April 30 – May 6: “Does the reading public expect happily-ever-after?”

This week ITW Members discuss Hollywood endings. Does the reading public expect happily-ever-after, or can authors choose to follow a darker–even ambiguous–path?

Join Bob Liparulo, Liese Sherwood-Fabre, James Conway, Libby Hellmann, William Todd Rose, D. P. Lyle, Kellyann Zuzulo, Linda Rodriguez, Brian Andrews, Angela Alsaleem, W. Craig Reed and Thomas Young!


Liese Sherwood-Fabre grew up in Dallas, Texas and knew she was destined to write when she got an A+ in the second grade for her story about Dick, Jane, and Sally’s ruined picnic. After obtaining her PhD from Indiana University, she joined the federal government and had the opportunity to work and live internationally for more than fifteen years. After returning to the states, she seriously pursued her writing career and has had numerous pieces published. You can follow her upcoming releases and other events by joining her newsletter at www.liesesherwoodfabre.com, or visiting her Facebook, Twitter, or Bebo accounts. You can also contact her at liese@liesesherwoodfabre.com

Libby Fischer Hellmann is the award-winning author of 9 crime fiction novels, including two series and several stand-alones. The Ellie Foreman suspense series, which Libby describes as a cross between “Desperate Housewives” and “24,” includes four titles. Libby also writes the harder edged Georgia Davis PI series, (EASY INNOCENCE, DOUBLEBACK, and TOXICITY) and the stand-alone thriller SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE. All her books are available as ebooks and print. A BITTER VEIL, a literary thriller set in revolutionary Iran, will be released in April, 2012.

A BITTER VEIL was featured in April’s TheBigThrill.

Angela Alsaleem resides in Gridley, California with her wonderful and super supportive husband, her beautiful daughter, and two happy dogs. By day, she works as a Documents Administrator for a pension firm. By night, she writes dark speculative fiction. Angela Alsaleem is the author of SANITARIUM, released in March, 2011 and WOMEN SCORNED, released in April, 2012. She’s had over 20 stories published and looks forward to many more publications in the future.

Tom Young served in Afghanistan and Iraq with the Air National Guard. Military honors include two Air Medals, three Aerial Achievement Medals, and the Air Force Combat Action Medal. Young is the author of THE MULLAH’S STORM and SILENT ENEMY, novels set in the Afghanistan war. SILENT ENEMY received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and will be released in paperback in June. Young’s newest novel, THE RENEGADES, comes to book stores in July.

William Craig Reed is the New York Times bestselling author of Red November (HarperCollins, 2010) and served as a decorated U.S. Navy diver completing joint missions with Navy SEAL teams. Reed’s latest book, THE EAGLE AND THE SNAKE (DiversionBooks, 2012) is the first plot-interactive ebook thriller with a multimedia-enhanced non-fiction Afterword. Reed is also a marketing consultant with clients such as Apple, HP, SAP and Adobe—the leader in ebook publishing software.

Robert Liparulo is the best-selling author of five thrillers for adults and the six-book Dreamhouse Kings series for young adults. Nine of his books have been optioned for feature motion pictures. He is also writing an original script with Andrew Davis, the director of THE FUGITIVE and THE GUARDIAN. He has lived in Colorado since 1976, and currently lives in Monument with his wife Jodi and their four children.

D. P. Lyle is the Macavity winning and Edgar nominated author of both fiction and non-fiction. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of the TV shows Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.

To learn more about D. P. Lyle and his latest nonfiction book, MORE FORENSICS IN FICTION, click here.

A former journalist, Kellyann Zuzulo is a published author, freelance editor, and a Curator for Daily eReads. Her most recent novel is THE GENIE IGNITES from Boroughs Publishing Group. As a curator, she identifies titles in the thriller and crime fiction genres for promotion on the Daily eReads site. Kellyann lives in Pennsylvania and is currently working on the next book in The Zubis Chronicles series.

Midwest born and raised, Brian Andrews is a US Navy Veteran who served as an officer aboard a 688 class nuclear submarine in the Pacific. He graduated summa cum laude from Vanderbilt University with a degree in psychology. He is a Park Leadership Fellow and holds a Masters degree from Cornell University. Brian lives in Tornado Alley with is wife and daughter. Please say hello on Facebook and read more about the CALYPSO DIRECTIVE.

Linda Rodriguez’s EVERY LAST SECRET (Minotaur Books), winner, Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, launches 4/24/12. For her poetry, Rodriguez received the Midwest Voices & Visions Award, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award; finalist, Eric Hoffer Book Award, KCArtsFund Inspiration Award, Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. She is a member of Latino Writers Collective, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, Kansas City Cherokee Community, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime.

Linda and her novel, EVERY LAST SECRET, are featured in the April edition of TheBigThrill.

James Conway is a pseudonym for a hedge fund insider and a global creative director at a major advertising firm. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/@ByJamesConway or JamesConwayBooks@gmail.com

William Todd Rose was named by The Google+ Insider’s Guide as one of their top 32 authors to follow. He writes speculative fiction that lends itself to the dark, and often surreal, realm of the macabre. For more information, including links to free fiction, please visit his website.

William Todd Rose was featured in TheBigThrill’s April edition. Click here to learn more.

Latest posts by ITW (see all)
  1. Certain thriller sub-genres call for a more traditional, Joseph Campbell-friendly type of resolution in which the hero saves the day, gets the object of her romantic attention and returns to a better, slightly changed world and some semblance of normalcy. I imagine that if an author who consistently writes this sort of book for a dedicated readership were to suddenly leave a key plot element unresolved, or fade to black after an unexpected or dark twist, or write with an altogether different sensibility, his or her readership would be left unsatisfied and confused and less inclined to read that author’s next offering. But there are as many types of reader as there are ways to write a thriller, readers for every possible voice and mood, scenario, hero, villain and ending. Some readers seek and expect Hollywood endings, and others crave non-traditional, unexpected, often darker stories and denouements. However, all readers demand some level of satisfaction from the stories they read. Sometimes it comes from a Hollywood ending (which, by the way, is incredibly difficult to pull off in a plausible, satisfying way), sometimes from a stunning surprise and others from the deeper human truths revealed at the culmination of a tale. If it’s dark, so be it. I love great noir, and by great I mean incredibly well done and satisfying up to the final page. If there is a word I have a problem with in the topic sentence above it’s “ambiguous”. I don’t know that I could write a satisfying thriller with an ambiguous ending. Slightly open ended where the reader sees that there’s more to this tale, but this part of it is over…yes, I can see that. But ambiguous, which is synonymous with inexplicable? I don’t think I could write or enjoy a tale that ends like that.

  2. Ernest Hemingway’s novel FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS has stuck with me since I was a teenager, in large part because of its very un-Hollywood ending. The story concludes with Hemingway’s character Robert Jordan in a moment of relative quiet, weapon at the ready. You know he’s about to fire that weapon. You also know he’s toast. But Hemingway doesn’t need to tell you that explicitly. So much of his strength as a writer derives from what he leaves unsaid. The strength of the English language lies in understatement, and nobody understood that better than Hemingway.

    I drew inspiration from Hemingway when I wrote the ending to my debut novel, THE MULLAH’S STORM. Without giving too much away I’ll just tell you that it ends with my main character, Michael Parson, also in a moment of relative quiet, waiting to fire. His situation is just a little more hopeful than Robert Jordan’s, but his fate remains in doubt. I wanted the reader to think about what was most important to Parson: he had completed his mission. Everything else–even his own life–came second. Like many real-world military people, he knew he was expendable, and he was prepared to die for his friends and his cause.

    The novels I have written since then–SILENT ENEMY (2011) and THE RENEGADES (coming July 2012)–have more definitive, conclusive endings. The narrative arcs led naturally to endings with more finality. But does that mean I’d never again write an ending like that of The Mullah’s Storm? Not necessarily. It all depends on the story. Art imitates life. And life’s events (military missions in particular!) don’t always end with the perfect coda, ready to cut to commercial.

    An ending can do a lot of things: It can wrap up the story once and for all. It can serve as a cliffhanger leading to a sequel. It can make a thesis statement. The ultimate question is this: What final thought do you want to leave with your readers?

  3. The movies Hollywood puts out does have an effect on reader expectations, both positively and negatively. The compact nature of movies and the ease in which they are experienced have made for a generation that is story-savvy. They understand story structure, character arcs and archetypes, the importance of conflict, etc. I think they are better able to articulate the things they like and don’t like about a particular story than previous generations. They’ve been exposed to intelligent twists and reversals and surprises, and that’s one thing they’ve come to expect more from books because of Hollywood’s influence. I think we’re seeing fewer character studies in thrillers and more attention to surprised twists and unexpected ending. Nothing wrong with that; but it is happening.

    While Hollywood films are prone to happy endings, that’s not always the case (Easy Rider, Chronicle, The Departed). James, I agree with you, that it’s less a matter of whether an ending is happy or depressing, as long as it’s satisfying. I also agree about the word “ambiguous.” I struggle with it in this context, and it’s something I don’t think many people want in stories, regardless of medium. Every now and then, it works, but usually, if you have readers or viewers saying, “I don’t understand the end,” and “”What happened?” it’s not going to be embraced by the masses. (Not that everything needs to be; just kind of making popular success a baseline.)

    Some genres and authors have reputations for bleak endings. If readers continue reading these genres and authors, then they’ve voted: Dark endings are ok. An author who bucks the trend of what’s come before in a particular genre or even his/her own oeuvre may get readers riled up. For the most part, I think readers will accept either a happy ending or a dark one…and long as it’s both surprising and inevitable.

  4. When I first read about this topic, I thought, “I know something about this one.” I’ve been a member of the Romance Writers of America for almost ten years now, and a “happily ever after” (HEA) ending is not only expected, it’s a given for this genre. On its Webpage, the organization defines a romance novel as having an “emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.” The couple, after much conflict and struggle, are united and rewarded with each other’s love.

    On the other hand, literary fiction can have the darker, ambiguous ending. When Sue Monk Kidd concluded her book The Secret Life of Bees, she was concerned the ending was too optimistic and didn’t fit the literary novel.

    Even movie scripts have explored this difference. In the 2006 movie Stranger than Fiction, Will Ferrell portrays an IRS auditor who hears a woman narrating his actions and thoughts. After consulting several doctors, he’s sent to an English professor who helps him determine the narrator is Karen Eiffel, a famous author, and he is the character in her latest novel. Just as his life is finally taking a turn after meeting Ana Pascal (the owner of a small bakery he is sent to audit), his days are numbered. Eiffel’s main character always dies in the end, and he will meet the same fate—as soon as Eiffel can figure out how. Will Ferrell’s love story deserved the anticipated happy ending that being in a literary novel would deny him.

    I believe it is the genre that more defines the ending than Hollywood. Readers have expectations based on the type of book they are reading—the most obvious being romance, but a mystery with no solution at the end would have readers throwing their copies against a wall.

  5. I grew up watching westerns and sci-fi movies. Never missed Randolph Scott or a good creature feature. Back then, the hero (Randolph) always won, and the creature (Frankenstein, Wolfman, Godzilla, The Thing, take your pick) always got whacked in the end. Everyone lived happily ever after. The same went for books. Bond, James Bond, never lost and rarely had a hair out of place. Atticus stopped a grave injustice. Professor Lidenbrock and crew returned from the center of the Earth without a scratch but with a stock of outlandish stories.

    In modern fiction, the characters are often more complex (less Dudley Do-Right good) and their victories are not so complete. Elmore Leonard’s characters are flawed to the max, Easy Rawlins’ side-kick Mouse will kill you in a heartbeat, and No Country For Old Men speaks for itself. And let’s not forget one of the all-time great villains—Hannibal Lecter. He was cultured, refined, gracious, charming and was schooled in art, architecture, literature, food, wine, and science—a true Renaissance man. He just happened to eat folks. He would have made an excellent dinner companion—unless you were on the menu.

    Modern fiction can be much more ambiguous in both character and outcome. The good guys aren’t always that good and don’t always win and the bad guys often have many redeeming qualities.

  6. I think it really depends on the book. If it’s a thriller that focuses on the efforts of a hero saving the world from nuclear devastation, for example, the reader would most likely feel cheated if things didn’t turn out okay in the end. Unless the author really worked his butt off to ensure otherwise, everything leading up to total destruction would probably seem pointless. On the other hand, however, darker pieces can pull off darker endings without the reader feeling as though someone has pulled a fast one.

    My own work tends to lean toward very dark themes and topics; as a result, I’ve never really written a happily-ever-after ending to a book. That’s not to say that nothing is resolved. It’s just that the resolution can often come in unexpected ways and those who read my books understand this, I think. In fact, with one of my novels, The Dead and Dying, I laid all of my cards on the table right from the beginning: one of my narrators was mortally wounded with no hope whatsoever of survival and the other two were already dead. So it was apparent from page one that no one was going to ride off into the sunset.

  7. I think there’s a trend in today’s literature for darker endings. The types of books that are popular in any given period are generally a reflection of the hopeful vs. angst level of the population. Look at The Hunger Games. Beautifully constructed, engaging…bleak. Or George RR Martin’s outrageously popular series, Game of Thrones. It’s the neverending story and each subending seems to grow darker and darker. Resolutions seems to come only with a particular character’s death. But we’re eating it up.

    That’s not to say that HEA is not sought after. It is. Romance remains robust. But I think readers know where to go to get their happy endings. They’ll choose stories by what they expect from the author. I’m also a member of RWA and try to keep my romance novels within a reasonable parameter of a Happily Ever After, but in a real-life context. Yes, the two main characters will be together, but they’re joined in acknowledging that challenges lay ahead. I think that’s where we are as a society and it is definitely mirrored in our lit culture choices.

    In my opinion, Happily Ever Afters will never go out of style. These days, though, the saturation of the happily seems to be more pragmatic than exuberant.

  8. I have to agree with you that the romance industry is very robust. The RWA Website includes sales statistics for the major genres, and romance is head and shoulders above the rest with $1.36 billion in 2010, compared to $682 million for mystery. I’ve heard, but don’t know the basis for it, that when the economy is bad, more books–in particular, more optimistic ones such as romance–are sold.

    For myself, I enjoy a good thriller or mystery. I was a big fan of Nancy Drew way back.

  9. You’re definitely right about the romance industry, Liese. And I do think there’s a distinction to be made between how happy an ending there tends to be between thriller vs. romance. One of my favorite authors in thriller is Jo Nesbo, and his character Harry Hole is certainly not an HEA kind of guy. That’s part of what I like about him, and many other thrillers I read. At the same time, if I’m in the mood for a straight-up, embracing-white-teeth-sparkling kind of ending, I’ll head to the virtual aisles of romance titles.

  10. Since I write horror, I would like to approach this topic from the perspective of this genre.
    It seems to me that horror movies, lately, are taking a darker, more ambiguous path rather than wrapping everything up in a pretty box with a big bow. Look at Saw, Final Destination, Feed, Irreversible, Human Centipede, Strange Land, and many others. In these movies, even if the protagonist wins, they do not walk away unscathed, undamaged.

    When I read horror, I don’t expect a happy end for the characters. In fact, a happy ending, in these stories, often feels forced. After experiencing something traumatic, if the characters walk away with smiles, looking into the sunrise at a new day, it isn’t real. So, whether or not readers are expecting a Hollywood ending and what, exactly, a Hollywood ending entails, depends largely on the genre.

    As a reader and a writer, I prefer the darker, more ambiguous path. That isn’t to say I haven’t had my happy endings. If the story warrants one, I give it one. But I never force the ending to make my reader feel warm and fuzzy in the end. Horror isn’t about feeling warm and fuzzy. It’s about feeling horrified. The ending should be true to the work. Anything less is a disappointment.

  11. I think Liese is right that the genre places more restrictions on the ending than movies. Certainly if you’ve written a mystery, you gotta resolve that mystery. Beyond that, however, I believe MOST readers will accept anything that makes sense within the context of the story. (I once heard a writing teacher say you can break any rule–as long as you know the rule and you understand why you’re breaking it.)

  12. I think in crime fiction we’ve a broader spectrum of acceptable endings than in a genre such as romance. Nonetheless, i agree that an ambiguous ending is likely to fall flat with readers. “Ambiguous” is defined as “unclear or inexact because a choice between alternatives has not been made,” and that definition carries a lot warning flags for a writer. “Unclear or inexact” is never good in fiction, and a writer who avoids making a choice between alternatives is making a (perhaps unintended) choice to turn readers off. Readers will follow a well-written narrative almost anywhere, even sometimes to places that make them feel uneasy or troubled, but they have to feel the writer is in charge, that s/he is their pilot through sometimes frightening territory. No one wants a pilot who can’t decide on which path to take. No reader will continue to follow such a writer.

  13. Can’t believe I screwed this up. I thought the roundtable began tomorrow instead of last week. At least I can get in on the end of the conversation. Apologies all around. I think “happily ever after” appeals to certain people when they’re in certain moods. If you described a scenario that could go either way, I believe half would take the happy ending, half the sad. Don’t forget that the cynic is often labelled a disappointed romantic… what would make him or her change his cynical point of view to a happy ever after one? I often think about that. Depending whether I’m feeling cynical or optimistic, I might end a story one way — then again I might end it another. I think the most satisfying endings are both. For example, justice is done (ie the main bad guy is caught, or the 2nd badass is caught, but one of them goes free, just to remind us that evil is never permanently banished. I’ve done that in many of my books. It also gives me the possibility of catching the guy who got away in a later work. In fact, I’m planning to do that now, in a new thriller.

    Again, apologies for seeming to blow this off. I must have really been on the moon this week.

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