[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’.’
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.
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