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In this answer, Amadeus makes the case for happy endings based on their far greater popularity compared to unhappy endings.

This leads me to wonder, what exactly makes an ending "happy"?

Before I go further, though, let me say that talking about a "satisfactory" ending doesn't address this question. Let's take it as read that both happy ending and sad endings can be "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory". My question is, among satisfactory endings, what, for purpose of assessing the market potential of a piece of fiction, defines a "happy" as opposed to a "sad" ending.

Let us also take it as read that books with unhappy endings can and do sell well sometimes. But it would certainly seem that the deck is stacked against them.

The quintessential happy ending is Cinderella. Poor girl goes to dance, marries prince, lives happily ever after. Cindy is clearly better off in every way at the end of the story than she was at the beginning.

But what about Lord of the Rings, in which Sauron is defeated and the Shire restored but Frodo is so crippled by his trials that he can never live happily in the Shire again, but must pass over the sea from the Grey Havens. Frodo is not better off at the end than he was at the beginning (except perhaps in the religious sense of having achieved a heavenly reward). Is that a happy ending?

What about an ending in which our hero dies saving the world (Tony Stark in End Game, for the sake of an example that is likely to be widely known). Is that a happy ending?

Is any ending in which the protagonist experiences a moral triumph, regardless of their physical or emotional circumstances an happy ending?

Given a story in which the heroine does something very wrong which causes several deaths, but then makes a sacrifice that prevents something even worse from happening. Would you say that that is a happy ending? (This one is personal for me.)

Or do we need it to be "happily ever after"?

I am sure we all have our personal preferences, but is there any psychological or commercial theory or study that would define what "happy ending" means for the publishing industry and/or the reading public.

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    If we're using the classic fairy tales as examples of happy endings, it's worth noting that the classic Cinderella "happy ending" involves plucking out the eyes of her sisters (pitt.edu/~dash/grimm021.html), and the ending of Snow-white involves the queen being tortured to death (pitt.edu/~dash/grimm053.html). And the endings are IMHO still considered happy even in these original Grimm versions; with poetic justice being served and rightful order restored. – Peteris Sep 6 at 11:56
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A happy ending is about the emotional response the work as a whole evokes in the reader (or viewer).

A sad ending or any other type would be the same. It's the state you've reduced the audience to at the end.

There are no quantitative measures because no one's journey involves ticking boxes. Every story, no matter how simplified, will have good and bad in it. Taking your example of Cinderella, Disney and other mainstream versions are pretty much the definition of a movie with a happy ending. Yet even children can see the sad parts.

  • Cinderella has to leave the home she grew up in, with her memories of her deceased parents. While most girls of that era expected that to happen upon marriage, in her case she can't go back and visit.
  • She must give up on any hope of winning the love of her stepmother and stepsisters on her own merit (any positive gesture they make she will assume (usually correctly) comes from their motivation to please her now that she is a princess destined to be their Queen).
  • In some versions (not Disney), the stepsisters are badly mutilated (by their own choice, but it's still sad and awful). In Disney's version, their end may be unsatisfying because they're shown up but not punished for their and their mother's wicked deeds.
  • The cat dies. He may have been stuck up and naughty, but murder (arranging for him to fall to his death) is a pretty gruesome end.

Yet we the viewers don't think about any of that. At the forefront is the joy of Cinderella "winning" and finding her true love and getting the hell out of there. Our joy is what makes it a happy ending. Not every viewer will feel the same way, but enough will consider this ending happy that we can safely call it that.

In cases where the work is more complex, with both happy and sad outcomes, we refer to the ending as mixed as well. Your quintessential happy ending usually comes in works for children or families, genres where that's expected (like Romance), or anything aiming for a "feel good" style. While the work can be nuanced or simplistic, it's generally the latter.

Audiences might say such a work "had a happy ending, but it was so sad" or something like that. Sometimes the happy ending style doesn't fit, even if the characters accomplished their goals and/or saved the world.

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    This is an interesting approach to the question. Essentially I think you are saying that a happy ending is not one in which the protagonist ends up happy, but one in which the audience ends up happy. You may be on to something, but the difficulty is the obvious subjectivity of the definition. Lots of books that end happy make me unhappy because they were bad books and I wasted my time reading them. Others end tragically but make me feel happy because they were brilliant. – user16226 Sep 6 at 3:37
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    @MarkBaker I wouldn't say a happy ending is where the audience ends up happy but, rather, where the storyline evokes happiness in the audience (or the audience recognizes the attempt, even if they don't find it successful). The reader or viewer does not actually have to be happy, it's more about feeling the happiness of the storyline, if that makes sense. – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 6 at 4:31
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A happy ending is one in which the world is configured in accordance with the values of the protagonist (and their companions and other sympathetic characters). The more the state of the world matches the values of the protagonist (etc.), the happier the ending. Maybe the ending is also happier the greater the value difference between initial and final conditions.

Frodo's fate in Lord of the Rings is somewhat mixed: he saved the Shire, something he values, but at great personal cost—both during and after his adventure—something which goes against his values.

Likewise Bruce Willis' character in Armageddon: he sacrifices his life, a great loss of value, to ensure his daughter the kind of future he wants her to have, something of greater value to him.

To convey the way the characters evaluate the final state of the world to the audience, I think the characters must have been seen to act on the relevant values.

Frodo has been seen to care about the safety of the Shire and the danger posed by Sauron. Bruce Willis' Armageddon character has been seen caring about his daughter. It's clear that something of value has been gained to them.

It's also clear that something of value has been lost to both, and the relative magnitude of the values are not clear, hence the endings are arguably of ambiguous valence.

  • This is my favorite answer so far. I really like the formulation that the world is configured in accordance with the values of the protagonist, because, of course, the values of the protagonist do not have to include their own life of prosperity. We can had a selfless hero who wins in the sense that he brings the world back into conformance with his values, even though it costs him his life. In that sense, though, I would disagree with how you apply the principle to the examples. Bruce and Frodo do bring the world back into conformance with their values, so the endings are not mixed. – user16226 Sep 6 at 22:26
  • The outstanding part of the question, though, is whether this is a commercially reliable definition of a happy ending. If my story has an ending in which my heroine has, through recklessness, caused death, loss of treasure, and loss of safety, and she then does the best she can to stop things getting even worse (which -- spoilers -- it does), this would seem to constitute bringing the world as much into conformance with her values as is still possible. Can I call that a happy ending, and will an agent, editory, or producer agree? – user16226 Sep 6 at 22:30
  • Here's a principle of economics, "revealed preference": it states that if two options A and B are available to some agent and the agent chooses A, one can reasonably infer that the agent prefers A to B. In Armageddon, Willis' character clearly has the choice of not sacrificing his life, so we infer the sacrifice is preferred to not making it. It's less clear about Frodo, because Frodo could not have known the full ramifications of his quest. OTOH, he went on it with a "come hell or high water" attitude, so he accepts the bad consequences. So yeah, they're less ambiguous than at first blush. – Jonas Kölker Sep 7 at 22:10
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Frodo had a happy ending. He stopped apocalypse, saved his friends, his people and the world, and then gained admission to the Undying land.

Tony Stark in End Game is a happy ending. He completed his journey with a heroic sacrifice. Though it was kind of an unnecessary sacrifice, as Magical Marvel should have been able to snap her finger and save the universe herself, without dying.

Cinderella's is not just a happy ending, it is a fairy tale ending (a specific type of happy ending)

I think a happy ending is an ending with where the character grew and the quest fulfilled. Amadeus (in the movie with the same name) had genius. But he didn't grow, and his life was cut short and the world was poorer for it.

Death itself does not an unhappy ending make. Everyone dies in the end, even elves and Cinderella.

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The protagonist(s) win/s, the antagonist(s) is/are defeated (even temporarily), and the reader can imagine the protagonists continuing on to other adventures, or with their lives, in some positive way.

  • I would argue that Endgame is a mixed ending, not a happy one, specifically because not all the protagonists win and get to continue on (Tony, Natasha, Vision, Loki, Heimdall).
  • Avengers has a happy ending.
  • Armageddon is mixed because Bruce Willis's character dies, even if his daughter is safe.
  • LOTR as a trilogy — you know, I was going to say it has a happy ending, even if it has some bittersweet notes, because the elves and Ring-Bearers (plus Legolas and Gimli) who depart go on to the West and become immortal. (Arwen and Aragorn, long-lived but mortal, are bittersweet: they do go on with their lives, but their lives are not infinite.) But we lose Boromir and Thèoden. I guess that could be argued either way.
  • The Hobbit is more mixed because so many of the dwarves die.
  • Cinderella is a fairy tale and does not have to adhere to modern narrative structures.

Given a story in which the heroine does something very wrong which causes several deaths, but then makes a sacrifice that prevents something even worse from happening. Would you say that that is a happy ending? (This one is personal for me.)

I wouldn't call that a happy ending if her sacrifice ends in her death. It may be satisfying, karmic, or redemptive, but the character herself doesn't get to continue on.

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The pragmatic "Hollywood" answer is a film has a happy ending if it leaves room for a sequel. Although Tony Stark dies, they did have sequels with him, and in this particular case, another Iron Man could arise (just like when 007 gets tired), or a prequel, etc.

I get that "satisfied" is a squishy term, but probably because it can depend on the genre. A Romantic Comedy that doesn't end with a couple together is not a happy ending, a spy thriller that doesn't end with a couple together can be happy, if they stopped the villain.

Bruce Willis in Armageddon is a borderline example: There is no real room for a sequel or prequel, but it is a "happy ending" because he dies saving the world, and more specifically his crew of friends, and even more specifically, above all, his daughter, on screen to the moment he triggers the nuclear bomb he's sitting on.

We accept this death because (a) he chose it, and (b) he prevails and saves his child, along with eight billion other people. He did not fail. The villain (the asteroid) is irrecoverably dead.

In the Lord of the Rings, the villain is defeated. Frodo is not better off, but the world is. Like Willis in Armageddon, his sacrifice is appreciated. And in his case, Hollywood could argue there is still room for a sequel, many adventures could be told in Middle Earth with other characters.

Is any ending in which the protagonist experiences a moral triumph, regardless of their physical or emotional circumstances a happy ending?

Almost, but it depends on the audience's expectations. A Romantic comedy that ends in the death of one of the Leads is not a happy ending, forget moral triumph. In a comedy, there can be deaths, but I can't think of an instance in which the MC dies. You have to leave 'em laughing, or at least grinning.

Given a story in which the heroine does something very wrong which causes several deaths, but then makes a sacrifice that prevents something even worse from happening. Would you say that that is a happy ending? (This one is personal for me.)

That would be a redemption drama; and that could absolutely be a happy ending. Somebody did something unforgiveable, especially to her, but when the time and opportunity came she found the courage to balance the scales. Despite the toll she took on humanity, in the end her life did us more good than harm, because she sacrificed.

Or do we need it to be "happily ever after"?

No. Using your last example, or Armageddon, I think the Happy Ending is that in some way, the world is collectively better off that the MC was there. Even if that is for just one person, like in a romantic comedy. The world is a better place for two people in love, than not in love; no moral triumph needed.

As for publishing and Hollywood, I think the "sequel", "prequel", or "new adventure" angle (e.g. 007, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes is nearly always a new adventure, not a sequel or prequel) is definitely a part of their thinking. One-off films are produced and can be blockbusters (e.g. The Sixth Sense), so just "story power" is a part of it, but if there is the potential for a follow up with the character(s) it does makes the work more attractive. And "happy ending" means the audience feels good about the MC, not angry at the outcome.

3

The way I see it:

It's not about whether the the protagonist(s) are happy or unhappy at the end; it's about whether they've succeeded or failed.

Most stories involve the protagonist(s) having difficulties to overcome, problems to solve, situations to deal with, goals to be achieved (whether those are becoming king, becoming wiser and more mature, staying alive, or whatever).

If they manage to overcome the difficulties, solve the problems, deal with the situations, or achieve their goals, then the story has been worthwhile (for them): their struggle has left them better-off than if they'd failed (or hadn't tried).

They may not be ecstatically happy at the end, but they're at least likely to be more happy than they otherwise would.

At the end of The Lord Of The Rings, while the Shire has been scoured, Frodo has deep scars, Boromir is dead, and things are in many ways worse than at the start, things are far better than they would have been had Sauron won the War Of The Ring: the peoples of Middle Earth are not enslaved and (mostly) still alive, whole lands haven't been devastated, etc.  So there's a relative happiness.

Of course, sometimes protagonists have multiple goals between them, and they don't (perhaps even can't) all succeed.  So there may be partial success, and partial failure — which may be considered a ‘bittersweet’ ending.

For example, in Casablanca, Rick doesn't end up with Ilsa; but he does achieve some degree of closure to that relationship, and discovers himself to be a little nobler than he thought.  Ilsa and Victor do make the plane to Lisbon (presumably to continue their work with the Resistance), though the war would continue for several more years.  So partial success, and some satisfaction to counter the immediate sadness.

(Conversely, had Ilsa stayed with Rick, they'd have been happy at the time, but it wouldn't have been as satisfying an ending, as we — and, sooner or later, they — would know that it was at the cost of supporting the greater struggle, hence a greater failure.)

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I'm by no means an expert, so take this answer as opinion. But here's my take all the same.

The way I view this is: what does the ending achieve?

If in the case of Cinderella she marries the prince, has the life she deserves (since she was the 'true heiress' of her father's land and titles), but she's a lesbian? This isn't a happy ending, but merely not a tragedy. Conversely, if Cinderella is a lesbian and simply gets out from under the oppressive step mother and step sisters? This could also be a happy ending, while not giving her the ticket to easy street.

So, I would argue that a 'happily ever after', or 'happy for now' is more a personal journey for the main character. If their journey is to escape poverty and the story ends with them getting a job that would support their lifestyle (meagrely or comfortably), would be a happy ending.

However, if the journey is to not starve and they wind up in prison, where they have a roof over their head and three square meals a day? They aren't starving, but calling it 'happy' is debatable at best.

From the reader's perspective, I would argue that the HEA/HFN ending is the one that makes them think the main character is going to be okay. Maybe not the lottery ticket they hoped for, but they can close the book secure in the knowledge the main character is either on the road to their promised land, or already in customs being screened before being allowed in.

As long as it's earned in the eyes of the reader and/or story. Whether from a narrative standpoint (they survived the war and deserve some peace like Frodo), from a character development standpoint (they grew past their defining character flaw that they've struggled with throughout the story), or from an optimistic 'I wish you the best' standpoint (like an underdog story where the reader wants them to become the champion of that otherwise pointless tournament).

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