Posted by: Jodi | April 13, 2011

Discussion: The Tragic Ending

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.

Your thoughts?

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Responses

  1. I agree that death should be final in the story sense of that character being around in a mortal sense. It becomes somewhat of a deus ex machina situation to have all these people coming back from the “dead” just to make us all happy. That’s cheap happiness. Many of the best stories end in death of a good character but they don’t need to be depressing. It’s what that character DID during the story that counts and how it impacts those that go on into the “ever after”.

    • In all regards dead should be dead – but I agree that death doesn’t always equal tragedy. There is a fine balance between artistic reality and manipulation of the audience. No one likes feeling like they are being forced to feel something.

      Happy endings are almost a little unsatisfying because there is almost always a cost involved in resolving a story, ignoring that cost is shortsighted.

  2. This is why I gave up reading Marvel comics: once a character has died, he/she should remain dead.

  3. I agree that sometimes, we are better off with a tragic ending. Real life isn’t always “and they lived happily ever after” and a story of loss, can at times be more powerful…which brings me to one of the best ever stories of loss EVER.
    The Crow by James O’Barr, in which the main character, Eric, is actually killed and comes back to avenge his death and that of his fiancee. You cannot get more tragic than that, and yet, it is a powerful tale about love and the power of it.
    You couldn’t have written this post at a better time, as I have been contemplating this very subject since I’m working on a post about The Crow right now 🙂

    • I thought that The Crow was an awesome movie, it’s been years since I’ve seen it. I watched the clips you included in your blog a while ago. Just think how the story would have changed had they chosen to save the fiance or bring her back!

      There is a huge difference between American fiction and International fiction in that regard – it seems Americans prefer the happy ending where many other countries prefer the tragic, failed conquest, or open ended ending.

  4. It’s focus groups that ruin the endings of movies. A bunch of people who don’t care about art or storytelling sit around a room and tell the studio they want feel-good, forgettable conclusions.

    Good thing James Cameron has creative control, or the Titanic would probably have been saved from sinking.

    • Makes me want to throttle a marketer or two. If you try to make everybody happy then you end up with inferior product. Your goal should be to make people love it or hate it – no fence sitters!

  5. I confess that one of my pet hates is the contrived ‘happy ever after’ ending. Some stories are made for happy endings, some are not and yet many editors seem intent on having everything wrapped up with a nice little bow and a smiley face, insisting that this is what the reader wants. I have heard readers say, ‘I didn’t like the ending’, or ‘It made me sad’ or ‘It left some questions unanswered’ and yet these are often the stories that remain with us, leave us with something to think about, and they are the stories that resonate with us years later. Happy endings are good too, provided they read as though they have evolved ‘organically’.

    • I agree that if the ending, whatever ending it turns out as, HAS to feel natural. If it comes across as contrived or forced then it has failed. There are so many books out there where the writer seems to get tired of the story and tacks on a stereotypical ending. I have a hard time remembering books whose endings were too pretty, what was the point?

  6. “Happy endings” in fiction-especially when there is a strong love story- provides us with that Utopian escape from real life.

    As a reader and movie goer I like “happy endings” most times. However, it all depends on the story line. Just like an unreal ‘coming back from dead’ leaves you feeling a little unhinged, a “connived” tragic ending also does not gel well with discerning readers. They might see through ‘the attempt to provoke that sweet ache’ and feel cheated.
    However, I agree to what Andy Penpraze points out in his comment -“a beautifully formed, and unexpected, tragic ending invokes strong emotions in readers.”

    As a writer I have often thought twice before bumping off my characters, unless it is a “beautifully formed tragedy.”

    • I have a bad habit of injuring or killing off characters to force other characters into action. There are so many other ways of getting the other characters to care and act but it seems to be the first thing that jumps to mind. I will admit that there are many beautiful love stories that have happy endings, and I am glad for them – all the Cinderellas, the Sleeping Beauties, etc let us rejoice in a way that only a great story can.

  7. Amen to that! Although there are many ways to evoke an emotional response from readers, the unexpected tragedy is one of the strongest. It must be used with utmost care and precision.

  8. i always vote for happy endings.

  9. I also tend to rip my protagonists to shreds, it makes for compelling fiction. Hopefully I’m doing it in such a way that it flows well doesn’t seem contrived. The greater the stakes the greater the payout, right?

  10. […] Discussion: The Tragic Ending […]


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