Margaret Atwood's metafictional piece "Happy Endings" takes readers through a series of basic plots, any of which could become the core of a short story or novel. By examining various plots which all end the same way ("John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die."), Atwood makes a key point:
As in life, the most compelling parts of a story happen in the way it develops, not the way it ends.
Atwood begins with two central, stock characters: John and Mary. In Story A, they live the perfect life. They raise awesome kids and enjoy fun vacations. And they die, eventually. While happy, this doesn't exactly make for compelling reading. After all, who can relate to a life without conflict? So Atwood presents Story B.
In this version, Mary loves John, but he doesn't love her. She becomes his doormat, and he repays her by falling for Madge. Mary becomes suicidal and hopes her suicide attempt is discovered by John. It doesn't. Mary dies, and John lives out Story A with Madge.
In Story C, Mary is much younger than John and is really in love with a guy her own age. James rides a motorcycle and isn't quite ready to settle down. Mary is basically buying time, waiting on James while spending some time with John. When John discovers this, he purchases a handgun and shoots himself and then Mary and James.
The stories keep repeating, recycling some elements of each story and altering others. But at the core, they are all stories about a guy and a girl who fall in love. Most people can relate to this life experience. What makes a story (both a fictional one and the story of a person's life) interesting, then, is what people choose to do with their own stories. How do they create compellingly meaningful lives out of the basic plot line they are given?
All people will meet the same eventual ending: "John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die." This also reflects with irony on the title itself.
Atwood thus comments,
So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it's the hardest to do anything with.
The stretch in between, life, is the plot of all our days. Atwood advises that instead of living in the "whats" of life, we learn to live in the "How and Why" instead. And that is what drives a powerful story.