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Why a Sad Ending Might Be Good For Your Book

[WARNING: This article contains spoilers for a selection of famous novels.]

Throughout our lifetime, almost every one of us will read at least one book that changes us. A book with characters so life-like, so relatable, that you don’t want the story to end. And if you’re deeply connected to these characters, a sad ending can deliver a massive impact.

There are plenty of famous examples of stories with sad endings. It might be the death of a character, failure to realize an ambition or a cruel twist of fate that goes against all our hopes. However it comes around, a sad ending will stay in the reader’s mind long after the sugar-sweet memory of yet another happy-ever-after has faded.

As a writer, you might have the ambition to write an ending that packs some serious emotional weight. If the overall message in your book circles a dark theme such as the futility of war, the tragedy of addiction or the emotional trauma of a neglected childhood, then a ‘sad’ ending might suit your story far better than a happy one.

When you get attached to your characters, it’s tempting to give them everything they want – to do all you can to manipulate events, so a brighter outcome is all but assured. Yet you have to keep thinking back to the overall message of your story, and the emotional journey your characters and readers have been taking.

Would a happy ending serve to dilute or counter the weight of your theme?

Let’s take a look at some fairly famous examples: 1984, Of Mice and Men, and Mockingjay.

As you can imagine, there are spoilers ahead – so if you haven’t read these books yet, feel free to the bookmark this article, read the books, cry, and then come back.

 

1984 – George Orwell

A dystopian classic, some of the phrases in Orwell’s 1984 have slipped into our common language through pop culture and the growth of technological surveillance and digital communication. Big Brother is watching you.

Trapped under a soul-crushing totalitarian regime, the main character, Winston, tries to maintain his individuality. He thinks he has found a haven and a woman to share a life with, but in the end, he loses it all.

He betrays his love and his secret retreat. And, all the more shocking, he does it willingly. Winston doesn’t die – he remains alive in the Party’s society – but given the battles he has been through, his fate is worse than death. His spirit crushed, his individuality annihilated and his mind usurped, Winston succumbs to the crowd.

Orwell wanted his readers to feel the tragedy of hopes and dreams dashed by brutal authoritarianism. If Winston had escaped, it would have offered a notion of hope in such dire circumstances. Orwell didn’t want his readers to feel hope. He wanted them to be profoundly frightened of what a government could do to everyday people.

 

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

‘Go on,’ said Lennie. ‘How’s it gonna be. We gonna get a little place.’
‘We’ll have a cow,’ said George. ‘An’ we’ll have maybe a pig an’ chickens .. . . an’ down the flat we’ll have a . . . . little piece alfalfa—’
‘For the rabbits,’ Lennie shouted.
‘For the rabbits,’ George repeated.
‘And I get to tend the rabbits.’
‘An’ you get to tend the rabbits.’
Lennie giggled with happiness. ‘An’ live on the fatta the lan’.’
‘Yes.’
Lennie turned his head.
‘No, Lennie. Look down there acrost the river, like you can almost see the place.’
Lennie obeyed him. George looked down at the gun.

Only Slim understands why George has had to kill Lennie, and this is why he walks off with him, leading those trailing behind them to ask, “Now what do you suppose is eatin’ them two guys?”

This links in with the book’s central theme of loneliness – reminding the reader that in the era of depression, men walked alone. Steinbeck cared about human rights, and he wanted his readers to think about the troubles his characters had. He was also a realist, though. Perhaps Lenny and George could have held out a bit longer to get their land, or extended their flight from the pursuing lynch mob. These options, however, would probably have weakened Steinbeck’s point and needlessly delayed the inevitable.

 

Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins

At the beginning of Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to enter the games to save her younger sister, Prim. As in 1984, the world has decayed into a violent dystopia. But Katniss is able to help bring this government down.

So everything is happy in the end? Well, no. Even though this is a Young Adult novel, total positivity wouldn’t fit the message Collins wanted to deliver. Violence leaves a scar. The teenagers who survive the hunger games are left emotional and physical wrecks. They are traumatized. And in war, good people are lost, and some will never get over it.

By the end of Mockingjay, Katniss has watched her sister die. She is traumatized, and it’s clear that her pain and hurt will always be there – buried beneath the surface, just like the bones under the grassy fields on which her children play as the book ends.

 

Why a sad ending might be good for your book

Happy endings leave most readers feeling content. You feel a warm, happy glow surround you as you close the book. Sad endings, on the other hand, haunt us. They may even keep us awake long into the night – filled with rage, desperation, or frustration.

This is why readers love – and hate – sad endings. Standard story conventions all but guarantee a happy ending. We’re almost fully conditioned to want and expect them.

As the author, if you want readers to finish your book and feel stronger, more dangerous emotions – anger at totalitarian governments, frustration at poverty and ignorance, or sorrow for the trauma of war – then a sad ending could be what you need.

Sometimes, when you’re staying as true as possible to your characters and their situation, there may truly be no way back to the light. This doesn’t make your story a bad one, even though it can be frustrating when you see where the path is headed.

In such an event, just write it. Let your characters lead the way. And if the result feels much too heavy for you to bear, look back to earlier segments for places where you might be able to switch track organically. The last thing you want is to end up stuffing in the dreaded Deus Ex Machina in an attempt to snatch some unearned victory.

Just remember to keep some tissues nearby. You might need them.

Are you a fan of sad endings, or do you feel let down or disheartened by them? Which sad endings in literature do you think fit perfectly with the nature of the story? Have you found your own stories reaching conclusions you’d rather they didn’t? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

 

Join the Discussion on “Why a Sad Ending Might Be Good For Your Book”

  1. Paul O'Brien says:

    Interesting article. I guess the two sad endings that had the biggest effect on me were the end of Lord of the Rings and the end of Small Gods. Booth fantasy, but no less real for all that. And interestingly, both are sad and hopeful in equal measure.

    At the end of Lord of the Rings, Frodo, Gandalf, Bilbo, Elrond, Celeborn, and Galadriel leave Middle-earth for the Undying Lands.

    At the end of Small Gods, Brutha starts to help Vorbis across the desert after both have died.

    So perhaps what gets me is a sad ending that has a smidgin of hope left in the corner like the inside of a tin of herring.

  2. Chris says:

    Surely in some genres, the ending is always sad for one side of a conflict, even if it’s happy for the other.
    I write crime novels, and an outcome that sees the protagonist come out on top, will often be either the death or arrest of the villain(s) – It ain’t a happy ending for them.

  3. Rose Klix says:

    I like the term “satisfactory ending.” It fits the story. The reader hopes there won’t be a sad outcome and keeps reading to the end. The ending is logical, practical, or whatever is needed to make the story end satisfactorily.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      That’s a pretty good way of looking at it, Rose. 🙂

    2. Ellis says:

      I like that phrase, “satisfactory ending.” That’s what I was going for with “good” ending in a previous comment. I had two beta readers of a short story I wrote tell me I’m good at making an impact; i.e., by the halfway point in the story, they knew the sad ending was coming (almost down to the exact events) but still cried upon reading it.

      I’m not sure if this is “good” or “satisfactory.” I wonder how many authors have written stories with sad endings–even when they didn’t like it–because it fit best. Never-ending choices in writing…

  4. Ellis says:

    I agree with Chris; it seems to vary for me depending on the genre. Drama, thrillers, horror, and a few genres often have sad or semi-sad endings to no one’s surprise. I’ve seen more variation (or ambiguity) in fantasy, action, sci-fi, etc. for some reason, but maybe it’s my choice of literature. Overall, I tend to like historical fiction, and a lot of things that happen in real life are sad/unfair, so it only makes sense. I also enjoy horror, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s hard to not have sad or even completely dismal endings in that genre.

    In my own writing, I try to “live” in the world I’ve created for my characters, and that includes surrendering authorial powers to write away problems. So, my characters often encounter tricky situations, and I allow them to suffer substantial losses or even lose their lives.

    I have no preference for sad or happy endings. I just try to make “good” endings, whatever they may be. When I think about a lot of the books I read as a child (You Can Call Me Worm, Heroes, The Cay, Redwall series) were quite sad, and a lot of the ones assigned in school (Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Lord of the Flies) had quite sad endings, or at least elements of loss in the concluding chapters that were so grave I was like “darn it” at the end.

    I think sometimes you can soften the blow for readers if by spreading out the sadness. I wrote a short story with an incredibly sad ending, in which the main character fails, but there’s enough “brightness” in the journey to show the reader why it was worthwhile, so hopefully they’re not haunted or frustrated by such an ending.

  5. Ellis says:

    I should’ve proofread my comment before submitting. Wow, some glaring errors. Never forget!

  6. Kathy Crouch says:

    I have a black moment where the heroine survives but the hero is still in the cave that the villain just blew up. She’s devastated. But, I write romantic suspense maybe 70/30 suspense/romance and I have to have either and HEA or intention towards HEA.

  7. Mike says:

    One of the worst things a writer can do, is kill off a favorite character – just because they can. If it does not need to be done – don’t do it. Why? The reader will not re-read your book if they know their favorite character is going to die. This is especially pertinent to Fantasy epics. Imagine a reader wading through ten books following the trials of the protagonist only to see him/her snuffed out on the last page. They’ll tell their friends – people are natural spoilers – and the friends won’t buy the books. When I re-read Lord of the Rings, I skip the final chapters – they’re depressing. I’d rather leave the story with Aragon alive and the Elves still around. J K Rowlings killed off some of my favorite characters in the final battle, and now I won’t re-read the books. Sad endings are only useful if the whole story is meant as a warning, as in 1984.

  8. Al WRISTEN says:

    I’m split in this. I love surprise endings even if they turn out to be unpleasant. Hate those stories on TV where you are knowing a character will buy it sooner or later. The secret I think is good use of foreshadowing. I even hate to kill off characters I’ve invested time in to create reader caring about them (other than my protagonist I mean)
    Watched Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with wife the other night. A sad ending with a mixed blessing works too.
    Has anyone ever written a story in third person POV where it became necessary to shift the focus from the main protagonist only to end with a shocker sad ending… protagonist has died and another character(minor) tells the others left? Think I made a big mistake.

  9. Kyle Belote says:

    Life is bitter-sweet, so are my stories and their endings. It brings an element of realism to a fantasy story.

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