How to Write a Realistic, Happy-Ever-After Ending

This guest post is by Steph Nickel. Steph is a freelance editor and writer. She blogs at Steph Nickel’s Eclectic Interests. You can view her editing services here. Follow her on Twitter (@StephBethNickel).

How do you want a story to end? Should it have a fairy tale ending? A hopeful ending? Or do you like stories with more realistic endings—even if the protagonist doesn’t come out ahead and the villain doesn’t get his?

happily ever after

Photo by AForrestFrolic

Realistic Endings vs. Happily Ever After Endings

While some would consider me a bubbly extrovert, they would be surprised to learn that I’m not a big fan of the fairy tale ending. Sure, I like the occasional Disney movie. Who doesn’t? But I prefer not so happily-ever-after endings.

I have to care about the characters. I will forgive problems with plot and storyline if I just have to know what happens to the characters.

To make me care, the characters have to be genuine, authentic, real. I have to know they are, in many ways, like me. We all have our commendable qualities and those we’d rather keep hidden from the world. As writers, our characters have to be the same. Otherwise, the reader won’t be able to relate and will too easily dismiss them.

Realistic? Yes. Dark and defeated? Definitely not.

Turn Off the Lights, But Leave the Door Open

Christy Harkin said, “The difference between writing for adults and children is this: You can lead children into a dark room, but you must leave a door open.”

I actually prefer that open door myself—or at least a distant pinpoint of light.

Action adventure. Suspense. Drama. In all of these genres, the moments we can take a breath—maybe even laugh a little—help us prepare for the intensity to come. These moments must be skillfully crafted. They can’t boot the reader out of the story altogether.

  • Maybe the protagonist’s best friend cracks a joke when he’s nervous.
  • Maybe the evil antagonist has a soft spot for kittens and he ends up renting from a crazy cat lady.
  • Maybe an unjaded, innocent child plays a key role in the story.
  • Maybe the protagonist grew up surrounded by love and laughter, moves back into her family home and is reminded of those memories everywhere she looks.

Even the most sobering, the most depressing story can have its upbeat moments and a positive yet realistic ending.

Can our stories be believable and realistic yet sprinkled throughout with positivity? Yes, I believe they can.

What do you think? Is there such a thing as a realistic but positive story?


Spend ten minutes and write an intensely dark scene. List three or four ways you can shine a light into the darkness. Choose the most believable and write for an additional five minutes, bringing the light to bear.

Post your scene below and take the time to share some positive comments with your fellow writers.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Katie Cross

    I’m described as a bubbly extrovert, and I hate happily ever after. Mostly because I feel like it’s not always realistic. Even when i was younger and I’d watch chick flicks with my friends I’d think, ‘But what about after?’ These characters had all these issues and problems, and all of a sudden they come together at the end of an hour and a half of problems, just to have their world be okay?

    I never bought it. A good, realistic ending is worth gold!

    • Diane Dupree-Dempsey

      Now me, I am a fan of happy endings – reality is highly over rated! On the other hand I do like a level of believe ability. I have also been bothered by the romcom happy-ever-after endings for the reasons you discuss. I am also bugged by the love story in thrillers or mysteries. The couple come together in the midst of the most amazing circumstances of their lives and we are suppose to believe they will just happily settle together into the mundane day-to-day routine. I think instead of happily-ever-after, those romantic endings should be promising-beginnings. A promising beginning can make a lovely ending.

      • Stephanie Nickel

        I’ve always seen my favourite endings as hopeful, but I love that, promising beginnings. Now that’s a great way to end a story!

        • I agree!

          • Agreed. I get really annoyed when a writer engineers a basically happy ending, and then feels obliged to keep on going and explain how the hero and heroine get to settle down and have six lovely kids and blah blah blah. Enough, already!

    • Stephanie Nickel

      I’m currently editing a wonderful historical fiction. One of my favourite elements is the ending. The family is filled with hope for the future, but that future will be filled with a whole new set of challenges. When readers close the book, they will know the characters keeps on living.

      • Winnie

        How many times haven’t i thought after overcoming a hurdle that now I can sit back and relax. Apart from odd moments, life is just never perfect

  • I think if a story is realistic it will depict our desires as futile, and leave the protagonist in despair. Passing through that despair earns the character the moral authority to complete the story… i.e., enter Act III and move toward a climax. Most good stories seem to unfold that way. But what I’ve noticed is that a happy ending isn’t always necessary… because just passing successfully through that dark night is enough to nourish the reader. I’m beginning to think that that is why we read fiction — to vicariously pass through that failure of our narcissistic desires. Anyone wish to add to that?

    • Stephanie Nickel

      Is it too simplistic to say I like to emerge from a story hopeful? Not all the loose ends have to be tied into a pretty bow, and yes, the protagonist has made it past his/her despair . . . and so can we.

    • Winnie

      My understanding is that a requirement of any story is that the protagonist must change and become a different person in one way or another.

      • Winnie…. I would say that such a change is what nourishes the reader, yes, but when the protagonist doesn’t/refuses/can’t change, then we have a “tragedy”. Human nature wins the battle against its higher nature, or divine nature, or whatever you want to call it. Yes, that is sad indeed. But I think readers are equally moved by that failure, maybe even more so. So, let’s say that the “change” you speak of is essential to “story”… even if it’s the absence of change.

        • Winnie

          I agree there. Although the protagonist doesn’t change he still has arrived at another insight, and has ‘changed’ in that respect..

  • Diane Dupree-Dempsey

    I have been getting The Write Practice prompts for a very long time, without actually using them. Having decided it is time to get serious about my writing (again) I saved all the prompts from my email and have begun going through them. Here is my response to this prompt.

    Whether the screaming could be heard through the party noise
    in the house behind was irrelevant. The moment had a blindness, a fixed point
    in time which would remain forever. There was only the screaming and the reason for the screaming.

    “He’s not, he’s not, he’s not!”

    But he was. The brother was dead and in that instant when
    the world changed from one where the brother was alive to one where he was not,there was the scream. The scream was surrounded by the icy cold of winter and pain.The attempts of the husband to soothe and comfort were lost, swept away by the knowing.

    The brother was dead.

    Behind them, the party went on, their friends and colleagues
    laughed and talked and drank and didn’t know nor care that the brother was
    dead. The husband was helpless to do more than hold her and try to stop the
    screaming. And she was trapped inside the icy night, inside the moment of
    knowing that the brother had died.

    In time, the screaming did stop, at least as far as linear
    time could tell, but she knew the moment continued on inside her; a piece of
    time that would never really end.

    They stumbled to the truck, the husband holding and guiding her,
    keeping her moving forward. She wept.

    The drive home was brief, but seemed at times to last
    forever. She felt that once home, she would be able to fix things somehow. Of
    course she knew what nonsense that was, but she grabbed onto the hope of it.

    As he drove, her husband, reached out and touched her hand,
    taking it in his and squeezing. It wasn’t much, but the warmth of the hand
    helped somehow. She began to think again, a tiny bit.

    “We need to get the kids home.” She said, before she wept again.

    “Yes,” he agreed. “Can you call them?”

    A task, something to focus on, that helped too. She called
    and spoke with the mother’s of friends and arranged for sleep-overs to be
    cancelled and the kids to be brought home. The mothers knew there was trouble, but she couldn’t bring herself to explain.

    Once home, they began to pack and make arrangements to drive
    to her Mother’s house.

    For a time, though, they stopped, she and her husband, and
    just held onto each other. He offering comfort, she holding on in desperate
    gratitude. Her soul knew this man would see her through this, if her heart and
    mind could not think so clearly.

    The kids arrived home and were told and the daughter cried, while the son looked grim and in control. The husband and father, guided them through packing and loading the car. He gently helped his wife into the car, treating her as the delicate and broken thing she was at that moment. He knew her to be strong beneath the pain. He touched her cheek to wipe away a tear, closed the door, got into the driver’s seat and drove.

    • debra elramey

      Diane, it’s good to hear you’ve taken up writing again. Don’t let it slide through the cracks – ever! It does help to use the prompts, at least to keep the skills sharp, don’t you think?
      What pathos in that scene you just wrote, and no happy ending in sight, but sometimes art does imitate life. And life, for some, has no happy ending.

      • Diane Dupree-Dempsey

        Debra, yes there was a lot of pathos there! Gaa! The groundwork to the happy ending was there, but more in my mind than in my words. I wanted to show, because of the husband’s strength, both as the rock she would lean on and the strength of his belief in her ability to get through (not over) this terrible time, she would indeed get through. I ran out of time to get that point made, but I wanted to post it anyway because posting it was a commitment to myself to move forward with doing these exercises and with sharing them.

        I do think the prompts are important to pushing me back into writing – if for no other reason than they give me something to write about when nothing else will come to mind. A nice little push forward as it were.

    • Stephanie Nickel

      I, too, want to do more writing prompted by the posts here. I am honoured that you chose to respond to today’s post. Keep writing. And keep looking for hope, even when life is all too “real.”

  • Brianna Worlds

    The stiff, dry leaves of a snow-less winter whispered beneath my feet as I stalked forward, my balance low and steady. My breath shook out from my lungs as I attempted to slow the desperate gasping. I had to be silent, dark, deadly.
    Like the ninja, my brother would say. Think the the ninja.
    These thoughts tumbled away as I heard a hiss ahead of me, to the left, and footsteps ended as suddenly as I had been ripped from the Earth. My gaze shot in it’s direction, eyes trying to see what couldn’t be there. What shouldn’t be here, past the portal’s exit.
    A shift in the darkness was all it took. My Night Walker vision kicked in, and light gravitated, coalescing around the form of the intruder.
    I swore softly, realizing with dread that my suspicions were dead on. It was another one of my kind; a Night Walker, in her true form.
    I edged forward and pressed into the nearest tree; a conveniently large oak. I leaned on it until the bark bit into my skin, the pain focusing me. The large, wolven body was a dark, lustrous brown, her wings folded back against her appeared to be splattered moonlight, in stark contrast with the dark that framed it. A strong, noble beak curved, dangerously sharp, topped with sharp, intelligent eyes. I caught the gleam of the long, ebony strip of scales that ran down her spine, and it was enough.
    An owl called from the branches above my head, his hoot empty and echoing; searching. The Night Walker’s head snapped in my direction, and the ninja plan went out the window. Now that she had seen me, her eyes would focus, and all pretenses of surreptitious escape was lost.
    I swore, none to quietly, and the Night Walker clattered her beak, tail lashing in anger. Her eyes narrowed.
    Goddamn it I needed to Change. I needed to Change into my true form or I was dead meat.
    I sunk to the ground, probably looking like I had the worlds worst case of IBS as I tried desperately to Change, my mind swirling with images of my natural form.
    Finally, pain lanced through my bones, my muscles, my mind, and I broke apart, bones shifting and cracking and reforming me into a beast.
    It was a truly bad day when I was relieved to feel that.

    • Stephanie Nickel

      I’m too impatient to write detailed descriptions, but you painted a clear picture of the second Night Walker. Since I’m a visual learner, I loved that. And getting inside the mind of a NW, realizing there is a downside was something mere mortals like myself could relate to. I love that you wrote fantasy in response to this prompt. It was unexpected and fun.

      • Brianna Worlds

        Why thank you! 🙂 I love fantasy– I use it whenever possible!

    • Diane Dupree-Dempsey

      Wow! Well done. I found myself holding my breath so I wouldn’t alert the other Night Walker!

      You have painted quite a clear picture with your words and I really wanted to know more about what was going on. Oh and “ouch” … “I broke apart, bones shifting and cracking..”
      Well done!

      • Brianna Worlds

        Thanks! 😀 I don’t really know what’s going on here, but I think it’s given me a little inspiration for a second series to one I’m currently writing, more prominently about the Night Walkers that are in it.

  • Every step hurt. Not a physical pain, that would have been too easy to fix. But, rather, an emotional pain that ran through Joe’s heart with each movement that he made. He looked up at the flight of stairs leading to the overbridge. Twenty or thirty steps up, the same number down. Then it would be over.

    Up one. Why did Maria have to go? They could have been all right, if only she had been more patient.

    Up another. Why did she have to take Tommy with her? He meant everything to Joe, his happy innocent face as they played with a football or just rolled around on the floor.

    Up again. Why did they have to move away so far? It meant that Joe had no chance of exercising his limited “rights” to see Tommy. Without that, what was the point?

    Joe reached the halfway point, where there was a landing for the elderly or infirm to catch their breath before continuing. He stopped for a moment. To his left, a train rushed through on the fast line. No matter, there would be another one soon enough.

    He continued his upward journey. If only he hadn’t been made redundant. At least he knew it wasn’t personal – everyone else had got it too, the factory closed. But there was no money to pay them off, and he now had no savings left.

    No work. No family. No money. No point.

    At the top of the stairs, a broad enclosed bridge led across the tracks. Halfway along, another flight led down to the central platform island, on one side of which ran the express trains. It would be over in an instant.

    He lingered at the top, looking through the windows in the direction from which his nemesis would come. His rescuer. There would be plenty of time to get down to the platform once he saw the train in the distance, no need to rush and attract attention to himself.

    He leaned against the window, staring sightlessly into the distance.

    “Excuse me, but are you OK?”

    Joe dragged himself back to the present. Someone was talking to him. A man. In a uniform. Damn, one of the station staff. “Yeah, fine,” Joe said, hoping he’d go away.

    “Would you like to tell me about it?”

    • Brianna Worlds

      Great! I loved how you made Joe’s predicament clearer with each step closer to his death.

    • Diane Dupree-Dempsey

      That was great! I have to agree with Brianna, each painful step give us one more piece of the puzzle. Each step brought us closer to understanding the Joe was going to commit suicide and why. Bit by bit we see and understand and then the man in uniform changes everything.

      And now there is hope.

      • Brianna Worlds

        Thank you! You summed up what I was trying to say much better than I did. I actually gave up after 5 unproductive minutes of gazing sightlessly at the computer screen 😛

  • Winnie

    “I baptise you Stephen James Kincaid.” The priest solemnly intoned the words as he poured water on the forehead of the baby being dangled precariously over the baptismal font. All round her in the nave of the church the older family members and guests cooed and sighed quietly. This was the grandmothers’ occasion.
    Weddings were for the mothers, tearfully committing the offspring they’d nurtured so carefully to somebody else’s safekeeping. Today was that occasion when the wheel had come full circle and the union had produced bundles of joy which grandmothers could once more press to their bosoms.
    Moira blinked. From where she stood she could swear she’d seen a wicked glint in her daughter’s eye. Over the years in the constant battle of wills between mother and daughter hadn’t she seen it so many times not to recognise it? Despite the fact that Connie had married and moved out almost two years ago?.
    James Kincaid, the first, stood by her side, the supposed father of the child. Beaming, bursting out of his suit with pride.
    How could she tell him he was not the father? Worse still, how could she not tell him someone else was the father of the little boy who bore his name and would be the heir to his family fortune?
    Everything comes at a price, she thought. This was the one she was paying. Connie had put more than just a nasty spin on what should have been a crowning moment in Moira’s life.
    “Can I hold him?”
    “Careful Mom,” Connie said as she handed over the newest Christian to have just entered the church.
    Mora gazed lovingly into the peaceful little face.
    All the time James stood beside her with an expression that said ‘That’s my little boy.’ Just like any father, as if he and he alone had. produced the little miracle.
    “Justin sent his apologies.” Connie was smiling sweetly.
    Moira stifled an angry retort. How could he? Her ex-fiancée hadn’t been on the guest list James had shown her.
    “Don’t worry Mom.” James put an arm round his mother-in-law after Connie began circulating with James Kincaid II. “Justin’s been in Europe for the last two years.”
    Moira staggered over to a pew against the wall and collapsed onto a surface worn shiny by countless bottoms over the years.
    Trust Connie to get the last laugh.
    She’d been so relieved after Justin, the bad twin, had been forced to leave after yet another scandal she’d completely forgotten about his whereabouts. .

  • thank you, i like the post, very good

  • Ty Unglebower

    If in life there can be positive things that happen, and outcomes where things turn out, then naturally that can happen in fiction. There is not conflict between something being “realistic” and something being “positive”.

    • Kit Lorraine Saunders

      Well said. Too many people think ‘realistic’ has to mean bad, as if somehow the bad were more ‘real’ than the good. An ending that is depressing and drowns you in misery is not necessarily any more ‘realistic’ than one that is covered in fairy dust.

  • Hannah

    Hi everyone. This is my first time posting anything on here, but I had such a great time doing this practice, I couldn’t resist. Here goes!

    He thrashed through the thick undergrowth, his head
    spinning. A pain throbbed in his temple, he lifted a clumsy hand to his face. His
    fingers came away red and wet. Blood? His thoughts were foggy and hazy. He stopped to catch his breath, leaning his back against a nearby tree for support. The sky above him was darkening and his breath began to mist in the air. His sweat soaked body shivered in the cold.

    He looked down at his unfamiliar body. Hard and lean, and
    clad in what once might have been a white tunic, although it was hard to tell.
    There were several long gashes running through the fabric, and one sleeve
    flapped like a tattered flag. Among the dirt and debris ground into the thin
    garment, he noticed a long streak of red running down his chest. He lifted a
    clumsy hand to his face, and his fingers came away red and wet. Blood? His thoughts were foggy and hazy.

    Where was he? He looked at his surroundings and saw nothing
    but trees and bushes. Who was he? How had he got here? He remembered running. Yes, running. But why? His thoughts and memories slipped away like a handful of water. His pounding heart told him he should be afraid. Very afraid. A sound to his right alerted him of movement. Away. He had been running away.

    He took off again in the opposite direction, his feet stumbling on jagged stones and thick roots. He realised one foot was sheathed in a soft leather sandal, and the other was raw and bare, bleeding. A pain stabbed through his leg with every step he took. Away. He needed to get away.

    He stopped to catch his breath, leaning his back on a nearby
    tree for support. The sky above him was darkening and his breath began to mist in the air. His sweat soaked body shivered in the cold. He looked at his
    surrounded and started in shock. Houses? He thought blankly. He remembered houses. It was cold out, and inside would be warm. Knees knocking like a new-born foal, he staggered to the nearest house. Village, he thought with conviction.Villages meant safety.

    The door in front of him was painted a bright blue. It stirred a memory at the back of his mind, but he couldn’t say what. He could hear laughter inside, he could smell food. His stomach growled furiously. He lifted a hand as heavy a hammer and knocked. Once. Twice. The laughter in the house stopped, and there was a low mummer. A few moments later, the blue doors inched open a crack. A face lined with old age and framed with grey hair peeked out suspiciously.

    “Help,” he gasped “I need help” .