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I'm in the final polishing stages of a novel and I have two endings that both blow me away and I feel are very, very strong.

Obviously, I can only have one ending. The story doesn't lend itself to a trick where I can write both into the book, but one of them turns out to be a dream and then the real one follows (I remember one or two stories like that). No, with my story and especially my protagonist that wouldn't work.

The problem is that they are opposite endings. One of them is a final turn towards the good, where after everything is lost and all scores settled, the POV MC at least is reunited with his lost love (lost her around the middle of the book, with the loss setting off most of the second part). Strong, happy ending.

The other ending also has him find her, but this time she reveals that those he hunted down and eliminated were actually her allies and she stayed hidden throughout the 2nd part of the book by her own choice because she wants to be as far away from him as possible. Fade to black, closing off all the loss and destruction with the only personal loss that actually matters to the MC. Strong, dark ending.

And I keep reading and re-reading them. I've settled on the dark ending for now, but the scales are pretty balanced and a tiny swing in mood could convince me that the happy ending is the better one. Both endings provide closure and finish the story so nothing else can be said. Both bring all character arcs and storylines to an end. Both provide closure for the reader. Both leave me personally satisfied, just in completely different ways.

I have a low number of test readers, so not a statistically significant sample to question.

Is there a tested and proven way to decide which ending to choose?

  • Are you set on only choosing 1 ending? It's possible to publish both (either by including the alternate ending in the book or posting it online). It's been done before - Tolstoy once wrote a story (The Devil) with an alternate ending when he couldn't decide whether the MC should kill himself or his mistress. – Evil Sparrow Mar 23 at 10:12
  • @EvilSparrow The story definitely needs one ending. I haven't made up my mind about posting the alternative ending in an appendix or something, but no matter how you slice it, I need to pick one to be the main one. – Tom Mar 23 at 11:00
  • How about mixing the two endings anyways? Let's say: the MC is reunited with his lost love, but having so much coped with the loss, now he wonders how he can love her as he did before, because things will never be the same. He had been so far in the mourning process that he nearly expected her to really be dead. Now he is filled with self-doubt and the future is uncertain for them. – kikirex Mar 23 at 13:09
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Do you wish to sell the book?

Happy endings outsell unhappy endings about 10 to 1. This has actually been studied to some extent, and the difference comes down to word-of-mouth: Even if people say they liked a book with an unhappy ending, they are much more reluctant to recommend it to friends, out of fear their friends won't like a downer ending.

Unhappy endings, like the one you describe, make the hero the reader has been identifying with feel like a fool and a stupid loser to not have realized the truth. Which is alienating to the reader, almost an insult. They read to identify with the hero as an escape from a life where nearly none of us are actual heroes, and an unhappy ending ruins the whole fantasy.

Agents know this, publishers know this, and they are less likely to represent or buy a book because of it. It means the book is much more unlikely to "go viral" with enthusiastic reviews, fans or celebrities recommending it, etc. All of that is free advertising they want and seek and try to encourage. Unhappy endings poison that well, and the sales studies prove it.

I am sure some geniuses have written best-sellers with unhappy endings, but those don't prove the averages wrong. In plays tragedies were once common. But that was in a very different social culture, and in the modern culture, most films and movies have happy endings, or at worst, consequences but net positive endings; i.e. evil was defeated but at a heavy price.

I'd go with the happy ending.

  • That is an extremely good point there. I should add that my POV MC is not a good hero archetype, but has some pretty dark sides and one of the reasons I like the dark ending is that he finally gets to pay his price, while throughout the book he largely managed to make others pay for his decisions. But yes, I want to sell the book. Maybe I should include both endings when pitching to agents and publishers? – Tom Mar 23 at 11:03
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    @Tom, read up on writing query letters and pitching. You don't discuss the ending at all! If you provide a synopsis or full manuscript, that can't be a "choose your ending" story, and I assure you they will choose the happy ending because they will make more money with it. They don't want "choices", their ideal client gives them a completely finished product they can start selling. Sorry to repeat this old advice, but "kill your darlings." Abandon your unhappy ending. If you want the MC to pay a price, work it in as a necessary penance before he gets the happy ending. – Amadeus Mar 23 at 11:39
  • Just to add a point, a good ending is not necessarily a satisfactory ending. – kikirex Mar 23 at 13:11
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    @kikirex I don't understand the distinction. If an ending is not satisfying, it isn't good. A reader judges the book "good" only if the ending is satisfying in some regard. I would say not every happy ending is satisfying, a happy ending may feel contrived, undeserved, or the characters may seem bizarrely happy considering the lives and friends recently lost. A happy ending cannot be just slapped on after a battle that killed half the people you love; some recovery period must be allowed. A good ending meets all these criteria, and is satisfying. – Amadeus Mar 23 at 14:04
  • @Amadeus My bad, I should have gone more into details, but we actually share the same point of view: a good ending for the characters are not necessarily a satisfactory ending for the reader. If Romeo and Juliet went together on a horse in the sunset, it would be good for them but it would be a bad, or worse, a forgettable ending for the readers. – kikirex Mar 23 at 14:26
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You may want to consider what the reader has been prepared for. What have you promised, either explicitly or not? Both endings might be strong to you, but I don’t know that a reader would be equally satisfied by both.

How can a main character betraying (as I read it) the other be as viable as a happy reunion? The story surely points one way or the other?

Are there small hints that she is allies with the bad guys, besides her disappearing? Does she come off as untrustworthy? If there aren’t, it will feel like unearned, cheap drama. (Like if Han ye-hawed in to shoot down Luke in Star Wars).

If there are hints, the happy ending may feel unsavory.

Also, at the beginning of the story, is the question of betrayal brought up? Is it a hopelessly dark story, or is there a promise of a hard fought happiness and optimism?

I think the character arcs and story must be very ambiguous for both endings to be viable. You might be too close to the story to make an unbiased assessment. I’d suggest finding a couple readers to read the first half and ask them if they want or expect a more happy or more dark ending. If they want a certain type of ending, that will be the satisying ending. If they expect one, that’s what the story is leading to.

  • That last is a very practical hint, thank you. I could withold the ending from a few test readers and ask for their expectations. Didn't think of that. – Tom Mar 24 at 6:34

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