Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write Happy Endings that Feel Earned


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

This is it. This is the one. The mother of all Christmas movies. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation comes close, It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic, Home Alone is still a personal favorite, and all those claymation movies from the ’60s, like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, are a lot of fun. But How the Grinch Stole Christmas remains the cream of the crop in my eyes. It does so much in so few minutes. It has a sweet message that never tires. It features one of the most memorable antagonists in movie history. The songs are perfect. The narration is terrific. And it gets in and out in under a half-hour. It’s about as close to a perfect film as they come.

There was great controversy in the year 2000 when Ron Howard’s live-action feature-length version of the story was released to theaters. I mean, the idea of it solicited promise. Jim Carrey as the Grinch? And Howard, who had so much success beforehand working in all sorts of genres, proved to be a capable choice of director. It’s dark, grimy, ugly. The movie didn’t work at all.

The live-action version has come and gone, and the one that will stay around forever is the animated short. This movie is the real deal. From the opening animation and song that cause goose-bumps, all the way to the happy but in no way sentimental ending that finds The Grinch carving that giant roast beast with the Whos, the film is sublime entertainment. I truly never get tired of it.

Some maniacal genius decided to allow Frankenstein’s monster himself Boris Karloff to do the voice work, and he is a fantastic choice. His voice is distinct in a way that will never be repeated again. The film features three songs, all of which stay in your memory long after the movie has ended. They could’ve been annoying, and for some reason, they should be, but they work completely. And the movie features animation that looks dated, of course (it is 1966 after all) but that quality, to me anyway, makes the movie more endearing.

My favorite moment is at the end, of course, when we find out what the Whos find to be the true meaning of Christmas, even when all their presents have come to be stolen by the morning. Lately I watch this ending feeling a bit cynical, thinking that if this were to actually happen on a wealthy street in today’s society, the kids and parents would be clawing at each others’ throats. But I try not to think about that. I try to let the movie’s message fill me with the kind of hope I need lately. In most films, an ending like this would make me want to throw up, but it works in this. Why? We identify so much with the Grinch’s demeanor (I mean, everyone hates Christmas a little), and we’re taken by surprise by how these creatures react to the news that there are no material goods. We’re surprised, and the Grinch is surprised. And what happens to him after this twist development is one of the most heart-warming arcs of a character in animation history.

I love this movie. I’ll love it to the day I die. It’s rare to find a Christmas movie that blends together a wonderful story, memorable songs, a superb main character, and beautiful animation all in one neat package that people of any age can watch and enjoy. While most contemporary Christmas movies put money in the studio banks, only to be forgotten six months later, a movie like the 1966 classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas! will live on for many more years to come. It’s one of the classic stories of all time.

Watching Like a Writer

It’s easy to bring cynicism into your endings, and it’s also easy to write an ending so cutesy and sentimental that the reader can’t help but roll his or her eyes. Something this animated classic does so well is feature a happy ending that feels both earned and unexpected, one that shows a much-needed arc in the central character. I’ve always been a fan of dark endings in my own fiction, but movies like How the Grinch Stole Christmas gives me the inspiration to aim for more happy endings, ones that are emotionally satisfying without being cloying.


Think about the ending of your work-in-progress. Is there a way to make it a happy one without making it overly sentimental? How so?

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