It isn't a trick question. I've probably been spending too much time pouring over story lines. Books, movies, series, theater; they all have so many different kinds of endings to offer. Happily ever after. Is it only one scenario? The hero and heroine live on in their peaceful and beautiful world, never to face another shadow or doubt again? It's a lovely idea. And there are lots of those story lines out there. But is that the only ending a telling must have in order to be considered a good story?
It seemed that way while growing up. Bad conquered, good saves the day, sunshine and happiness all around. That doesn't mean the hero doesn't face any hardships. What would a story be without angst? The hero grows and overcomes. He learns. Adapts. Evolves. Or, does he? What if he doesn't give an inch? What if he sticks to his stubborn yet proven ways and manages to wrap everything up in a pretty bow and sprinkle it with glitter. It can still be entertaining and have a moral to take in. And sometimes it isn't the hero who reaches your heart. Supporting characters have a way of stealing the show with their quirks and antics. That always adds to the deal.
Then there's the other kind of conclusion. Maybe the hero risks it all, suffers throughout, and still comes out victorious. What was his price? What did he have to sacrifice? Will he carry a permanent scar around for the rest of his life to remind him and those who walk with him of what they've gone through? Does the hero have to be saved? Was he a hero to begin with? The stories where the main character is happy being a tiny pixel in a much bigger picture, but he's dragged into a situation - whether it's kicking and screaming or with his head held high - and goes through an experience that changes him. It teaches him even the smallest of pixels can be touched, torn, bruised, and loved. Not all heroes begin on the good side. Not all heroes are brave. The hero may not always be right.
I bring this up because the majority of the stories I've taken in as of late ended without the happily ever after those familiar and comforting stories have. But somehow, there is still comfort in there. The sacrifice mentioned earlier, was it more than he realized? Once he pays the price, is there a tax thrown in to kick him while he's down? Heroes come in all shapes, sizes, strengths, and with a variety of clever or cunning moves. Even still, how does he measure success? What does he see as a win? It can be as simple as seeing the innocent smile or stop a single person's pain. Then again, it can be something much bigger. Multiple lives are saved, maybe even the world. He paves the way for denizens to live on in an improved state. Does that make it a good story? Is that a happy ending. Now, what if the hero accomplishes all this and is unable to save himself? Do heroes always win? What would you consider a win?
I won't give examples of books or movies that have the less than "happily ever after" ending in case of spoiling their stories. All did not end well, but the problem is resolved, peace is able to prevail. Is it still a happy ending?
Admission: There are WiP's in my possession that do not have the "happily ever after" ending. The troublesome elements are conquered or capped, but not everyone goes home, not everyone gets what they want. Some pay a bigger price than others. While each and every character has a name and face in my mind, and I am fond of most of them, that doesn't give them a free pass. A part of me wonders if there is something messed up on my end that allows my heroes to suffer and fall. The guy doesn't always get the girl, or vice versa. Does that taint a story? Does it take away from its overall appeal?
Yes, it is saddening when the hero or supporting characters suffers losses in a story. But isn't that what makes them stronger? Isn't that what sets them apart from others? There are a few books and movies I've walked away from mad because of the hero or heroine making the ultimate sacrifice. Even still, I have to admit they captured my attention and took hold of my heart nonetheless.
As long as the hero remains a hero.