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Jun 24, 2014

Happy Endings by Margaret Atwood - some comments and teaching notes

This story explores as its theme plot: beginnings, endings, and what happens in between. Plot is the scaffolding of the storytelling art. One of the questions raised by this strange story is ‘what makes a story interesting?’ What do we mean by beginnings and endings? Does an interesting story depend on a happy ending? Is a happy ending realistic? Is it true? Is there a difference between endings in real life and endings in stories? “Happy Endings” isn’t really the kind of story we recognize as a story, at least not in a traditional sense. It’s a story about storytelling, about the art of fiction -- a metafiction. Fiction that is in part about the nature of fiction itself. Metafiction such as this is experimental, it takes chances, it makes things odd.

The story starts out familiarly, perhaps too familiarly with “John and Mary meet.” John and Mary are stock characters. After that inauspicious beginning, we are presented six options for continuing and completing the rest of the story. In fact, the story reads like an advice column for aspiring writers learning their craft. A “paint by numbers” approach to writing.

Option A: “the happy ending” version. What’s notable about this version? It’s so predictable. Very little unexpected happens. There’s no conflict to speak of. No twists. No drama. It’s safe. The kind of outcome we might expect in real life.

Option B: More complications get added to the plot. The love affair isn’t equal. Interest gets added by describing John and Mary’s character through their actions (how they behave toward each other). It’s a pathetic, dysfunctional relationship. One-sided too. Complications accumulate. Mary gets run down, John complains, he’s seen in a restaurant with another woman (the crisis), Mary OD’s and dies, and an anti-climactic conclusion, returning to “A.”

Option C: A different scenario, a variation, an older man/younger woman affair with a triangle: James the 22 year old motorcycle man. Version C borrows plot elements from A and B. Plot reaches crisis when James and Mary get high and in bed, then John happens in on them -- falling action when he kills them and himself.

D: Another different plot, more of an adventure story, a survival tale with an unrealistic hero and heroine. Larger than life. They’re “virtuous and lucky.”

E: Takes the same characters and builds a different plot, a sentimental and not terribly interesting one. We’re starting to get the sense that it doesn’t make much different what the plot is, the ending’s always going to be the same.

F: Going for the suspense/intrigue/thriller plot, w/ a satiric jab at Canadian society (boring, stable).

Atwood cautions us to beware of fakery, excessive optimiism and downright sentimentality. The “only” authentic ending (in life) is that you die. For Atwood’s narrator, endings are not what matter. The endings cancel out. “Beginnings are always more fun.” The middle is really where the interest lies. Ultimately, for this narrator, plots are matter of fact. She urges us to move beyond to “how and why.” Part of this experimental fiction’s purpose might be to show you how plots can evolve and grow and branch in various directions -- and yet maybe they end all too similarly after all. Complications add interest, drama, and tension to the plot -- that’s where the differences lie.

Writing prompt: which ending do you prefer and why?

Creative writing prompt: write your own plot, modeled after Atwood’s approach in this story.