Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.


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In a critique I got lambasted for a story that ended where the character finally got what she wanted. What's wrong with that?

Not a thing. At the end of Fredrick Busch’s short story “Ralph the Duck,” the main character, a security guard at a college, coaxes a suicidal student out of a snowstorm and navigates the treacherous roads successfully to get her to the hospital where they can pump her stomach of the pills she took. In Joyce Carol Oates’ novel We Were the Mulvaneys, Marianne is raped as a teenager. Her father turns his back on her, the family disintegrates, and she wanders through life troubled, until her late-twenties when she finds solace at an animal hospital with the kindly Dr. Whit West, with whom she forges a healthy, safe relationship.

But here’s the thing: there are no happily-ever-afters in real life. Even the brightest happiness is tinged with other emotions. This should be true for your characters, too. Saving the suicidal girl in “Ralph the Duck” doesn’t bring back the security guard’s own daughter, who died very young. He still has to live in the aftermath of that, with all the grief and helplessness that come with it. In We Were the Mulvaneys, the large, happy family isn’t restored. The idyllic farm they lived on is only a memory. Marianne is in a good place in life, but she still seeks acceptance from her father, searching for it even when he’s on his deathbed.

Strong stories rest on a foundation of conflict and desire. Characters can come out the woods alive, but they’re bound to have gotten some scratches and bruises along the way. Without evidence of this, the reader will question authenticity. How could Huey succumb to heroin, ravage his body, attempt rehab six times, and end up healthy and happy with a wife and two children, living his life as if his past never happened? Huey can certainly find happiness. But there will be scars: the fractured relationship with his mother after years of stealing from her, an untrusting boss who knows Huey’s done time, his own fear of returning to his old ways, perhaps even struggling with the choice to resist what so captivated him.

Also, your character may find that things aren’t exactly how she imagined they would be once she gets what she wants. Rarely does life unfold in just the way we expect. That job she’d been working so hard for may have seemed all glamour and excitement when it was far off on the horizon. But in the middle of it, she might find the moments in the spotlight are fun, but few. There may be a slew of mundane responsibilities she didn’t realize she’d have. Long hours might hurt her friendships. She may even be happy despite those sacrifices, but not in the delirious way she expected.

Stories suffer when endings don’t reflect the fact that real life is complicated and messy. Memories linger. Past experiences leave marks. We make difficult choices. Some are made poorly. Others we regret for the results. Situations change. Expectations are dashed. Let your character find happiness if that’s your intention, but make it a realistic happiness.