I’m going to be blunt: not every story should have a happy ending. Yeah, we claim that we like happy endings and seeing the hero save the and get the girl in the end, but I’m calling bullshit. It works for Disney movies since mom and dad can bring the kids to the movies for an hour and a half of fun, popcorn, and soda, but that’s about it.
Think back to every movie where the nerd steals the head cheerleader from the captain of the football team. You know you’ve seen this movie a million times, but how much of it has stuck with you? The only scene I could describe from Say Anything is the boombox scene, and even that’s only because it’s become a trope (also, as an adult it’s kind of creepy). We know in our hearts that in the real world, head cheerleaders date the football star and the sensitive nerd/band geek/artist/writer gets shot down.
Think about the kinds of stories that stick with you. The “relationship” move that’s stuck with me the most is Chasing Amy, a story where the guy ruins everything beyond repair and drives away the woman he loves. It’s not a happy ending, but the characters feel real and consistent. Yeah, Banky’s rants about lesbians not existing are funny, but when Silent Bob tells Holden about Amy it speaks to something in anybody who’s been a situation where they drove away somebody they love.
It’s not just romantic movies where this applies. Most people would say Lord of the Rings has a happy ending, but does it? Frodo and Sam destroy the ring and defeat Sauron, but Frodo is left a broken shell of his former self. A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones if you prefer the show) is filled with our favorite characters being murdered, mutilated, and tortured, but fans chomp at the bit for more books (or episodes). Breaking Bad’s happy ending involved Walt murdering a dozen or so people, and it’s only happy in the sense that they’re worse than he was (admittedly, being worse than a murdering meth kingpin who poisons children is a high bar).
This doesn’t mean all stories need sad endings. In Princess Bride (one of the best movies of all time), the happy ending is exactly what the movie needed. When Wesley bullshits his way through the encounter with Humperdink at the end, it’s perfect since he’s been bullshitting as the Dread Pirate Roberts for years and during two more of the film’s most memorable moments (“I’m not left-handed either” and “[Both cups] were both poisoned”). It still might have been a fun movie if Wesley stormed the castle as a plain old farm boy, defeating guards through trickery and luck, but it’d be just another cheesy movie. The happy ending works because it’s consistent with the film’s tone, not because the writers just needed a happy ending.
Henry Ford supposedly said that, “If [he] had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Tell the story you want to tell, but give it the ending and the character arcs it needs. Whether that means your protagonist burns down an orphanage or cures both cancer and AIDS, be honest. Even though people don’t know what they want, we know we all hate being lied to.