Will sad endings work in our market?

In case you missed it or in case you’re not a Facebook friend of mine, I recently entertained this question: Can a novel for the Christian market be successful if it has a sad ending? Why or why not? Can you think of some examples?

The response on Facebook was great. I had 47 comments. Most responded according to their own personal reading taste—which was fine, but not what I really asked. Even if we personally approve of sad but hopeful endings, will those books succeed in our market?

I like a sad ending that offers hope, but I think those of us who feel that way are in the minority. A sad ending in a book for our market has an uphill struggle—both in being accepted by a publisher and then with the public too. As agent Diana Flegal reports below, a publisher asked her client to recast a sad ending into a happy one. And author Susanne Lakin reported the same thing happened to her.

My advice:

1. Write the book you feel you must write. However, be aware of the risks. If the ending is so sad as to harm sales, it may be your last novel with that publisher.

2. If your novel must end in a minor key, make sure there’s the promise of redemption after the book closes. In short, leave the readers hopeful about the characters they’ve just spent 300 pages with.

3. Sad ending or not, bring resolution to the story. An unresolved ending is failed book, in my opinion. And that applies to books in a series too. Each book must have some resolution to the story presented in that book. No cliffhangers allowed! I know one author who turned in his manuscript and his publisher literally took out the final pages that had resolved the story and added the words “to be continued” instead. The author was justifiably angry.

Here are some of the comments on the topic:

LouAnn Wennerberg Miller: I’m a reader who often states, “I don’t do sad”, but as long as the writer shows some type of redeeming factor, such as the character’s legacy… then I am OK with it.

Michael Reynolds: I’ve discovered from my blogging that readers are desperate for encouragement and hope. I do think they’ll get shared and have a greater audience if the endings are sweet rather than sour. I think the rule absolutely can be broken, but you’ll be sacrificing part of your reader base. I would consider a sad ending to be one that ends without hope. A book can be a tragedy, but if it completes its resonance with the sun rising in the horizon, I would still count that as uplifting. The message becomes perseverance.

Theresa Lode: Don’t tell anyone but….I’ll even peek to the end of the book of I suspect there’s a sad ending….and pass on reading it if does have one. To me, one of the best thrills about reading a good book is that warm fuzzy feeling that lingers after a happy ending. I just feel like there’s already so much emotion-overload everywhere else and I just don’t have it in me to weep over a fictional character.

Woodeene Koenig-Bricker: A lot of the great stories have more or less sad endings. Think of Gone with the Wind. It doesn’t really end all chipper dipper. Honest writing requires honest endings…and some endings are sad.

Michael L. Ehret:
I have thrown books against the wall that forced a ‘happy’ ending when that’s not the way it should have ended. Give me a real ending, whether happy or sad. I’m an adult. I can take it. By the way, Crossing Oceans by Gina Holmes is another with a sad, but sweet (and real) end. Extremely satisfying even though I boo-hooed big time.

Tim Riter: Nick, I would hope the Christian fiction market is mature enough to not need syrup. One of the most powerful novels I’ve read lately is Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. In it, he explores the results of relativism and a lack of respect for life. The ending has to be sad. The hope is unstated, but it clearly states a lack of respect has no hope. Do we read for affirmation of what we believe, or to be challenged in a thoughtful, well-written manner?

Gina Holmes: My thoughts are that the ending needs to fit. The ending shouldn’t be hopeless but one of my favorite movies is Seven Pounds. Sad but inspiring. I can’t stand a book, like Mike says, that sugars up an ending that could have been poignant. I want real life and the hope that is in Christ. Our faith is not always happy, it’s just always hopeful…It’s sad that this even is a discussion. Would a Kite Runner not have sold well in the CBA (a Christian version)? I don’t know but man how sad if it didn’t do well because of the ending. Crossing Oceans has sold quite well. I don’t think it would have if there was a miracle cure at the end. It would have been hokie and wouldn’t have stayed with people…We can’t put out a mediocre book with a sad ending and when the sales flounder, blame it on the ending. You write a GREAT book, despite a sad ending, and maybe even because of that perfect ending, it should sell if everyone’s doing their jobs in getting the word out. I think too often, we put out a mediocre book set in the depression era, (for example) and when the book fails to sell, we blame it on the era instead of the book or promo. I wish the Christian market would get ahead of the curve and start trusting what we know to be good. Great success often requires great risk.

Cindy Valenti Scinto: Absolutely. A sad ending is the sign of a courageous writer. I would welcome a real ending–something that happens every day. Being a Christian does not change the outcome of anyone’s life so why project a perfect world? Bring it on! But I still say, yes, it can be successful in the Christian market.

Angela Ruth Strong: Sad endings can definitely be more powerful.

Brad Sargent
: If it is redemptive/shows redemptive transformation, then it is good. I’m not sure “redemptive” is the same as “hopeful” or “sweet.”

Ane Mulligan: My personal opinion is it can if the end is “right” for the book. Case in point, Crossing Oceans, by Gina Holmes.

Janet McHenry: Hope is most important–not the “happily ever after.” –English teacher tired of teaching tragedies

BJ Hoff: If you survey the most successful books in CBA, you’ll not find many “sad” endings. Hope is the key. The ending doesn’t have to be “fluff” to satisfy the reader, but if it leaves no hope, most readers won’t pick up more books from the same author. I believe you’ll still sacrifice a portion of the reader base with genuinely “sad” endings, but it depends on the *degree* and type of sadness. A less than “perfect” ending may well survive the dip in sales if you can provide inspiration and hope. Never, never (in CBA) leave the situation … or the reader *hopeless.* But why would you? If you’re writing from a Christian worldview, how can you leave hope entirely out of the story?

Susanne Lakin: I was told by my publisher to change my ending so it was happy. It was not a sad ending but it did show that people never change and they will still judge you by appearance. Although I felt it was the right ending and got a message across, CBA doesn’t want those kinds of endings. They wanted happy and everyone saved. But I was able to compromise and give a “hopeful” ending without the slant I thought would make it real. That’s why I’m sticking to writing for the general market. I think God values “real” and there is a lot to be learned from a sad ending as long as there is some joy and redemption in the learning process the character goes through.

Gigi Falstrom: Are you writing fantasy or real life. Bad things happen to good people, it’s a matter of what happens as a result. All of our lives, relationships and careers are not happily ended. Tell the truth as it is revealed to you.

Jennifer Erin Valent: I’d say your comment about hope is the key. I’ve written sad endings, but they’re capped off with a brighter perspective. Books that I’ve read that left off with just plain heartache left me feeling too broken for me to feel satisfied with the book. I’ve even lost sleep over it when I finished right before bed. 🙁 Life itself is so painful at times, when I escape into fiction I don’t like to be left feeling heartsick.

Michelle Wormell Hollomon: Sad? Yes. Hopeless? No.

Mary Ann Hake: Define sad. It can be sad to the world but Christians still have hope and can have joy in spite of bad circumstances. Everything working out perfectly with too neatly tied-up ending is unrealistic and not as satisfying to me.

Jeff Adams: Four words. Nicholas Sparks. Beautiful tragedy. I don’t know if he’s a Christian, but his books prove that sometimes life is painful, yet lovely. His stories are real and real sells. Do readers really want, as Tim said, syrup? Or do we want, as so many have noted, hope? Jesus died. He left us. That’s sad. But he rose from the dead and said he’d be back. That’s a story full of hope.

Rebecca Harrison Gores: Dad, I am not a writer by any means, but I’m a reader. I can tell you that what stirs me most about books – specifically Roxanne Henke’s – is the author’s ability to make me feel something. Even if it’s sadness, if I feel like I have connected with the characters emotionally, and that feels real (as real as you can with a fictional character) then I will buy his or her book again. I want to feel like the author actually “gets me”. I think this is a common theme among women, and if an author can succeed at this, he or she is likely to be successful, in my opinion.

Carol Genengels: Karen Kingsbury’s book Redemption had a sad ending but offered hope and I sure wanted to read the next 7 books.

Ellen Edwards Kennedy: In a book, especially a Christian-oriented book, I want resolution. That doesn’t have to be a so-called happy ending. What I find frustrating is when the ending just drops the reader. As a reader, I want to trust the author. Stories that I like head in some kind of direction and carry the reader along. A sad ending is not necessarily a bad ending. And I’m sure everyone is pointing out that death isn’t necessarily a sad ending for the Christian. Hope this helps somehow.

Laurie Alice Eakes: Nope. Won’t read a book with a sad ending however much hope it offers. If I want sad, I watch the evening news. Hope often there, too, and real life is too sad with the hope of a better afterlife. I don’t need to read about it. I read for entertainment and ripping my guts out with grief at the end is not my idea of being entertained. If I suspect a book has a sad ending, I skip to the end. If I’m right, I stop right there. When I’ve surveyed my reading friends–and I’m on a couple of genre fan, not writer lists–those people feel the same way.

Diana Lee Flegal: I was reading down the list to see if anyone had mentioned Nicolas Sparks. He is very successful but I will not read him because you know someone is going to die. And I just had a large pub house’s editor ask my author to change her ending to a happy one …. must mean the CBA market doesn’t do sad.

Creston Mapes: Although many Christian publishers don’t want sad endings, unfortunately, life is sad sometimes. I am okay with sad endings…especially if there is hope on the horizon. The Road is one of my favorites novels. Dark and sad, yes, but oh so powerful.

Cristi Given: There’s enough sad in real life. If I wanted to read something sad, I would read more autobiographies. Hypocritical though from me as my favorite book is Les Miserables and favorite book type is triumph-over-adversity. Sorry, not much help.

Murray Pura: Define successful – but aren’t there Christian books besides Sue’s that are sad at the end yet uplifting and have made it?

Christina Tarabochia: As you know, you just referenced two of my favorite authors–and the reasons I wanted to become friends with you! I would add David Lewis’ Saving Alice to that category. I don’t mind a minor note ending, but that tone had better permeate the novel so I’m not caught unaware on the last page.

Your additional comments are welcome. Keep in mind, though, the real question: Will a novel with a sad ending find a large audience in our market?

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6 Responses to Will sad endings work in our market?

  1. Nicole January 17, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    Will the market sustain sad endings? CBA has more than one market. Unfortunately they cater to the one that’s been defined as with them the longest. I seriously think they don’t know how to reach their other fans effectively although some houses are getting it. If you ask from the standpoint of Harvest House, I would answer “no” to your question, Nick. If you had asked from the Thomas Nelson or Tyndale markets, I would say “yes”. Two of the distinctly different markets are represented in the answers here. We could most likely read between the lines of the answers and guess the authors the commenters read. Some of them mentioned particular authors.

    The different houses carved out (and are continuing to) their markets, and I think those houses which ultimately reach out to all of the potential readers will end up with the most “success” although the houses which continue to stay within the parameters they’ve set for their readers will maintain their status quo.

    The actual marketing plays a role in getting the books to the audiences who prefer them. There’s a huge – and largely ignored in CBA – market for specfic, but some of CBA continues to trumpet that it doesn’t sell in CBA. Marketing plays a key role in letting these readers know the stories exist and effectively promoting them, but in the past CBA has largely ignored their existence.

    Marketing novels seems like a crap shoot. What works for one doesn’t work for a similar book. I think the ability to sell the story will ultimately define what will sell, not the designated “happy” or “sad” ending. I agree with Gina Holmes here and, yes, her bestselling novel had a sad but hopeful ending. It fit the story.

  2. Timothy Fish January 18, 2012 at 3:42 am #

    Yes, I believe so, but I won’t say it is easy. It is extremely difficult to write a good book that has a sad ending. It is easy enough to write a sad ending, but sad endings tend to alienate the reader. It takes more than killing off a beloved character to be a good book. Instead, the ending should be such that even though we are saddened that it had to happen that way, we aspire to be like the character or we vow to never allow such an injustice to be in our own lives. When done well, readers will think about the ending for days and they will naturally tell their friends about the book. People will buy the book just because people are talking about it. So, yes, such a book can be successful, but I’m not sure I know of any Christian authors who could pull it off.

  3. Rebecca LuElla Miller January 28, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    Coming to this late but wanted to weigh in: I think a sad ending can still have hope. Look at something like Old Yeller. That one had an all time sad ending, but because of the character growth, the coming of age, it was full of hope. I think that kind of story could succeed in the CBA. I don’t think a book full of angst and hopelessness could succeed, primarily because I think it reflects a view of the world that isn’t true. Christians want truth in their fiction, I believe — even in their fantasy. 😉

    Becky

  4. Eureka February 3, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

    I read somewhere that all endings have to have both loss and gain to be realistic. I think that if the book ends in complete tragedy for the maan character the author should still do their best to show a happy ending for some of the other characters. I mean isn’t it like that in real life? If your friend’s unbelieving mother dies , you might greive for her but you yourself wouldn’t spend your whole life in mourning.
    I can take sad, if it is portrayed as beautiful and with some hope, but I reallu can’ stand unresolved endings. I think that for authors who have been rejected on the basis of being too sad should check to see if the end is really a resolution. Someone said that sometimes happy endings can feel forced nut so can sad ones if that is not the author’s natural style.
    Some authors can pull off a sad ending but most can’t. If only everyone wrote the way they do best then surely someone will hear their cries.

  5. John chan April 26, 2014 at 6:46 am #

    just write what you think. Sad ending could leave a trail, but happy could have leave a good taste but doesn’t leave a trail. Thats what I think as a reader

  6. Olga August 21, 2015 at 12:47 am #

    Nice job.I see what you mean about the end at the beginning bit. That short smetetant about this not being about family living but about God’s purposes at the two minute or so mark could have served you well if you moved it or even simply repeated it at the end instead of the few other goes you had at saying the same thing in different ways. I think I actually liked some of the stuff in the last few minutes more than the concluding stuff from the few minutes before that.Having told them the point of the passage was not moral instruction covering your bases by throwing in a few moral instructions was distracting and you’re right that the wrong was pretty evident in the story.The Springer stuff was generally relevant as a contrast because this story is included because of public interest, not because the public would be interested, which helps clarify that this story is there because it needs to be, not simply to gratuitously titillate or embarrass or entertain.Your two main illustrations were good, but I’m not certain the second clarified the point or advanced the sermon. It was amusing though.The generation Jacob stuff was helpful as a touchstone.The references to past sermon series seemed to add new information at a point where you were summarising the information you’d already given, as if you felt you needed it to find your way home. Maybe you can fold those sort of references in earlier so you can spend your conclusion refining, not collecting.Perhaps instead of invoking Jesus as the perfect relative you could consider how Hebrews 11 points us toward these actions being recorded as a faith response in God’s promises.Thanks again for engaging faithfully with a demanding text.

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