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Posted by on Nov 12, 2015 in Theme | 42 comments

Why I Don’t Write Happy Endings

Why I Don’t Write Happy Endings

 

I don’t think I’ve ever written a one-hundred percent happy ending in one of my stories.

Except for my first story, a soaring epic titled How Jery Rat Kild Thu Monstr, my endings usually deal out a heavy dose of sad along with the happy, and sometimes just a little more sad.

And not because I just really enjoy depressing myself and other people. For me, a ending that’s not all happy makes for a more thought-provoking and fulfilling story. 

 

The Contrast of Sad and Happy Is More Relatable

 

I think there’s a place for an occasional Hallmark happy ending where no one dies, every broken relationship becomes good as new, and all the single people are getting married to each other. Sometimes you just need one of these. They’re therapeutic.

But the truth is, life isn’t like this. It’s one huge tangle of the happy and the sad. I guess you could say life is one big bittersweet ending.

And endings that are bittersweet often resonate with us more, because we relate to them. We understand that joy comes along with loss, and vice versa. These are the stories that seem real. And aren’t they, really?

A Little Sad Makes the Happy Matter

 

I’ve never liked the Disney-esque ending “twist” where a main character sacrifices his life for his friends or the story goal, only for us to find out five minutes later (in a flurry of dramatic music and extravagant slow-motion shots) that guess what, he didn’t actually fall off that cliff. Or explode. Or get crushed by the falling heavy thing. Or whatever. I’m looking at you, AnnaDiegoHiccupTony Stark and Batman.

This bugs me even if I really like the character. If they die, I want them to stay dead.

That sounded a little cold. I am not a sociopath. Let me explain.

When a character sacrifices his own life, it’s usually a sock-in-the-gut culmination of his character arc, a manifestation of the lessons he’s learned so far. It brings meaning to the story. But when, oh guess what, the character isn’t actually dead—his sacrifice is cheapened. Now I feel like his death was a Feels Gimmick instead of a meaningful story event.

True loss and true sacrifices bring meaning. They make the happy parts matter, because we know what has been given to achieve them.

(And by the way, I’m secretly happy that Hiccup didn’t die at the end of HTTYD. Just so you know I’m not totally heartless.)

 

A Bittersweet Ending Shows Hope More Clearly

 

Feel free to argue with me on this one, but I don’t think there are very many stories that give a more inspiring picture of Hope than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Most specifically, Return of the King. 

Talk about a bittersweet ending. Good has won, things are as they should be, but man–we’ve had to pay a heavy price to get here.

We’ve waded through pain and darkness with Frodo. We’ve watched many beloved friends die. We’ve despaired. And then, at the end, Tolkien surprises us with a picture of Hope that is so vivid, so bright and tangible that it takes our breath away and brings tears to our eyes. (Yes, my eyes. Yes, men can cry when they read Lord of the Rings. It’s allowed.)

Our hearts may be warmed by those Hallmark happy endings, but we miss some parts of truth along the way. Hope and Joy are really only seen to their fullness when placed against the backdrop of pain and despair. In that contrast, Hope is unignorable. Joy isn’t just a fuzzy feeling, it’s a breathtaking shock that we didn’t realize we needed until it came crashing into the darkness around us.

I think true beauty comes in the bittersweet. For me, these are the stories that move my heart and nudge me a little closer to truth.

 

But what do you guys think? Do you enjoy bittersweet endings? Do you incorporate them into your own stories?

 

 

42 Comments

  1. Yessss. I was actually just thinking of writing up a blog post about this, so it was kinda creepy when this one popped up in my feed.
    And it’s funny you mentioned “Return of the King”, because I’ve argued about that ending with my sister so many times I’ve lost count. She’s always upheld the idea that Frodo should have just stayed in Middle Earth with his friends, with everything back to normal, but I’ve always felt that Frodo’s choice to leave was one of the most heart-wrenching and inspiring moments in the entire story. The fact that things can change and never be the same again, but still be good and beautiful was brought across so well, and, um– yeah, I was crying.
    Awesome post! Bittersweet endings are my favourite, so I definitely approve. *nods*

    • Maybe I stole your idea..
      No question about it. The end just wouldn’t have had the same impact with Frodo in Middle-Earth. Your sister is wrong. High-five. :p

  2. Did you read my mind?
    Hallmark endings are the bane of my existence. They leave a sickly sweet taste in my mouth; everything is just *too* happy, *too* perfect.
    I don’t completely agree that a hero sacrificing his life and then coming back to life is *always* cheap … but you can usually tell when it was done for THE FEELS and when it wasn’t. Generally, though, if the guy dies you’d better keep him dead. This also applies to villains who come back again … and again … and again. It cheapens everything the hero has done if he hasn’t really defeated the bad guy.

    I used to dislike the ending of LotR, as well as The Last Battle, but now I appreciate the bittersweetness. I actually prefer an ending like that now, instead of a tidy little ‘happily ever after’ tacked onto the end of a global war or whatever.

    • As a matter of fact, I DID read your mind. Moo haha.
      Excellent point about the returning villain. That’s often just as bad as the hero.

  3. I have been contemplating a bittersweet ending to my story I am writing and this post has just about convinced me to do it. Tolkien’s ending is perfect, but definitely sad, bittersweet.

    • YAY. This makes me happy.

  4. There have been very rare occasions when a character “sacrificed” himself only to come back again and I still was on board with it. Hiccup up is one. Tangled is another. (My book is almost the third in some ways.)

    Most of the time, I also am very frustrated by the way “hey but we get them back!” cheapens the sacrifice I just saw. I technically enjoy not losing people but I don’t like their sacrifice not to mean something. I lose a part of them in gaining them back.

    I also tend towards the bittersweet in my endings. There was actually one point when I actually considered the death not only of {M} but of {R} as well (I’m trying to avoid spoilers. I assume you know what book I’m talking about). I decided against it because I thought the one death portrayed cost and sacrifice, while the second would in a way make some themes of the book seem a bit meaningless and pointless and way, way too sad. (I guess, just as we get sad along with our happy, sometimes we get miracles we don’t deserve.)

    Also, /Lord of the Rings/ is probably the most achingly beautiful endings I know. Because I don’t /want/ it to end that way, but there is absolutely no way around it, and it hurts, but it’s not devoid of hope because he’s going to a better place. I don’t want him to have to leave, but the fact that he does is honest to the cost.

    More and more, internal honesty in a story is something that I come back to, and I think it can point to both the sad and the happy in a book.

    • You gave me a near heart attack when I saw {M}. I thought it was the other {M} at first and was going to yell at you. 😛

    • I think why that works in your story is that SO MUCH bad stuff has happened at that point, we feel like the good thing that happens was really dearly bought. Actually, your book has one of my favorite bittersweet endings.
      And I can’t believe you considered killing them. I mean, I can, but… :p

  5. “Hope and Joy are really only seen to their fullness when placed against the backdrop of pain and despair. In that contrast, Hope is unignorable. Joy isn’t just a fuzzy feeling, it’s a breathtaking shock that we didn’t realize we needed until it came crashing into the darkness around us.

    I think true beauty comes in the bittersweet. For me, these are the stories that move my heart and nudge me a little closer to truth.”

    Yes Yes YES.

    This. This is life.

    (And any man that cries over reading the end of Lord of the Rings is a true man 😉 )

    • Aw thanks. I like to think so. 😉

  6. Haha! Good old Jerry Rat… XD

    I like bittersweet endings. To me, it feels much more heartfelt and, (in a way,) more realistic. I like being able to cry over beloved characters who die for the greater good. It adds a certain sparkle to the story & a depth that it might not otherwise have.

    For instance, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, when you-know-who dies… Gah! It made me sad! BUT I liked how it was for a good reason, in a moment of sacrifice. It made the death mean something & not just happen for the sake of having angry/sad fans. And there are so many other examples for this!

    I am currently working on a story that will most definitely have a bittersweet ending. In my opinion, those are the best kind. Though, there needs to be a balance. I don’t want to be a total puddle of despair when I’m done reading/watching.

    • Exactly. And yes, as with everythibg, there has to be balance. There has to be hope.

  7. A well done bittersweet ending is good- it does indeed make the fight seem more dire when the sacrifices are real. But I have to admit, I’m also a big fan of tying my stories off with a good ending that will make me smile. Probably because as a kid I had a really tender heart, and couldn’t bear to see characters I loved die. Nowadays I have several stories with bittersweet endings, but only if the tone of the story fits it. If I’m writing a fairy tale though…. it’s going to be a happy ending, no buts about it. 😉

    • Nothing wrong with a happy fairy-tale ending! Although, ya know, a lot of those original Grimms tales had endings that were less than happy. Some were pretty horrid. :p

      • Indeed…. some of them are more like horror stories for adults than cute tales for children! 0_0 Still, I can appreciate some of that darkness as well- it makes the struggle more intense. Fairy tales are an art form, really. 🙂

  8. I actually have never thought much about this argument before. I’m one of those “everything has to end perfect” sort of people, otherwise I obsess about the story for days. Ask my family. But I can totally see the other side now, and it makes sense. 🙂

    • @Bree: You’re thinking of Keeper of the Lost Cities, aren’t you? :'(

      • Quite possibly!!

    • It’s hard! But the beauty that can be delivered with a not-all-happy ending is pretty awesome and worth it, at least for me.

  9. You just summed up why I love “Inside Out”.

    And as for my own stories, they never end 100% happily. Rarely do they even end with a 70-80% on the happiness scale. I feel like mostly-happy endings can be fuzzy, but it’s the joy-through-pain endings that are truly inspiring, so /that’s/ what I want to write.

    • I have yet to see that movie. I guess I need to.
      EXACTLY. Well said mah friend.

  10. I think you’re right on the whole, but I think every well written sad ending is really a happy one. Take, for example, “The Lord of the Rings.” I never thought that the ending was sad. I always rejoiced because Frodo had gone through so much suffering and pain on middle earth, now he was going to be rid of it all and go to his happy rest. Much better, I think than staying and finishing his days in the Shire. Then there’s A Tale of Two Cities; I love that ending. But we should learn from the very last words that the ending was happy not sad. My eyes were blurred with tears by the time I read, “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before. It is far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known before.” but my tears were happy tears, because finally this said, empty man, who had wasted his youth was getting what he had hoped for and longed for. It is a happy thing when one sacrifices his life for others. I makes us rejoice when a man goes to his longed for rest.
    My point is, we all like happy endings; it’s just that death isn’t always sad. It’s often happy, and uplifting. Because Christ has won the victory over death we don’t have to treat it as an end, but merely a passing from life into life.
    Do forgive my lecture, but wouldn’t you agree?

    Oh, by the way, I don’t think it would have been very nice if Jesus had stayed dead! 🙂

    • I do agree! That’s totally my point. Happy in the sad. Joy in the pain.
      Good point about Jesus. Yay for that.

  11. I find myself completely agreeing with you as I read this. I do like bittersweet endings and my favorite book would never be the same if the ally didn’t die in the middle and stay dead. (But I really don’t mind that Bucky Barnes came back to life . . . especially since his coming back it was so epicly done.)

    • It can definitely be done right! 🙂

  12. I absolutely live this post! I’m actually the only one in my family that doesn’t like cheesy happy endings and would rather the sacrifice stay a sacrifice! So it’s awesome to know I’m not the only one who believes in bittersweet endings. I am writing a book right now that kinds ends like that and I wrote it that way to leave people thinking. With a twinge of sad, but hope! So thank you storymonger! This hit it out of the ballpark for me!

    • Aw thanks! Glad to hear it.

  13. Excellent points here.
    I don’t take a character’s death too well (still trying to get over one in particular) But I admit that I do feel cheated when I find out that -surprise- they are actually alive and well. I’m glad they’re not dead, but I’m still a little miffed that I fretted for nothing. OR, more often than not, I don’t fret at all because I see it coming.

    As for bittersweet endings, where the character needs to adjust to a new normal, well it only makes sense. Not only is this how it is in real life, but the story would mean less if there was no change.

    • Yep! Change is one of the most important story elements ever.

  14. So, everyone else in the comment section is way more eloquent than I am, but like they all said, I agree. In my Intro to Film class, we’ve learned about optimist, pessimist, and ironic endings. The ironic endings are actually my favorite because of the bittersweetness.
    In my last novel, I had a heroic death that I loved and built up – and then it fizzled unexpectedly and the character came back -_- . When I go back to edit (if I ever do) he’s going to stay dead. My ending feels so cheap, and I just finished it to get it done. It’s a humorous story, but I also want to bring some seriousness into it for my theme.
    I always hate the endings that are too perfect. I don’t really like romance, so there are /very/ few occasions when I ship one.
    I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. Good work, keep writing, I always enjoy your posts.

    • Thanks, Cat! Good thoughts all. And good luck with your rewrite, I feel your pain there. 😉

  15. It really varies in my stories; some can’t have anything but a happy ending. But now I’ve got some stories whose endings will not be perfect, because that would simply take away from the story’s meaning. In fiction I read…I guess it depends on what you mean by happy or bittersweet, ’cause I personally thought Mockingjay had a happy ending (considering the story, anyway). 😉 But I know for sure I don’t like all loose end tied up with everything perfect.

    • There are a lot of loose ends in real life! To quote a certain lion, “To know what would have happened? No, dear child. No one is ever told that.”
      Hm. I may write a blog post on that very subject someday.

      • That would be an interesting post!

  16. Bittersweet endings are my favorite! I know because all of my favorite books that I can think of (I have a lot of favorites:) have them. I think a bittersweet ending does strengthen a story, and you’re right about a little sad making the happy matter.

  17. People call me heartless for saying I hope Tadashi stays dead in any sequels to Big Hero 6. From now on I will just send them a link to this post.

    • I am even more heartless for wishing Baymax had stayed dead. :p

  18. Oh wow, this was a really good post. Although I do like it when characters I love don’t actually die, you’re so right – there are some stories that miss out on having more impact if they had only left that character dead! Even if it’s sad. 🙁
    I’m reading the Lord of the Rings books for the first time and I totally agree about Tolkien and his theme of hope. It’s absolutely beautiful–I can’t wait to read Return of the King!

  19. What everyone seems to be saying (and I agree with) is that endings should feel, not so much happy or bittersweet, but true.

    • That’s a great way to sum it up. 🙂

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