Question 34: Unhappy endings

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LavaLikes asks: How do you end a story where the hero or Main Character doesn't win? They end up losing everything. There is no sequel, they just never win. They lose everything forever, and there's no going back in time. Would there be a good way to write this if it's done properly?

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mmmrizzy asks: I'm not a huge fan of happy endings. I actually really hate them lol. So my question is, how do I write an ending that isn't happy that will satisfy my readers and complete the story?


Negative endings are a perfectly valid way to end a story. Real life is full of them, and so are modern stories. These unhappy endings stick with people because of the emotions triggered. The most successful ones hit certain marks...

Include Positive Moments

In my answer to "Question 30: Making readers cry" I suggest adding comedy to offset the sadness. Likewise, adding happy moments to your tragic story will keep the work from being one big drag. I've critiqued some stories where they didn't do this, where all the characters were just sad all the time, and there were no bright spots. The whole thing felt dreary and depressing.

By adding happy moments, often just before the tragic incident, the reader can experience the bottom dropping out as the tragedy descends. The TV show, Game of Thrones, does this incredibly well. There will be a celebration, or a seeming victory, or some kind of scene where the reader thinks things are going to work out well for the heroes. And then BOOM a massacre happens that makes you drop your jaw. These are memorable scenes.

Give the Hero a Choice

When bad things happen randomly to give the story a negative ending, much like how "deus ex machina" solves everything with some magical random event, it leaves a feeling of disappointment for the reader. The hero should have a hand in the events that happen.

In Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker has good intentions, but fear of losing the one he loves causes him to make certain dark choices. These choices inevitably push him down the path to The Darkside, and he eventually becomes Darth Vader because of them.

Show the reader how the hero's choices lead him to his negative ending, and the reader will eagerly follow along for the ride. Conversely, if you hit your hero with a bus out of nowhere, readers will get angry.

Shine Some Beauty into the Story

Amid death, destruction, or depression, there can be beautiful moments. Maybe two people declare their eternal love before they die. Or maybe a beautiful garden grows near the tragic scene. Or maybe the children of the fallen hero offer hope for a better future somehow. These types of things give the reader elements of pleasantness to offset the ugly reality of death, destruction, and depression.


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