Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Accidental Allegory

I loved all the great comments from Monday's post on happy endings!  You guys have put a lot of thought into this.  I'm sorry I didn't get back to everyone.  Yesterday was my birthday and I decided to take the day off from the internet.  But I'm going to answer here!

I'm not against happy endings.  In fact, I'd have to say I like them as much as the next person.  The thing is this: I think human beings are very impressionable, and when we start putting happy endings on everything no matter the content, we can start to think that that's how the world works.  And when we try to write something that represents reality, we should try to stay as true to that reality as possible.

I recently read a book that, though very well written, it just didn't jive with me.  The MC kept on making bad, life-altering decisions that, if done in the real world, might have potentially (and most likely would have) destroyed her.  But instead of destroying her, these bad decisions ultimately worked out in her favor.  When you write a story like that, you risk convincing your readers that bad decisions don't have consequences.

We as writers can try to convince ourselves that we write to entertain, not educate or sway, but it's not as simple as that.

And here's the tie-in to the title of this post!

Despite all our intents to simply write an entertaining story, we usually end up with an accidental allegory.  Whatever we write, we put our own life views, morals, and (sometimes) even politics into it.  These things are so ingrained into who we are that it's almost impossible to keep them OUT of our stories.

Perhaps it's not as obvious or clear-cut as works that are intended allegory, such as C.S. Lewis's THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA series, which was written with the intent to teach children the Gospel.  However, despite our ideas otherwise, our readers will ingest our words and be affected by them.  If most books that are published feature a group of people who are portrayed as bad, chances are people will start to think that group of people really is bad.  If most books end happily despite the severity of the content, readers can start to think that Human Will can overcome all the bad in life.

Sadly, I've known people whose lives have been ruined or they've actually died because of bad choices made when  they were teenagers.  Unfortunately, they didn't get the happy endings so many things teach us they should have had.

Now, I know the argument that there's so much pain in this world already, we should write stories to give people a release from that.  And I agree with that argument.  The problem isn't that there are happy endings out there, it's that ALL (if not the vast majority of) stories out there seem to end happily.  Sometimes we need an escape, but sometimes we also need a wake-up call.

So, what do you dear readers think?  Can you think of something you've read recently that really made you think?  How about a book where the author's views on the world were more obvious than other books you've read?


  1. funny thing about chronicles... i remember reading a book when i was in high school about raising children and the influences that effect them... and the author discussed this same thing. he told of his daughter reading chronicles as a child, and then later when she went off to college, she took a class on world religions. talking with her father one day, she asked him if he knew that christianity is a lot like chronicles? to which he replied, "yeah, honey that was kind of the point." but you see, the story stuck with her, without knowing the religion... even as an intentional allegory, the audience wasn't reading it for that purpose, but they still got the point.
    i think it is important to think about the stories we write and the impact of the views and morals portrayed within them.
    and while i think that accountability and consequences should come organically within stories as they do in life, i also believe that grace, redemption, forgiveness, and repentance can be beautiful and life-echoing occurence that happen organically in stories as well. there are poor decisions people make in life that can make them sick or present challenges or even take their lives away, but there is always an opportunity to seek to change ways... sometimes by the end of someone;s life they have never chosed to do good things... ever. and then there is a tragic ending (which according to individual belief systems may not really be an ending either) but there is hope for other people in the world left behind in the book... man alive! this new medicine has my thoughts all scrambled! but, i guess what i'm saying is that you have a really interesting concept here, and you made me think! (owww!) :)
    and btw,
    *digital birthday cake coming your way!!!*
    (are you 27 or 28 now??)

  2. I read books and watch movies to escape reality, so I prefer the happy endings.

    HAPPY belated BIRTHDAY!!! :)

  3. I am so with you. I like books--especially in the YA genre--to be true to life. If you make bad decisions/act badly, there should be a consequence. Does that mean that every teenager who texts while driving gets in a major car accident? No. Some bad behavior doesn't get punished. But it should still be true to life. The possibility should be there.

    I'm all about the ambiguous, not-so-happy ending. I want to FEEL when I read, and what's more emotional that real life? Where everything is not rainbows and sunshine and kittens. You know?

  4. I like happy endings with a touch of sadness, pain, or trepidation. This might not be true to life, but it fulfill's a reader's craving for hope, but doesn't taste too sweet to be real. My own novel follows this path where things end on an upbeat, but don't go exactly as planned. The hero beats the bad guy, but loses some friends, gets the girl, but they can never go home again, wins the day, but some beasties get away.

    Thanks for following me too Ü
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  5. HAPPY B-DAY, EMILY, I hope someone jumped out of your cake ;)

  6. scantily clad off course, bearing presents :)

  7. I totally see your point on this! Characters who make bad choices should not get off easy or have everything handed to them. Ugh, that's today's mentality (sit around and have everything handed to you in society, w/ no hard work). I do like my happy endings, but I want my character to have earned that happy ending, and have changed in some way. To overcome their conflicts, flaws, and disadvantages. :)

  8. I can't speak for other writers but I've always felt that one of my duties as a writer is to write stories that pass on wisdom to the reader. Whether this wisdom is expressed through a happy ending or a tragic one, what matters is that the message is communicated in the best way. If I ignored all of this in favour of giving the reader a happy ending no matter what then I wouldn't be doing my job of passing on wisdom. I'd be a failure as a writer.

    So I do agree with your point on how there are some stories out there that frustrate me because then characters make bad decisions it doesn't make sense that everything works out in the end.


  9. Charlie--your description of how you end your book made me think of THE MAZE RUNNER. That book had such a bittersweet ending that was utterly perfect.

    Thanks for your comment!

  10. I'm with you on this. I like happy endings sometimes, but equally, I hate it when things just seem to work out despite ridiculous odds and poor decisions. Another thing I dislike is when the author sets things up so that if the character makes a certain choice there will be a tough road ahead, and the character makes that choice, and the road is mysteriously not tough at all. I don't bother to finish reading books that do that.

    I never knew that about the Narnia books. My son is reading them now, and I've been planning to re-read them with him. I'll have to see how knowing that changes how I see the stories now.

    Following on from that, I had a conversation not too long ago with a writer-friend who was of the opinion that a book doesn't necessarily have to reflect the author's viewpoint, as long as the messages in the book are true to the story. But what does it mean for us if we write a story that ultimately has a moral message (however deeply buried it is) that conflicts with our own? Good things to think about here. (I feel a blog post coming on.)

  11. Sometimes I love a HEA, but I don't think I could read them all the time.

    A book I read recently that really made me think was The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith. It doesn't have what I would call a happy ending, but I found it right for the story.

  12. I think it's important not to use any literary device for the sake of using it, including "happy endings" or "sad endings". It's always most important to stay true to the story. If the story is one that naturally ends happily, then wonderful. If it will naturally end in tragedy, then so be it. If it's a more realistic story that ends somewhere in between, then all well and good. But none of those things should be done just for the sake of doing them. For myself anyway, if a story feels like the author sat down and said, "I'm going to write a story with this device or this gimmick" and then fashioned the story around it, I won't enjoy it as much. It won't feel genuine. Happy endings can be just as genuine as sad endings depending on what comes before them. The story is what should always come first.


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