What point is Margaret Atwood making about plots in "Happy Endings"?

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In this piece of metafiction, Margaret Atwood makes the point that "what" happens in a life or a story, the plot, is of little importance because all plots, whether in life or in fiction that possesses an "authentic ending," end the same way: in death. She presents a number of very different plots: some include suicide, others espionage, some cancer, and others have "no problems" at all. The point is that the details of each plot really just consist of "a what and a what and a what" and that "The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die." No matter the plot, no matter how distinct it is, it must and will end the same way. Atwood further downplays the importance of plot when she says, "That's about all that can be said for plots."

She ends the piece by saying, "Now try How and Why." In other words, then, "how" and "why" are of far more importance and interest than "what." We should be focused not on what happens but why and how it happens. For example, why do we say the things we say and do the things we do? Why do characters say and do the things they do? Our motives, our reasons, our wishes: these are the elements of a story, of a life, that are really important, really honest. Plots themselves do not matter much at all.

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Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood is an example of metafiction. This is a fiction story that refers to or takes as its subject fictional writing and its conventions.  The author at the same time displays her feelings about creative writing, and then she uses her scenes to comment on living life to its fullest. 

Atwood presents six scenarios all with the same characters. Each of the scenes provides the same conclusion. The characters die in the end. The author cleverly presents different plots for the stories.  Her characters are flat and only caricatures of reality, and her  tone is somewhat satirical and sarcastic. 

These scenarios are metaphors for life.  Each scene portrays a different approach to life.  Scene A is the perfect life.  In the other scenes, the characters face challenges which cause them to act in a certain way. 

John and Mary meet. 

What happens next?

If you want a happy ending, try A.

They live, they age, and they die.  Other than the names of the characters, the only similarity to each scene is that everyone knows the end of the story: the characters die.  It is the beginning and the middle parts of the story that contain the interesting aspects.  Again, Atwood uses these parts of the story as a metaphor for the beginning of adulthood and the journey they have in the rest of their lives.

The plot is the important part of the story.  According to Atwood, this is what makes the story interesting:

That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.

It is how the person gets to the end of his life that counts.  Atwood has two messages: It is the journey of life that matters and what a writer should and should not do in writing a story.

What is the message for the fiction writer? That plot is the real blueprint of the story. Atwood uses irony to show the importance of an organized plot in a short story by writing a short story in which an organized plot does not exist. The plot should always be the focal point of a short story because the plot of the story may alter the conclusion of the story. 

Atwood teaches the short story writer not to dwell or focus on the ending of the story. Atwood illustrates the effectiveness of voice and style in short story writing with her use of irony.  Atwood uses verbal irony by the way she explains the lives of her characters.

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What does plot have to do with Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings"?

To start thinking about what plot has to do with Atwood's fun little story "Happy Endings," consider what a plot is. A plot is part of a story, and specifically, it is the way events are arranged in a story to help create emotional response and suspense. When writers create plots, they show the connection between and among things: B happens because A happened, and that leads to C, etc.
Well, in "Happy Endings," Atwood sketches out bunches of common plots and shows how arbitrary they are, as a way of having fun with the idea of plots and stories.

Greg

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