Happy-Sad Endings

At Writers Helping Writers, this post: Story Resolutions: Mastering the Happy-Sad Ending

Good topic! I like happy endings, but yes, I also often like happy-sad endings. I sometimes (rarely) am okay with tragic endings. I detest grimdark endings.

Now, this post does begin by asserting that purely happy or purely sad endings “don’t always provide a solid emotional punch,” which is fair, I guess, because of the word “always” in there. However, I think it’s quite obvious that purely happy endings can indeed provide a powerful emotional punch. So can tragic endings. It’s not necessary to claim otherwise in order to justify happy-sad endings, which should be chosen NOT because they carry more emotional punch, but because they suit the story that has been told. Which sometimes they do!

Let me see where this post goes … well, I might argue with a good many of the premises of this post, but I do agree with this bit:

After some tinkering, I stumbled onto a secret for creating this emotionally complex story resolution: For the happy-sad ending to work, the two emotions should be tied to each other in one sequence of cause and effect. In other words, one should not be possible without the other. 

That seems right. Anything else is likely to taken as evidence that the author is manipulating the reader. If the happy part is not linked to the sad part, it’ll feel like one or the other is gratuitous. In fact, it’ll feel that way because one or the other will BE gratuitous.

The post then identifies different ways to link the happy part to the sad part. Let’s see …

1) The Character Deliberately Sacrifices the Goal So They Can Attain Something More Important

Yes, this fundamentally happens in every successful romance novel. That’s kind of the point. The female lead, the male lead, or both have to give up something they thought crucial in order to commit to the other person. That’s not actually a happy-sad ending, of course, as the thing given up is shown to be not worth having.

I suppose a better example would occur in Dragon’sbane by Barbara Hambly, when Jenny giving up being a dragon in order to have her human life. She really did have to give up something she valued in order to attain that ending.

2) The Character Fails in Achieving Their Goal, But They Do Attain Growth

I suppose that could work, if the goal was not the one they should have been pursing in the first place. Otherwise, this book better be Book Two in a series. As the final ending of a story, I can’t see this being adequately satisfying.

3) The Character Is Only Partially Successful

Again, this might work best if the goal was only partially one they should have attained.

4) The Character Gets What They Want But They Lose Something Vital

Ah, we are into the realm of sad endings here. If the character loses something vital, this is a fundamentally tragic story. I’m not sure the example given in the post works well — the author of the post cites the fifth Harry Potter book, referring to the loss of Sirius Black. I don’t believe that’s fair. The death of that character provides a sad note to the ending, but this loss is not “something vital.” Let me see.

Okay, a better example: the ending of The Hunger Games trilogy. In fact, I thought Collins overdid the tragic element of that ending by quite a bit. I have never had an inclination to re-read that trilogy because of the (gratuitous, imo) loss of something vital.

5) The Character Sacrifices Himself to Gain Victory for Good 

Too many examples of that to count, but, to mention one I personally found tolerable, Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy ends this way. That’s hard to pull off well enough for the ending to work for me. Part of the reason it works in this example is that the victory is very important. The other reason it works is that so many of the other characters are so important that the loss of this one specific character becomes more tolerable.

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2 thoughts on “Happy-Sad Endings”

  1. I think Guy Gavriel Kay is the master of the “happy/sad” ending. So many things go right and come out well, but never all. “Tigana:, “A Song for Arbonne”, “The Lions of Al-Rassan.” Those are my favorites, and they all leave me feeling that touch of melancholy.
    Speaking of “A Song for Arbonne” – I highly recommend the audiobook. The narrator actually sings the songs – and he does it pretty well, too. It always feels slightly jarring when there’s a song in the narrative, and the narrator just reads it in the audio version. Of course, if they don’t do the song justice, that would be pretty damn jarring as well!

  2. Mary, I think The Lions of Al-Rassan may be my favorite GGK novel — and the saddest. Or the saddest that is not completely tragic, anyway.

    That audiobook of A Song for Arbonne sounds really neat. I haven’t read that book for a long time. Maybe I should get the audio version; I’d certainly listen to that.

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