SW 103 DIS Elements of a Happy Ending

Why do we write and like happy endings?

As reader grow to care and love a character they want good things for them, just like we want good things for our friends and families, and celebrity crushes. A happy ending gives us that feeling. It also taps into our feelings of empathy, as we image those we care about getting good things and enjoy them we enjoy the experience with them.

Components of the happy ending

It’s not perfect.

As the title states part of making happy endings believable is that they are not perfect. The character doesn’t get everything they’ve always wanted. Sacrifices have been made, and decisions have had consequences.

Part of this is helping the audience connect. Real life has complicated problems without simple solutions, and often they go unsolved. An imperfect happy ending then feels more real and can better resonate with readers.


In Cars, Lightnight McQueen wants to win the Piston Cup and get a deal with Dynaco. But in the final moments of the movie he win the cup, in fact, he gives up his chance to win the cup to do the right thing and help King. 

The Dynaco sponsorship usually goes to the winner of the cup, but the president of Dynaco was impressed by McQueen’s choice, and still offers it to him. But he turns it down… because part of his character arc is that not only does he need to learn to rely on others but to be grateful for the help they give him. So he turns down Dynaco to stay with those who helped him get started, Rusties.

Wrap up other subpltos….happily

While each happy ending will be slightly bittersweet, as we mentioned you don’t get everything, they do get happy endings.


Sally wants the old 66 route to come back to life and enliven the town once more, to have a string of cars ever visiting. That doesn’t happen. But McQueen sets up his racing headquarters there and it brings in a lot of new tourists

Avoid Last Minute Tangents.

The last-minute addition of a new subplot can be frustrating to the reader because it doesn’t feel like part of the story, it’s come too late, and every line and paragraph and about this can feel like a distraction and something they gloss over to get to the part of teh story they are really invested in.

Hints, part of a great ending is the hints along the way.

This is relevent regardless of the type of ending your building. 

I find some of the best feedback about this comes from my beta readers. In my last book, the beta reader pointed out they didn’t understand how some of the characters were reaching certain conclusions. So went back to 4 chapters in the earlier parts of the book and add a sentence or two. A note with information, seeing the villain do something. The next round of beta readers didn’t have this problem, but I put the hints in.


One of the storylines with a lot of hints is Doc when he comes in as the judge over McQueen's court case he takes one look at the race car and wants nothing to do with him and states he’s dropping all charges.

Later he offers to race McQueen and seems very confident about it. 

Finally, McQueen sees Doc racing by himself on the track. When we learn Doc is a famous racing car, all the pieces fit together. The hints make this a good moment, and more importantly a believable moment in the story.

No Deus Ex Machina

We’ve mentioned Deus Ex Machina many times before, but we’ll mention it again here. No one saves the protagonist, they must save themselves through their choices and their actions.


McQueen must make the decision to give up the cup to save King. He can’t have both, so he must choose. 

A Deus Ex Machina would be that the race is held on a dirt track and both King and Chick don’t know how to race on it so McQueen wins without King getting hurt. The problem is that the choice to hold the race on dirt doesn't put that decision on him, it would be on the race director.

Genre Rules

Certain genres have rules about happy endings and you need to know them and follow them.

Be Creative

I know that really not helpful advice up front, but be honest with yourself about how many times you have really brainstormed different types of ending. I know for myself, I just envision it then write it, and don’t take time to roll out multiple ideas so I can pick the best.

Happy endings have been done to death if you want yours to stand out, brainstorm multiple versions of it.


In Cars, it’s easy to see that the ending might be McQueen accepting the help he needs and therefore wins the cup. But the writers discarded that overly simplistic and predictable ending. They threw out the big question, “What if he doesn’t win? What happens then? What can we do with that?”

Build the Ending Out of the Characters

If we really think about there are thousands of ways we can end a story, and that means that some of them can be more to our characters and their choices than others. Once again, brainstorm these kinds of ending. How can you make the climax fit your character, or their arc better? It will resonate with the audience more.

In our episode on setting we mention one tactic such as changing the setting. If your villain is a child molester a fitting setting for the final conflict would be a playground.

But you can go beyond this. The conflict itself can be redone.


While the race takes place at a different location than the original race, the track is identical, because of the type of race car that McQueen is. That means that the setting is identical to where you made so many bad decisions, and it’s easy to see how he’s doing things differently. It becomes a great showcase for his growth.

The final conflict itself is driven by McQueen's relationship with Doc, and that in turn impacts the choices he makes. McQueen saves King, because of what happened to Doc.

Don’t Surprise just to shock

Remember the rule of surprise vs. suspense. The general rule is 3 surprises in a story, but novel very in length, so I think a better rule is 2 per 50k words. We’ve covered this before so I won’t go into all the studies, but the basic idea here is that suspense is seeing two trains racing toward each other and dreading, or being in suspense at what will happen. The surprise is that they don’t impact, something else happens. Do that too many times and the audience no longer believes in the suspense full moments, and start to expect surprise, thus killing both supsepend and surprise in the novel.

It’s worse if a surprise at the end doesn’t feel like it’s got support throughout the story. It the moment more than any others that readers are not okay with an unsupported surprise. As we mentioned above, the hints are important.


In Cars, McQueen gives up the Piston Cup to help King. It’s a surprise because we’ve already illustrated that he’s learned to let others help him, and it’s the things he’s always wanted. But when he stops at the finish line the first time it’s a shock, but when he flashes back to Doc’s accident then goes to help King, the surprise makes perfect sense. Support for the surprise was in the story, or hints if you’d rather.

As always they must earn/deserve the ending they receive

Every character arc, plot, and subplot must both earn and deserve the ending they get. So the questions are simple here, what work have they done, what sacrifices have they made and if they don't’ balance out, it’s time for some revision.

At the same time, the ending can even more satisfying if it reflects the specific sacrifices the characters has made along the way.


In Cars, after giving up the Piston Cup to help King McQueen is still offered the sponsorship with Dynaco but this too he turns down, choosing to stand with those that have stood with him. He still becomes a world-famous race car, even though he lost the race.

In the 2016 Olympics tow runners fell in the trials leading up the the finals of 5,000. They were not favorites to win, but their sportsmanship and willingness to help each other got them international attention. A few people might remember who won the gold for the women’s 5k, fewer still would know bronze and silver, but almost everyone who watched the Olympics know Abbey D'Agostino and Nikki Hamblin.