When we use the term tragic ending many stories come to mind, Romeo and Juliet, Phantom of the Opera, Ghost, Titanic, Moulin Rouge, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, just to name a few. In these stories one or both of the main characters die and the other characters and the audience are forced to reconcile the fact.
Some might say that it is the tragic ending that makes these stories so powerful, so memorable. Sure the acting and effects were terrific but in the end, the part that sticks is that sense of loss. The writer creates an emotional connection between the characters and with the audience, then deliberately severs it. Some have come to rate these stories by the number of tissues required to make it to the end.
What about the near tragedy? [Warning: Spoiler alert!] Recent films such as Tangled and Stranger than Fiction both have similar ending sequences. A main character is tragically killed and the audience is led to believe that they have actually died. Then by means either magical or literary they are saved. We cheer, applaud, and go home happy. Or do we?
Does saving the love interest after hope is lost rob the reader/viewer of a more powerful emotional experience?
I would argue that it does. The past death save has a tendency of being overused and often becomes cliché. It is expected that everyone should live happy ever after. As writers we want to surprise our readers by not giving them what they expect. In children’s media I agree that we shouldn’t kill off important and loved characters, so I would have saved Flynn in Tangled. But in Stranger than Fiction, I think the story would have been stronger had Harold not survived being smashed by a bus.