A writer’s job isn’t easy. Ordinary lives are mundane without the pizzazz of a thriller/ romance/ tragedy/ horror and unforeseeable twists and turns. The usual life story is about ticking the boxes on birth, education, profession, marriage, children, and retirement. Are we interested in this story? Perhaps yes, if there is an interesting spin to the HOW and WHY part of WHAT happened in their lives.
‘Happy Endings’ is a short story by Margaret Atwood. She wrote this story two years before ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.
I stumbled upon this short story a couple of years back when I was stuck inside the Writer’s block. This experimental story gave me a perspective. As writers, we believe in creating spectacular openings for our work – whether a novel or a short story. We then work on the plot. Most of the times, the plot serves ‘What’ in a story. This skeleton needs the meat of ‘How’ and ‘Why’ to make the story juicy and appealing to the readers.
In ‘Happy Endings’, there are six different plots in repetitive structure. It begins with Mary and John. Their story is made up of the usual things, and they live an ordinary life with a happily ever after scenario. Until eventually they die. The next story has the same two characters and an additional one but with a different setting. The happy life story of version A is disturbed by revealing the mean traits of one character. The third story has three characters from the prior story and a convoluted love story with one more character.
When we reach the fourth version, the plot is about two characters and a natural disaster. And the fifth version is about terminal illness. The last one is my favourite, in this version you have a revolutionary and a spy. Of course, you barely get a paragraph of each plot and nothing more!
The classic beginning to a story is ‘Once Upon a Time’ that must lead you to a place called ‘And they lived happily ever after’. The premise of ‘Happy Endings’ questions this very fact, is there a certainty of happily ever after? For anything other than death is a false end but we want to believe in a fairytale-ish ending. This leaves us with a beginning, again hard to play with but the plot holds the potential to go beyond ‘a what and a what and a what’.
Atwood ends the story with an exercise for the readers which is to try the How and Why of the stories.