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Unhappy Endings and/or When We Aren't the Good Guys
Posted: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 4:12 AM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

So, my story ends pretty badly. The Earth is destroyed with a very few survivors and they are more or less doomed. Furthermore, though they are almost certain some aliens are at fault, it was actually the humans who screwed up and destroyed their own planet.

The End.


Is that sort of thing okay? Why/why not? When, how, etc. does this kind of thing work? Examples?

Weigh in, unhappy-ending writers/fans!

Tom Wolosz
Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 1:22 AM
Joined: 5/25/2011
Posts: 122

Hi Lily,

the first rule of suspense is that the reader has to be unsure of the ending. If all endings are happy there is no suspense! Look at the desperate (and pathetic) hooks that are used in the trailers for tv shows today: "And one of the crew meets an untimely end!" Of course when you watch the episode it turns out to be not one of the main crew characters, but the young ensign that hung around in the backround of a couple of scenes in the last few episodes - what bunk!

Of course the other side of the coin is that you chance getting your readers really pissed off at you if you kill off a character they've come to like and admire. If I remember correctly Conan Doyle killed off Holmes (he was tired of him) and then was forced by popular demand to bring him back.

I think what it comes down to is that you are the author. Plunck down your coin, spin the wheel and take your chances. If your readers (or your editor) don't like it then you might have to change it. But at the same time imagine if The Road had ended with the Man and Boy stumbling into a green valley with abundant crops and a colony of happy ( and non-cannibalistic) survivors. What crap it would have been.
Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 1:42 AM
Joined: 3/11/2011
Posts: 157

When I finished my comprehensive exam for an MA in literature, I went on a Michael Crichton binge. I hadn't read genre fiction in so long, I'd missed most of the best selling books. So after a handful of Crichton books, I noticed that regardless of the crisis and the level of destruction, in the end, it was always something humans brought upon themselves.

There seem to be a few ways to handle that sort of thing. The first - the actual destruction seems to be contained, but there's a potential that it might spread and become worse. This was great for the Jurassic Park books because it meant sequels.

The next is massive destruction but with a flicker of hope at the end. That seems to be a lot of the post-apocalyptic fiction out there. Readers want that flicker of hope. That chance for the characters to survive.

Or there's the pure shock value of utter destruction. Something like that final Statue of Liberty scene in Planet of the Apes which for those watching the movies when they were first release revealed that the planet the astronauts landed on wasn't a different planet. It was an earth where mankind had destroyed itself.

The last is the hardest to make work because it's akin to killing your MC at the end of a story. If not handled perfectly, it just leaves the reader feeling cheated. People really do prefer a sense of hope.

Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 1:55 AM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

I guess of those three, mine is a mix of the second and third.

I've read a lot of books with unhappy endings, but they are mostly oldy-old novels of manners from 100 years ago. Like all of Edith Wharton's failed marriage plots, for example.

It seems like more recent literature and other entertainment for the consumption of U.S. audiences is more happy and/or triumphant at the end. There are notable exceptions of course--like The Road, mentioned above. But at least in the film version of that (I didn't read the book), the boy ends up in an oddly healthy (all things considered) nuclear family with a dog. (Why haven't they eaten that dog a long time ago???) I guess it's a pretty dismal version of Leave it to Beaver, but it's still this oddly satisfactory ending. That's the flicker of hope, I guess.
Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 9:13 PM
Joined: 3/11/2011
Posts: 157

If you're reading Edith Wharton and her contemporaries you're looking at the "Realism and Naturalism" era of American literature. This was an era when authors really delved into exploring what they felt was a more natural or realistic view of human life in literary works. It's said to be a reaction against the romantic movement popular in Britain. By the time I ended a semester of in depth study in the period during my graduate program, I needed therapy and anti-depressants. Yes, that really is meant as a joke, but if you study the era, you find out that the happy endings are when the MC commits suicide by drowning in a mostly peaceful ocean. In the unhappy endings the MC ends up in the desert handcuffed to a corpse. (and no, I didn't make that up.)

Realism and Naturalism wasn't really meant to be a literary movement that would have the broad appeal of genre fiction. And for contemporary fiction, you're likely to see works like that more in the literary arena than genre fiction.

Yes, genre fiction -- fiction for a wide audience -- is more likely to have some degree of a happy ending. Or at least offer that glimmer of hope. The reason for this is simply that "happy" endings are likely to sell better than leaving your MC stranded in the desert to die a lingering and horrific death.

Now you will find darker aspects in popular genre fiction -- post-apocalyptic works, horror, even urban fantasy. So it's not impossible to write dark fiction or stories that don't have traditional happy endings, but those stories are usually geared to genres where the reader expects that darker image.
Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 10:53 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

I'm with you on naturalism and antidepressants, but I am a big fan of realism! (My own grad school specialty was that period.)

I am not as ensconced in "genre" fiction as I might be, however, and am mostly a watcher of television and movies in that category. (I have read many of SF and fantasy's "greatest hits, though). There is an awful lot of triumphalism in those and a lot in which humans (especially humans who are thinly-disguised versions of U.S. Americans) are more or less the good guys.

I am certain there's other stuff out there in the genre, and I'd like to hear more about it.

As I recall, Ender's Game had a sort of ambivalence about whether the humans were the good guys, though it had an ending in which they won. What else..?
R P Steeves
Posted: Thursday, November 3, 2011 1:34 PM
Joined: 10/13/2011
Posts: 12

In my opinion, you have to serve your story and the ideas behind it. Part of what (in my opinion) is wrong with Hollywood is that they are more concerned with giving the audience what they WANT rather than what they NEED. Forcing a happy ending is a bad idea, I think.

What is your story really about? The triumph of the human will? Overcoming adversity and long odds? Our best is not always good enough? Boiling down a whole novel into a sentence is overly simplistic, I know, but think about Ethan Frome. What is that about? A good man who wants to be happy, but fate and choices keep him forever from his goal. THAT is powerful stuff. If he ended up in a happily-ever-after scenario, I would have felt cheated and it would not be a classic work. Does that mean go for the downer every time? I don't think so. But you have an idea in mind as to what your real story is, and where it's going. Stick with that, be honest to your idea, and that will come across to the reader.
Posted: Thursday, November 3, 2011 4:27 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

I suppose that to boil down my book in a sentence, I would say "All we have ever had, all we have, all we will ever have, is each other." That's not in a romantic sense, but in an overall human race sense. And it's a lesson not learned until everything else is gone.

Perhaps another sentence? "The universe doesn't care what happens to us--we're on our own."

Sounds grim, but is ultimately a relief in some ways, no?

This is such a product of my midlife crisis!
R P Steeves
Posted: Thursday, November 3, 2011 5:36 PM
Joined: 10/13/2011
Posts: 12

I do my best writing in response to crises! And yes, I think that if those are the points you are trying to make, then you have a work that could potentially have a downer of an ending. But maybe there is room for a kernel of hope. A character that learns a lesson, or a chance that the next generation will avoid the mistakes of the previous. I look forward to reading what you've posted when I have time.
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Monday, November 28, 2011 6:21 PM
I have to say that such an ending would probably make me feel cheated.

Every story ends in the death of the participants, if we were to continue to follow their lives, so it’s not the death that’s the reason. It’s that poetic justice has been violated. When Snow White and her prince are together at the ending we know there are going to be more troubles. Perhaps Prince Charming develops prostate cancer and dies, or a giant steps on him. But the ending comes when the threat we’ve been facing has been at least placed in abeyance, while poetic justice has been served. It’s why we have the denouement, where the protagonist learns what the prize is for being steadfast and deserving. But if the result of all that struggle and sacrifice is that it was wasted effort…

At the story’s end our characters go to sleep, waiting to be awakened when someone turns to page one. But the reader, who has had the protagonist as an avatar for the duration of the book, lives on, and wonders/fantasizes what life would present next had they actually lived that story. That reader has hope that the character will continue to show the same resourcefulness in his/her future endeavors, and somehow, manage to hang on—as we hope to do in our own lives. The hero’s journey continues in our own mind, even as we sigh and return to the mundane, glad that for just a moment we were heroes, ourselves.

Can you succeed in pleasing a reader with your own story’s ending? It may be that you can. I’m only talking in general, and it’s the exception that piques our interest.

In some eastern cultures the most beautiful ending is that the characters achieve perfection, then die before the realities of the world can intrude. Perhaps yours will have that beauty—and reader satisfaction. But in general, I think it best to give at least the chance that the hero will chose the door with the beautiful lady behind it, rather then have a choice of two doors, both hiding a tiger.

Posted: Monday, November 28, 2011 7:21 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

It's tricky, Jay. I'm not sure if I can pull it off and after all this time, since I began the story, I'm not sure if I still want to try, or if I want to push the story to some further hopeful future.

But initially, I sort of wanted them to have a redeeming moment, personally, that really had no bearing on the overall tragedy, which would continue on.

And I guess that's the key--can I write a successful tragedy in which there is a satisfactory catharsis, in spite of the heroes losing?

At the moment, it's a moot point, as I don't have time to work on this project right now. And it may be best for the project if I put it on the back burner for a while anyway. Who knows how it will have developed in my subconscious when I get back to it?

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Monday, November 28, 2011 11:34 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

Have you ever read The Windup Girl? I have never felt so sad or so happy for characters before. Its tragic yet happy at the same time because, even though characters that you don't want to see die, other achieve a sense of happiness, or success, that makes the story worth while. I'm Jay on this. Don't make me feel cheated.
Kenley Tan
Posted: Tuesday, November 29, 2011 8:16 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 27

There have been some endings that were meant to end badly. Think of the Goodfellas. They're a bunch of drug dealers who have earned our sympathy, yet we know they are bad. It would be unfair if they all get happy ending. It would send the message that crime does pay.
I'm not sure about how to properly end things order than "give them what they truly deserve" or "it must tie-in with the overall theme." What I know is how not to end it. 
Here's a list of things that make my blood boil when ending a story:
Deus Ex Machinas:
No, Kamen Rider and Super Sentai,(people classify these under Power Rangers since most people aren't familiar with tokusatsu and the most popular toksatsu in the western world is Godzilla and Power Rangers) doesn't really fall in that category.  They do set things up before the ending and the endings in these series are really good even if you know the good guys win in the end, because they did deserve it.

Anything to shock ONLY :
Think of Ultimatum or Countdown where people die just to make a cameo. The characters appear for a few seconds then die. It just perplexes me how these kind of deaths happen, especially near the ending. A good death makes a point. Adding deaths to "hook" the reader to know how it ends, or how the final page will look, like is not a good way to end it. Making everyone die for no reason is a bad way to end it.
I will try to deconstruct three endings I liked. *SPOILER ALERT*
In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Toru was able to attack his (evil) brother-in-law(in a different dimension) and was dying in the real world, but Toru's wife decided to go to the police and say she was in fact the one who killed her brother. It was sad, but it made sense. Killing someone who deserved to die has its consequences. Toru's wife divorced him earlier in the novel and Toru searched for her in the entire novel while going through a plethora of side plots. In the end, he found her, he was able to get back at someone he hates, but he was lonely in the end. 

(This is a movie) Terry Gilliam's Brazil was a great dystopian movie and it ended with the main character going insane, because of the problem with the system in the government. It did have a good impact and it did make sense. The world was already very scary. He just lost his girl of his dreams and even his friend is chasing him(they worked for the government). Ending it that way made sense to emphasize how bad the world was.

(This is a TV show) Kamen Rider W(which currently has tie-in movies, but the show has ended) showed Philip,one of the main characters, dying in the penultimate episode only to revive him in the last which took place one year after Philip died. It was quite bittersweet for two reasons:
1.)Shoutarou(his partner) was fighting crime all by himself trying to be a hard-boiled detective.(it was a running joke that Shoutarou was a half-boiled detective which Philip called him) It had perfectly made an atmosphere of loneliness. He was more hard-boiled, but he wasn't energetic anymore. Seeing Philip again brought him down to tears while Philip teased him. The connection they had was well set up in the series that the viewers got the want.
2.) Everything comes with a price. Philip's sister was one of the most sympathetic villains in the series. She fell in love with Philip until they found out that they were siblings. This made her go insane and made her harness the power of the earth.
[BACKSTORY] Philip died when he was still a child, but revived as an entity capable of accessing any information in the world, but his family found a different use, which is to turn regular people into Dopants. Dopants are like monsters which have their own abilities. When his sister found out that they were siblings she decided to get the exact power Philip had, thereby making them entities of information which are extremely powerful[END]
When his sister realized that he was dead, she decided to sacrifice her life to revive him since they have the same properties, but it took Philip a year to regenerate his body.
The trade-off made sense since she loved him as a brother and she was a villain who did many bad deeds(and she was about to kill everybody) before finding out Philip died. She may have been one of the most sympathetic of the villains, but she was still a villain who deserved tobe punished, so it made sense that she would revive Philip using her own body, since Philip was saving people while she was destroying lives.
Based on the three cases, the most important factor is logic
It was logical for the bad people to suffer justice. It was logical for the main character in Brazil to become insane even if it was unjustified, because the world was twisted. It was logical for Toru's wife to say she killed her brother, because she loved Toru.
Impact is important. Happy endings usually don't have an impact on me, because it feels cliche and artificial. Sad endings have greater impact, but it must be logical, not "shocking". There must be logic to back the impact. Bittersweet endings are hard for me to accept, but they usually are the most realistic. Everyone usually gets what they deserved in the end and the trade-offs are usually logical. Bittersweet endings pack a punch, because everyone got different things, but you know that the ending was the most plausible of all. Nothing is too good or too bad in this world.
I'm not sure if I helped you, but I hope this helps.
Your ending is quite logical though and it does send a strong message.
Posted: Tuesday, November 29, 2011 11:12 AM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

Thanks for the roundup, Kenley. It's a lot of food for thought. What I'm starting to wonder is if there is a way to do a somewhat tragic ending and still adhere to genre conventions so that readers don't get mad. It seems there could be.

But again, I'm not sure this is still the story I want to write. I was in a rather nihilistic mood when I first conceived it and I'm not certain it was a timeless message I was going for rather than just a commentary on the headspace I was in at the moment.

Than yet AGAIN, maybe there is a kernel of something in that tragic story that I need to develop further.

Whatever happens to this story, it's going to be a good exercise for me at the very least.

Tom Wolosz
Posted: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 9:36 PM
Joined: 5/25/2011
Posts: 122

Hello Lily and friends,

     I don't buy a lot of what's been said here for a simple reason - if a story is true to itself it doesn't matter if the ending is tragic (all the MC's die) or comic (success!! we triumph).  The worst endings, as far as I'm concerned are the gutless endings, those that leave you hanging (ex.  the MC approaches the final door in the maze, behind it is either dead or salvation.  He/she reaches for the doorknob, slowly turns it, the door opens...THE END.  Arrrgh!!!! This is a cheap trick (I think they used it in the Sopranos) which supposedly generates discussion, but in rerality all it does is lets the writer off the hook of making a decision as to how his/her story ends. 
    Truthfully Lilly, if your story ended with Tiria going down in flames, her last act a valiant effort to save the main ship or another pilot, while Eva, knowing she is about to die sits among her few remaining plants, pressing her hands into the soil around them - one last bonding with Gaia (or however you wish to do it) I would find that sad but satifying.  
    If on the other hand they were saved at the last minute by the children of UltraGaia the mother of all life bearing planets, or some such I'd barf.  
     On the other hand, should they survive by some logical plot device - that's your choice.  You are the writer - just make me believe it.
    Ask yourself - what's the body count at the end of Hamlet?  How many of the Brothers Karamazov survive?    Don't limit yourself because you are writing in a genre - expand the genre!
     If you want mundane look at TV.  Plot lines are driven not by the logic of the plot, but by the contracts of the stars.  Is that what you want?
      Good writers are not slaves - they are writers.
Posted: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 9:58 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

; ) Tom!

Angela Martello
Posted: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 10:34 PM
Joined: 8/21/2011
Posts: 394

I agree 100% with what Tom wrote - just because it's genre fiction, that doesn't mean there is no room for tragedy. Would Brave New World have been more satisfying if it had ended differently? I doubt it. Think of the Bowie song Space Oddity - in a few short verses, we have a very tragic sci-fi story. Would the song have worked if Major Tom were rescued somehow and reunited with his wife? Again, I don't think so.

When I was studying Shakespeare (more years ago than I care to count), I loved all the plays I read, but I was most moved, most challenged by the tragedies. The tragic endings lend themselves to, at least in my mind, more thought - What, if anything, could the hero/heroine have done to avoid his/her fate? How could the devastating events have been avoided? Can lessons be learned from this tragedy? And so on.

I think there is room in all types of fiction, in songs, even in dance for both tragic and happy (or at least hopeful) endings. After all, isn't that true of life?

BTW: If anything, I find the "and they all lived happily ever after" endings the most unsatisfying

Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Saturday, December 3, 2011 4:56 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

Hey Shannon,

I don't care about a happy ending.  I care about a good ending.  A truthful ending.  An unforgetable ending.  Just as there are unnecessarily bleak endings, there are certainly arbitrary, tacked-on happy endings.

I think the point is to get to know your story well enough that you know what its "true" ending is, and then find the courage to tell that story to the fullest.  Sure, you may have been in a nihilistic mood when the story first came to you, and how it utlimately unfolds may change a great deal between first and final draft, but the journey is always toward the story's most vivid expression, and not toward a particular conventional ending. 

In another thread you ask, "Can we imagine a better future?"  You see how that question informs the issue you're getting at in this thread.  Yes, the human race may be doomed as a result of our short-sighted beligerence, the consequences of actions we didn't fully understand but should have, but some of the people in your story will surely come to understand that, some of the people in your book will fight with their last breath to right the wrongs born of our human limitations.  Or maybe, the actions of these characters might be able, somehow, to reach the aliens' consciousness, change the direction of the human race and change the aliens' minds about how best to deal with the human threat.  I, for one, would surely love to find out how that story ends!

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Saturday, December 3, 2011 6:15 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

I agree with all that has been put on here about keeping your story true to itself. I think, what I was trying to say before, is just that. A writer should never just write a tragic ending because that is how they want it to end. If the story is set up for everyone dying, then that is how it must be. Threads must lead to it. There is such a thing as tragedy that doesn't make sense. A character's death, or rescue, should touch the reader. That is what I meant by don't make them feel cheated.
Hannah Grischuk
Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 4:02 PM
Joined: 10/13/2013
Posts: 5

The only qualified advice I can really give is as a reader.
I happen to love unhappy and unexpected endings if done well. As long as the ending makes a point and isn't just a copout I think unhappy endings can be more powerful than happy ones.

As far as killing off characters goes: I like to think of George RR Martin. He has said in interviews and made clear in his books that he purposefully kills off main characters to keep his readers on edge. If no one is safe, the suspense is much greater. Plus it allows him to put two main characters in a tight confrontation in which death can be the only result. Readers are forced to choose between the two and the outcome is far from certain. 

Altogether, I believe a unhappy end can make a much more suspenseful and powerful book.

Hannah Grischuk
Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 4:04 PM
Joined: 10/13/2013
Posts: 5

Plus I'm a sucker for a good apocalypse.
Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2014 9:31 AM
How characters behave often decides what the ending will be. We all knew the tragic life of Hitler would have an apocalyptic ending. My book The Commercial has a surprise ending dictated by the apocalyptic nature of the book and the paradigm shift it demanded. Artificially imposed surprise endings leaves the reader with a feeling of having been cheated. Whether or not the denouement is tragic or happy is of little consequence so long as it doesn't feel contrived.
Posted: Friday, February 5, 2016 7:39 PM
Joined: 1/5/2016
Posts: 14

This discussion has stagnated a long time, but I'd like to know what current members think.


I agree with Tom Wolosz that the ending must be convincing, whether tragedy is avoided or not. As Kevin Haggerty states, it has to be truthful, and Hannah Grischuk's coment that unhappy endings can be more powerful than happy ones is right on, as well.


I used to know a fellow who at the end of almost any situation that worked out would say, "I love a happy ending." I have to say: If it fits, so do I. If it doesn't, make me cry.




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