There is no rule which states that a novel or short story should end happily. Many of the greatest literary works left their audience in despair with their closing sentence. Life is a story and often times that story is so rooted in pain that a happy ending is not an option.
I recently read a trilogy so steeped in tragedy that by the end of book three I felt emotionally gutted. I’ll let you guess the name of this trilogy. What troubled me most about this trilogy was not its despair based premise or continual sacrifice of innocence and decency but the shock and awe tactics used by the author in order to maintain the high octane pace the writer had naturally achieved in the first book. This blatant use of shock brought forth the question: “What does a writer owe her audience?”
We as readers depend on authors to see main characters through to their natural end. If a well-developed character should happen to die that death should be noted not disregarded as if it were only the death of inconsequential extra. The blatant brushing aside of a beloved characters life is cold and cruel because it destroys the readers faith and trust in the writer. A well-developed sympathetic character who is killed without the necessary pause for grief and reflection leaves the reader feeling injured and betrayed. At no point should shock value replace the need for plot and character development.
Perhaps it is our lack of attention span which has led so many popular writers to gut their audience and tear away the fabric of the plot in order to keep modern readers reading. Nevertheless, a compelling book should have strong well defined characters, a sweeping plot with many twists and turns as well as description and flow. Characters should not act, “out of character,” and plot should not be sacrificed in order to build a path from one disturbing scene to the next. We as writers owe it to our readers to take them on a journey. The journey may be harrowing, grief filled and agonizing but it is the duty of the writer not to victimize her reader with one shock after another just to keep them hooked. As your guide we writers may lead you to the edge of the chasms of emotion but we should never toss you over indiscriminately just to see you fall.