Happily Ever After: B. K. Stevens

In this post, B. K. Stevens offers insights and reflections on the bittersweet prospect of wrapping up a long-running series. Stevens has long been adept at juggling multiple series, and several of her recurring characters have appeared in AHMM, including P.I. Iphigenia Woodhouse and academic amateur sleuth Leah Abrams. Those tales, like the Walt Johnson/Gordon Bolt stories she discusses here, are notable for their humor and fraught relationships among characters. Stevens introduced a new series in our pages with “Interpretation of Murder” (December 2010), which featured American Sign Language Interpreter Jane Ciardi. The story won a Derringer Award, and Stevens has now written the first Ciardi novel, also titled Interpretation of Murder, forthcoming from Black Opal Books winter 2015. Meanwhile, her martial-arts YA novel Fighting Chance is also due out winter 2015 from Poisoned Pencil, an imprint of Poisoned Pen Press. Look for her next story, “A Joy Forever,” in our March 2015 issue.

Happy endings are hard. At least, they’re hard to write well.

Not everyone would agree. Years ago, a well-regarded author addressed a writers’ group to which I belonged. At one point, he said he’d never write a novel or story with a happy ending, and a member of the group asked him why.

“Because it’s taking the easy way out,” he said, and went on to argue that happy endings are both inartistic and unrealistic. Slapping a happy ending onto a story is a lazy way of avoiding the real challenges literature and life present. Anyone who writes a story with a happy ending, he said, can’t have genuine insights into life, into its inevitable hardships and sorrows. Such writers are pandering to readers, reassuring them by tying everything up neatly. Real life is seldom that reassuring, never that neat. So unhappy endings are far more honest than happy ones, and inconclusive endings are far more sophisticated.

He had a point. We’ve all read stories with happy endings that feel forced and false—implausible last-minute rescues, overly convenient coincidences, deep animosities easily resolved in the final paragraph. We have a right to feel cheated by such endings, to see them as clumsy attempts to escape from the conflicts that have driven the story.

But there are other sorts of happy endings. Long, long ago, at Kenyon College, I took a course in the English novel from John Ward—I want to mention his name, because something he said in class one day had a profound, lasting effect on the way I read and the way I write. The class was discussing the ending of a truly great novel. I won’t say which novel, because if you haven’t read it, I don’t want to spoil it for you; if you have read it, you may recognize the scene I’m about to describe. Two admirable characters are locked in a seemingly impossible situation. They love each other, but it looks as if honor will force them to part. The man starts to leave. Then the woman says the perfect thing, the man turns back to her, and they spend the rest of their lives together.

Mr. Ward—in those days, at Kenyon, we called all our professors “Mr.” or “Ms.” regardless of the degrees they’d earned or the positions they held—commented that in this novel, an unhappy ending would have been hard on the reader but easy for the writer. In any delicate situation, he said, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ways for things to go wrong. In this scene, the woman could have simply remained silent, or she could have said too much or too little, or she could have said something insensitive or foolish. Any writer could come up with a wrong thing for her to say. But to find the one perfect thing—the one thing completely consistent with her character, the one thing that would in fact make this man turn back to her, the one thing that would make him realize the barriers between them mattered less than the love drawing them together—that was hard. That was damn hard.

Yes, it’s easy to write a sloppy, unconvincing happy ending. But writing an unhappy ending is also easy. Writing a happy ending that rings true and actually resolves the complications created during a story isn’t easy at all.

And are happy endings in fact unrealistic? Undeniably, life is difficult. For far too many people, it’s almost unrelieved misery—torn apart by war, distorted by poverty or persecution, cruelly limited by devastating illness, injury, or loss.

What about the rest of us? Many of my Facebook friends are mystery writers, and many write pretty bleak mysteries. Love never lasts, plans always go awry, friends turn traitor, the deck is stacked against the righteous, the most corrupt have the most power, violence erupts on every corner of these mean streets, dames lie, clients lie, partners lie, everybody lies. If the battered protagonist can crawl home at the end of the day and douse shattered ideals in a glass of lukewarm gin, that’s the most anyone can expect.

Then these writers set their stories aside for a few minutes and post Facebook messages. “Here’s our youngest grandson playing with our brand new kitten. SO adorable!” “Church choir practice went late again last night—and IMHO, we sound AWESOME!” “Happy anniversary to the love of my life! Forty-seven years ago, you officially made me the luckiest man on the planet—and you’re even more beautiful now than you were on our wedding day!” I read the messages, I scratch my head, and I wonder, “Why does this guy write noir?”

No human being lives a life untouched by pain, disappointment, and conflict. But for most of us, there’s also the occasional kitten. Sometimes, love lasts, friends prove loyal, and people tell the truth. Sometimes, happy endings are possible—not perfect endings, not now-I’ll-never-have-another-sad-moment-as-long-as-I-live endings, but endings that are, on the whole, more happy than sad.

Undoubtedly, some stories should have unhappy endings. They tell such tragic tales, or portray such flawed or broken characters, that any other sort of ending would feel wrong. I’ve written some stories like that, and their endings have been harsh. Sometimes, though, a happy ending is the right choice.

About a year ago, I decided to end my longest-running series of short stories for Hitchcock, and I wanted to make that ending happy. The series began way back in June, 1988, with a story called “True Detective.” It was followed by “True Confession,” “True Romance,” “True Adventure,” “True Crime,” “True Love,” “True Story,” “True Suspects,” “True Colors,” “True Blue,” and “True Test.” The next story would bring the series to an even dozen, and that seemed like a good place to end. Among other things, it wasn’t getting any easier to keep coming up with titles beginning with “true.” I’d started by using names of actual magazines but soon had to give that up and settle for any “true” phrase I could scrape up.

More than that, whether or not these characters feel real to anyone else, they’re very real to me, and I wanted to give them a break. Ever since the first story, Lieutenant Walt Johnson has been feeling guilty about getting the credit for cracking cases that have in fact been solved by his brilliant but self-effacing subordinate, Sergeant Gordon Bolt; I wanted to find a way to ease Walt’s conscience. And Bolt falls in love with Walt’s widowed mother way back in “True Romance,” but she keeps turning down his proposals. After over twenty years, it was time for Bolt to finally achieve his heart’s desire. So I decided to write one last story, “True Enough,” that would relieve these characters of the burdens I’d saddled them with. (By the way, I doubt any readers have wasted a minute wondering how these characters got their names. But in case even one reader ever has, this seems like a good time to reveal that I originally thought of these two as a variation on Holmes and Watson. So the dazzling detective is Bolt, rather than Sherlock, and the comparatively dim companion who records his triumphs is Walt Johnson rather than John Watson.)

Did I find a convincing way of giving these characters the happy ending they deserve? Others will have to answer that question—I’m not objective enough to judge. I know the happy ending to this series can’t possibly be as utterly right as the one in that English novel I read at Kenyon so many years ago. But I’m grateful to Mr. Ward for teaching me to appreciate well-crafted happy endings, and for helping me realize that happy endings can sometimes be, in their own quiet way, satisfying and true.


Filed under How'd That Happen

38 responses to “Happily Ever After: B. K. Stevens

  1. tfmoran2014

    Ye found the perfect way to give the characters the ending they deserve. Even though I will miss them all (especially Bolt) I was happy to leave them this way. Congrats on such a successful run of a series of stories that never got boring. Terrie Moran

  2. Love this post, Bonnie! I think all endings—whether happy or sad—are tough to write, at least for me, and I appreciate the way you work through the various challenges faced in each case. Congratulations on wrapping up this series. I look forward to reading the latest story! (And need to find a way to go back and read all of them! A collection sometimes perhaps?)

    • I agree about endings–a few times, one that feels right has come to mind very easily, but I usually have to search and experiment. I’ve been thinking of putting together some sort of collection, not necessarily of all the Bolt stories but perhaps of a few from each of my series, along with some stand-alones.

  3. Excellent post- as well written as all of your stories.

  4. Catherine

    Reality can be plenty bleak. I like happy endings in my fiction. Excellent article.

    • Thank you, Catherine. I like well-crafted happy endings in fiction, too, especially when admirable characters have endured so much that we feel they deserve a rest from their troubles, and when the happiness they find reflects some of our ideas about the kinds of happiness good people can in fact achieve in this life–e.g., the happy marriage that Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester finally get to enjoy.

  5. What a wonderful discussion of endings! It gives me, and other writers, I’m sure, much to think about. The conclusion of the series may be bittersweet, but I’ll bet you have a lot of other tricks up your capable sleeve.

    • Thank you, Kaye. I decided it was time to stop creating problems for Bolt and Walt, but I have more conflicts and challenges in mind for Iphigenia Woodhouse and Leah Abrams (though I couldn’t resist the temptation to end one of Iphigenia’s long-standing heartaches in the last story I wrote about her).

  6. I just started reading the series not long ago, and have enjoyed them. I’ll have to find back issues. . . Congrats on the satisfying end to the series and the publication of your new novels.

    • Thank you, Bobbi. I’m glad you found the end of the series satisfying. I had fun trying to find the right way to ease Walt’s guilty conscience. I considered making him come clean about everything but decided against it–Bolt would never believe him anyway.Moving Walt to a a job he could do well without pretense seemed like a better solution.

  7. Well done. It’s been a treat to follow your stories. Overall, I think a story ending should be powerful, which happy or sad can be. Anyway, thanks for your writing and wisdom.

    • Thank you, C.L. I’m delighted to hear you’ve enjoyed the stories. And i agree that both happy and sad endings can be powerful. The important thing, I think, is to make the ending true to the characters and the situation, and to the overall tone of the story. Tacking a happy ending onto a story that feels headed for tragedy can seem cowardly, and ending a comic story with a catastrophe can feel like a betrayal. (I’ll admit I’ve ended a comic story with a catastrophe at least once, though, in last year’s “All That Glisters”–but I tried to make sure readers wouldn’t feel too close to the characters, so that the violent ending would be a surprise without seeming like a violation of the story’s fundamentally comic spirit.)

      • Thank you for our insight and wonderful pieces 🙂 I hope to reach such levels in my writing. I have novels on the run, but short story writing is killing me 😉

  8. An excellent discussion! I admit to preferring a happy ending to stories and novels. Not all of my short stories have them, but most of my novels do.

    • Thank you, Jacquie. In some of my stand-alone short stories, I’ve enjoyed exploring characters so flawed, misguided, or passive that they make unhappy endings inevitable. But I’d have a hard time making such characters the center of a series, or of a novel–I just wouldn’t want to spend that much time with them. (That’s probably one reason I write mysteries, rather than literary fiction.)

  9. Thanks for sharing the reason for the choice of names. I think it’s like naming a child. There is purpose in finding a name that blends with the theme and the personality. Congratulations for the long run at AHMM.

    • Thank you, Georgia. I devote a ridiculous amount of time to coming up with names for characters. Sometimes they’re literary or Biblical allusions of one sort or another, sometimes I’m guided by the name’s meaning (naming a happy character “Felix” and a bitter one “Martha,” for example), and sometimes the names are private jokes. For example, Sergeant Bolt’s first name, Gordon, is my husband’s middle name. I wanted a name that would be right for someone who’s highly intelligent and also very modest, so naturally I thought of my husband.

  10. Thank you, Jacquie. In some of my stand-alone short stories, I’ve enjoyed exploring characters so flawed, misguided, or passive that they make unhappy endings inevitable. But I’d have a hard time making such characters the center of a series, or of a novel–I just wouldn’t want to spend that much time with them. (That’s probably one reason I write mysteries, rather than literary fiction.)

  11. I’m with you on happy endings, Bonnie–and I do love your prose!

    • Thank you, Liz. Since it comes from you, that compliment means a lot to me. And I’m glad we agree about happy endings. I remember meeting you not long after I read your first novel and feeling very relieved when you told me your protagonist, Bruce, was going to stay sober in the next book. We all want happy endings for ourselves, so why not give them to our characters when we can?

  12. This is a wonderful post (especially this: “No human being lives a life untouched by pain, disappointment, and conflict. But for most of us, there’s also the occasional kitten.”) It is definitely bittersweet to contemplate the end of a favorite series.

  13. Wonderful blog, B.K. I like happy endings, but with any mystery, I don’t think there can be a perfect happy ending. There is always the grieving family of the victim as well as often someone who is saddened about the murderer and what s/he did. That’s probably more true in books where the characters are more developed than the characters in short stories, except in a series of short stories like yours. You made me think of that time when I may decide to end my series. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, though..

    • Thanks for your comment, Gloria. I think there’s a difference between a happy ending and a perfect ending. As I said in my blog, no human being gets to live a perfect life untouched by sorrow. In a mystery, as you say, there’s always somebody who grieves for the victim–and sometimes (though not always) the murderer is a sympathetic character who makes one terrible mistake. There’s always an underlying sense of loss and pity. Even so, I think we can have endings that affirm life is still worth living–not perfect endings, but endings that are more happy than sad. I wanted to close this series with the traditional ending for a comedy–a wedding–because a wedding is perhaps the strongest affirmation of life and hope. We know there will be problems, but we go ahead anyway, making promises and celebrating possibilities.

  14. Wonderful post. Insightful and true. I love happy endings. They’re a perfect ending to an otherwise life full of strife.
    S.J. Francis

    • Thank you, S.J. I agree with you. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the strife and disappointment we encounter every day–those are all too obvious. Finding and cherishing the things that make life worth living can be tougher. Happy endings can remind us that the search is worthwhile, and that some measure of success is possible.

  15. A very interesting blog. While I agree that nice and happy endings are unrealistic, I appreciate the other perspective too. In any case, I liked what you wrote. Regards

    • Thanks for your comment, Vasudev. Happy endings are sometimes unrealistic, but unhappy endings can be unrealistic, too; sometimes, I think, writers eager to escalate conflict make supposedly intelligent characters unrealistically blind to obvious ways of resolving problems. The important thing, I think, is to make the ending, happy or not, true to the characters and the situation.

  16. Trent T.

    As a long time subscriber to AHMM, I looked at the contents of each issue to see if there was a new story by you. Although I enjoy all of your contributions, the Bolt/Johnson stories were always my favorite. Fantastic job of concluding the series, I will miss the characters. Add my name to the list of folks who would love to see a collection of all the stories. Thank you so much for years of reading pleasure.

  17. Thanks for your comment, Trent. I’m delighted that you’ve enjoyed the stories and that you liked the way the series ended. I have so much affection for these characters that I wanted to be able to think of them as going about their lives contentedly, enjoying time with people they love, and being successful professionally without facing quite as many challenges as they have in the stories. I’m thinking seriously about a collection, and hearing that there are some readers who would welcome it definitely gives me encouragement. Thanks again!

  18. B.K., I enjoyed this post very much. It’s always interesting to read about other writers’ journeys. These days I find that I’m shooting for endings with a hint of redemption, a middle ground between happy and bleak.

    • Thank you for your comment, Anita. I like what you say about “a hint of redemption.” I love stories in which flawed characters redeem themselves to some extent. Even if they’re still flawed, even if they still face challenges, we can feel encouraged by the changes they’ve made. I think such endings can be haunting.

  19. Recently I read The Grapes of Wrath–for the first time. (I never connected with it at school or later.) This powerful novel has a poignant, gut wrenching, unforgettable–and despite mitigating events–unhappy ending. Steinbeck had a message; no other ending was possible. But I suggest, as you do, that happy-ending-stories are necessary. Unlike journalism which often reflects pain, suffering and death, both at home an abroad, fiction can show us what life could be like.

    • Thank you for your comment, Mark. It’s been a long, long time since I read The Grapes of Wrath, but it made quite an impression on me, and I agree–no other ending was possible. Given the situation Steinbeck describes and the characters he creates, a happy ending would feel unconvincing and dishonest. As I recall, though (and it HAS been a long time), there’s still what Anita might call “a hint of redemption” in this ending. The characters have suffered greatly and lost much that can never be replaced, but they haven’t been utterly crushed, and they haven’t become passive or cynical. We feel (again, if I’m remembering this correctly) that they’ll keep struggling, keep living by their ideals. We don’t know if still more devastating losses lie ahead for them, but they’ve kept their humanity and their dignity, and that in itself is a triumph.

  20. William Finger

    BKS- the stories were always a treat to read and so was your writing about the last story. Thanks.

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