th April 2007 15:49 (UTC) (Link)
Hey, you're here. We just received your postcard, literally today.

Thank you for it; it's lovely.

And thank you for you input.
dragonmuse From: dragonmuse Date: 20th April 2007 13:59 (UTC) (Link)
Hmmm. I'd say both scenarios would count as unhappy endings for me, since I hate seeing my favourite pairings pulling apart, no matter what the circumstances are. But I can also understand that it doesn't necessarily make it an unhappy ending, as is clear in Scenario I where both characters are happy and there's only a small, lingering sadness that such a great relationship has ended after so long. (Then again, I'm such a romantic, that kind of sadness hits me a lot harder than it probably should. :P)

So, after deciding that the stories themselves would upset me more than they would the characters, I think if I was posting such stories to a community I'd add a warning for both, just because I believe that even if in Scenario I both characters are happy, the reader at least may be left feeling all "oh no, my OTP. :("

(Wow, I had a headache before, but now my head really hurts after all that thinking. :P)
nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 20th April 2007 15:51 (UTC) (Link)
*Hands over pain-killer for your headache*

Sorry about that.

*Nods in agreement at what you say* Yes, I agree. Both are unhappy for the reader, even if the first isn't necessarily so for the characters.

And yes, I think that most readers who are upset by their OTP not being together at the end of the story won't really care if the characters are happy, because they won't be.
lonelywalker From: lonelywalker Date: 20th April 2007 17:15 (UTC) (Link)
I said only scenario 2.

I think that, in the case of scenario 1, if the writer's intent is to sell us on the idea that the two are happy and at peace with their decision, then the reader should end the story (ideally) also at peace (or at least not in tears).

However, I suspect that this would also irate some people regarding the pairing - if I write a Gibbs/Ducky story that is mainly about "why Gibbs and Ducky shouldn't be together", I think some shippers might be upset. So perhaps it's more an issue of pairing? Not really sure. I've never even thought to warn for unhappy endings! *is a foul fiend indeed*
nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 21st April 2007 11:59 (UTC) (Link)
I think in theory you're correct about Scenario I, but as a reader if it happened to one of my OTPs (especially G/D) I'd be upset by it, whether I was warned or not, even though I'd probably be telling myself that they were happy. Convoluted, I know.

I think you have a point re: the pairing, actually.
erehwon6 From: erehwon6 Date: 20th April 2007 17:18 (UTC) (Link)

I'd say that the readers' potential reactions are what counts, as that's the whole point of warnings. These things always seem a bit odd to me though; because professional fiction, films or TV series don't get elaborate ratings for things like that, and people cope, so why this one exception?

For me as a reader I appreciate getting a heads up for 'angst' or 'character death' (have to be in the mood to read that). But being told it's an 'unhappy ending' seems really anti-climactic. I may even be tempted not to read it because all the drama/tension would be hollow as essentially it's been spoilered*.

So I wouldn't warn for an unhappy ending. Even if it was asked for I'd find some way around it on principle** (e.g word the summary so it implied 'happily ever after' was unlikely).
As it is I've never been in a situation that did/expected that. For the most part you can tell from the summary what the tone will be, and if a certain detail is left out then I figure it must be an important element of dramatic tension.

* Well there are some exceptions of course. Obviously I knew how Othello and Macbeth would end before I studied them (and those are my favoutite plays because of it). But then as a rule Shakespeare can get away with a lot of things which fanfic writers get called on.

** but then I set up the LJ comm for my main fandom simply because the main fansite doesn't accept slash. So maybe I'm just a brat, lol.
nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 21st April 2007 12:06 (UTC) (Link)
I'd agree with you re: it's the reader who wants the warning. That's a jolly good point re: why do we warn in fanfic, but not other stuff and we cope. Maybe it's to do with investment in the characters? We're far more emotionally involved and have more investment in the characters about whom we read/write?

Okay, I take your point re: unhappy ending warning being an anti-climax, and yet you want to be warned for a death story? What's the difference? I know that people who don't want to be warned for death, say it's because it's an anti-climax. And I can see that with one hat on, but I still want to be warned for death and in many ways, to my mind, an unhappy ending is worse. So why death but not unhappy endings? I'm fascinated.

A lot of mainstream writers get away with stuff that we fanfic writers are called on, something else I've never understood.
madmogs From: madmogs Date: 20th April 2007 18:15 (UTC) (Link)
I can't imagine considering scenario 1 an unhappy ending and wouldn't consider warning for it, not least because there's a bit of me that kind of despises cosseting the readers, which is what I think the romance fiction cliche tends to do. It's a formula, so it's comfortable, but it's also very, very limiting.

But then, I'm aware that I have very few shows for whom I'm 'give me OTP or give me death', and that as an asexual (and former plot-driven gen writer) I'm not as invested in romance/sex as those who read my fics.

I realise now that I've never really read a Scenario 1 fic, and I now want to go out and find one.
nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 21st April 2007 12:10 (UTC) (Link)
Interesting point of view, and I can understand how you feel, even if it's not how I see it.

I actually wrote a Scenario I story, it's Starsky & Hutch. If you're interested I can point you to it; it's fairly short.
honeybearbee From: honeybearbee Date: 21st April 2007 03:10 (UTC) (Link)
I picked both mainly because the first scenario is more for the reader. If a reader has a vested interest in the characters and pairing, they will think it's unhappy.

The second scenario is for readers and characters. Again the reader must be interested in the pairing and the character won't be happy either (but that won't matter because the character isn't real and therefore will get over it. unless there's an angtsy sequel *grin*).
nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 21st April 2007 12:11 (UTC) (Link)
And we are very invested in the characters and pairings, and that's what makes a big difference I think between fanfic and mainstream fic.
(Deleted comment)
nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 21st April 2007 13:30 (UTC) (Link)
*Nods in full and total agreement with everything you say*

Me too.

And yes, my death stories (of which I have been writing quite a lot recently *sigh*) always end 'happily'. Even if they don't actually die at the same time, they are always both dead by the end of the story and that's not years and years afterwards. So he can be abnormal together ;-)
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kilraaj From: kilraaj Date: 21st April 2007 14:56 (UTC) (Link)
If it were for a comm specifically about that pairing or those two characters in relationships, I would warn for both scenarios. I probably wouldn't warn for "unhappy ending" on the first though; just "breakup" or something like that.

Otherwise, scenario I gets no warning from me. It is a happy story, barring any other plot wrinkles like deaths or whatever, with both characters growing--even if they are growing apart.
nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 24th April 2007 10:48 (UTC) (Link)
Thank you for this. Apologies in the delay for replying.

*Bangs head on desk* Do you know, I hadn't thought of using 'break up' as a warning. Thank you.
executrix From: executrix Date: 21st April 2007 15:03 (UTC) (Link)
Hey, I started out in Blakes7, where the entire named cast dies under the worst possible circumstances. BtVS ends with the town a smoking crater, and in AtS there's a meaningful possibility that the world is going to end. Divorces and bad breakups just don't make it into the "unhappy ending" category for me.
azdak From: azdak Date: 21st April 2007 20:00 (UTC) (Link)
Couldn't agree more. Also, I can't really imagine wanting to read about an amicable, mutually agreed break-up unless there was something much more interesting going on in the foreground of the story. To paraphrase Joss Whedon, there's a reason why Shakespeare didn't write a play about Othello popping out to get a quickie divorce.
boyfriendincoma From: boyfriendincoma Date: 21st April 2007 16:58 (UTC) (Link)
This clearly depends on the fandom. If your fandom has an One True Pairing and 99 percent of its fic ends with them living happily ever after then everything where they don't live happily ever after clearly requires a warning. Otherwise you are setting up your reader for a big disappointment, since the statistical odds will have him believing that your ending will be happy right until he reaches the bottom of the webpage.

In some fandoms you can have your OTP separating in the most brutal ways just to run in front of a bus afterwards without having to give any warnings, not even the infamous "death fic" one.

So as a general rule I would warn people of everything that is highly unusual for the fandom's fic - not just unhappy endings, but also all sorts of other stuff. I would make an exception though if the warning would ruin the story. (Think "The Sixth Sense" being warned with "Has a dead protagonist.")
nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 24th April 2007 10:54 (UTC) (Link)
That's a very good point indeed. My main fandoms are all where a high percentage of the stories are indeed happy endings.

I know a lot of people say that they don't like warning for death or other similar stuff as it ruins the story, and yes, I understand that, but I often think they have to think of the reader. It's a difficult one, and whatever is done, no one will ever please everyone.

I always warn for 'death of major character', even though anyone who regular reads my stories know that my death stories end 'happily', i.e. with both of them dead. So it's a different feeling in many ways.

Thanks for your input.
perivates From: perivates Date: 21st April 2007 17:36 (UTC) (Link)
Although I do think that the "unhappy ending" warning is for the benefit of the readers without absolute reliance on the characters, I don't think that the first scenario merits this warning. And in some cases, the second scenario might not be accurate with such a warning either, since I have come across exceptions before. But generally, the second scenario is more along the lines of what would call for an "unhappy ending" tag.

For me, "unhappy ending" isn't really so much about how the story ends, but what feelings it leaves the readers with. If it leaves you with tears burning your eyes and your gut clenching, then it's tragic. But even then, bittersweet endings could have the same effect. I think "unhappy ending" doesn't really allow for a full breadth of emotion. Yes, there might be some unhappiness at the end, but it isn't necessarily sadness alone. Though I personally don't agree with using that warning, I'd probably at least label it under tragedy, if it fits.
nakeisha From: nakeisha Date: 24th April 2007 10:58 (UTC) (Link)
Thank you for your comments.

Indeed, you're correct the reader can indeed be left with tears and intense feelings even when the ending isn't necessarily unhappy. I've experienced it and know that my stories have let people experience it too.

The whole thing re: warnings, etc. is a minefield; we know we'll never pleased everyone all of the time (or any of the time).
76 Notes or Leave A Note
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