Atwood begins the story with a simple setup: “John and Mary meet. What happens next?” The story then proceeds through various plot iterations, describing different ways in which the tale might end. In scenario A, John and Mary marry, buy a house, have children, and generally achieve a “happy ending.”
In scenario B, Mary falls in love and attempts to pursue a romantic relationship with John, who is noncommittal and uninterested. While Mary attempts to woo him with carefully prepared meals, her impeccable appearance, and sex, John remains unsatisfied and treats her poorly. When Mary finds out that John is seeing another woman, Madge, she commits suicide. John marries Madge and everything continues as in A.
In scenario C, Mary is in love with James, an independent and adventurous young man with a motorcycle and record collection. Since James is often away, Mary also engages in a relationship with John, who in this scenario is much older and already married to Madge. When John walks in on Mary and James having sex, he kills them and commits suicide. At the conclusion of the story, Madge remarries to a man named Fred and everything continues as in A.
In scenario D, Fred and Madge brave a tidal wave, while in scenario E, Fred and Madge deal with illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. In scenario F, the narrator attempts to complicate things further by imagining John and Mary as spies and counterrevolutionaries, but concludes that the endings of all of the stories are all ultimately the same.
At the end of “Happy Endings,” Atwood meditates on the nature of plot and story, arguing that plot is ultimately less interesting than other aspects of storytelling. The various plot iterations throughout the story illustrates the ways in which the elements of a story, when broken down into discrete units, are often so interchangeable with one another as to be virtually meaningless. Ultimately, the story concludes that the “what” is not nearly as important as the “How and Why.”