Don’t be too Nice!


De-cosying our stories

A wonderful writer friend of mine sent me her short story to critique. As usual, her writing was deft and secure, her sentences elegant, her narrative absorbing. I made a few suggested tweaks and ventured to suggest a more optimistic ending, but she resisted, saying she had always envisaged a bleak conclusion to the story; it just felt right. ‘You’re just too nice,’ she wrote, ‘you want everyone to have a happy ending!’

She was right of course. As a child, my stories always ended with my characters going home to tea. I wanted to send my readers away with the impression that life was secure and cosy, all stories could end happily. But, as most of us know, life isn’t like that. Some people don’t get happy endings even if they deserve them, and if we read fiction to find out more about the way the world works, relentlessly optimistic stories feel artificial and unrelatable.

On my M.A course, my supervisor often told me not to feel obliged to end each scene neatly, all problems resolved. I had to force myself to write uncomfortable scenes, to leave my characters in distress, their outcomes uncertain. Yet as well as being more realistic, it’s scenes like this that create narrative urgency – our readers want to continue reading to find out if there will eventually be a happy ending. If done well, they feel the characters’ pain and become invested in their stories. It’s what makes them want to turn the pages.

If we want to be nice to our readers – to give them a satisfying reading experience – we need to be nasty to our characters. I’m off to try to practise what I preach: no more Mrs Nice!