What makes for a happy ending?
I think it depends on when the story finishes. I think it all comes down to the exact moment when whoever is telling the story chooses to say or write, "The End," thereby sending us—those following the story—back into the ordinary world to continue on with our ordinary lives, at least until we find another story to lose ourselves in.
And it's a mercy when the storyteller gets that decision right.
It's a mercy because we can watch as the hero and the heroine ride off into the sunset together; we can observe the bad guys defeated, the children of the town rescued, the narrator to whom we've become attached finally solving his or her once-overwhelming problems. And we're able to assume, because we have no reason to think otherwise, that everything's going to be great from now on. We'll be spared from having to stick around for when it all turns to shit later. The storyteller has shown us all we're going to see, which means there's nothing left for us to learn, which means, in turn, that we can all go home now and be happy.
And speaking of happiness...
"They lived happily ever after."
I love that line. Most people don't. Most people say, "That's not realistic."
To which I reply, "So what?"
Isn't reality realistic enough?
But like nearly everything else in this world, it's a matter of personal preference. I can tell you this much: I've never minded being filled in on how a movie or a book concludes in advance. You're doing me a favor if you tell me beforehand how everything turns out. I don't like surprises, especially the kind where something bad happens to the good guy at the end.
I've got a surefire remedy, though, for when it happens. It's a trick I've been using since I was a kid.
Here's what I do. If everything about a story was perfect except for the way it tied up, I just change the ending.
If it's a movie, I write up a new, short little script in which the original ending never came to pass. I bring people back to life. I heal grievous wounds. I make sure the monster actually stays dead.
If it's a book, I sometimes do the same thing, just in narrative form rather than a script. Or—and this is the easier way—I strip out the last few pages so the story ends on a positive note. So its characters get the easy life I think they deserve. Childish, maybe, but it's just how I do things. Please keep that in mind, if you want to accompany me any farther.
Because I have a story to tell you.