I have a confession to make: I'm a sucker for a happy ending. I've read several books that have made me completely miserable but then make up for it by everything working out in the end. Sure, the characters go through hell but it ends up being worth it. It makes them stronger, and it makes having to read through the bad stuff worth it.
Well, here's my second confession: my story does not have a happy ending. I don't know how this happened to me. I always write happy endings. Maybe that's partly because the kind of stories I used to write always had a villain--a very distinct antagonist that needed to be defeated in order for the story to end. Well, that isn't the case with my current book. And I haven't read a lot of romance novels, but I'm guessing they usually end happily. Not that my book is 100% romance, but still, it kind of goes against the grain.
I've certainly read books that haven't ended happily before. Usually I want to throw them against the wall. And I have this secret desire to have my characters stay together forever, but I know that can't happen. That's life, really. Things don't always work out perfectly. They're not always wrapped up in a neat little bow. Maybe that's why people like happy endings so much. If things can go so well for these fictional characters, maybe things in life can always end happily, too.
Every story is different. Every character is different. Usually, the writer will know how their story will end before they get to the ending. I always knew this story couldn't have a happy ending. It just wouldn't have made sense. My book would have to span several years rather than just a few months. And in the end, I don't think my readers would be satisfied with the ending. They wouldn't believe it. It's funny, because I think my goal for this book is for the reader to want that happy ending, but to still be satisfied when they don't get it. Hopefully they'll want these characters to stay together, but they'll be able to understand when they can't. My ending is sad, but it's not miserable. It has a silver lining. No one's going to jump off a roof once the pages end. And it's partially about growing up, so a bit of harsh learning is necessary.
Ultimately, you have to choose an ending that works for the story. A happy ending isn't always going to be the right fit. Really, it doesn't matter whether you have a happy ending or a sad one. You just need an ending that makes sense.