Friday, April 5, 2013

Happy Endings vs. Downer Endings

Inspired by this article by Peter Clines I win, I always win.

*Warning - this essay will contain spoilers for the Lord of the Rings, The Dragonlance Series, The Drizzt series, Romeo and Juliet [hint: they die], the Domination, series, and The Great Gatsby*


    They happen to every story, at least if you finish them. However, what is the best way to end a story? This is an interesting conundrum because I am not a great believer that happy endings are always the best way to end a story. Indeed, in one of my novels (titled: Cthulhuapocalypse in case you wanted to know) resolving the end has proven to be on of my greatest challenges in getting the work done.

    The original ending was meant to be a deliberate challenge to stereotypical Lovecraftian stories with as happy an ending as can be imagined. That didn't really sit well with me. So, I rewrote it to be darker and more depressing yet that didn't sit well with the novel. Trying to figure out the titular balance is more of a struggle than people might think.

    In Greek theater, the trope of Deus Ex Machina came from when the playwrights literally had the gods sort out everything in the end. This isn't always a bad thing. In the Lord of the Rings, a bunch of Eagles fly from pretty much nowhere to rescue not only our protagonists but all of the supporting characters who would otherwise be buried under a bunch of volcanic ash. This rescues the ending from being wholly depressing with everyone involved in the story dying horribly.

    However, the Lord of the Rings' ending works, I suspect because it is not a wholly happy one. Frodo is left traumatized to the point of needing to leave Middle Earth entirely. That small moment of trauma in an otherwise blissful sea of crownings, weddings, and triumph makes the story infinitely better in my opinion. Even The Hobbit, a largely humorous story, has a number of deaths in the end which highlight the cost of war.

    Obviously, it depends on what sort of story you're telling. Detective stories tend to end just fine with the murderer's caught because the worst of their crimes have already happened. A love story doesn't exactly need tragedy as countless romantic comedies have proven you don't need extra dramatic weight to the story.

    Yet, sometimes the Downer Ending is more meaningful in the end. The Great Gatsby is a love story, for example, only in the titular character's mind. Everything turns to crap in the end and he dies unloved chasing after a dream which doesn't matter because the person he loves is entirely unworthy of it. Romeo and Juliet is entirely memorable over Shakespeare's other romances because of what an epic disaster it all turns into.

    So where does an author want to make the ending slightly more bittersweet? It's a difficult question but I think it's a question of whether or not you want the story to have weight. Countless forgettable fantasy fiction from the 1970s and 1980s effectively consisted of "and everyone lived with no tragedy whatsoever, except that one guy who died but got brought back to life."

    Even the Dragonlance trilogy, father of all mass-marketed D&D paperbacks, ended its story in a rather bleak manner. One of the company dies ignominiously of a heart attack, another fully gives himself to evil, the ex-girlfriend of the hero refuses redemption, and not everything is sunshine happy day. Yes, the world is saved but it came at cost. This is in contrast to R.A. Salvatore's the Legend of Drizzt series where after twenty or so books, the only major death was undone by author's fiat, effectively removing the only meaningful sacrifice in the series.

    I will challenge, however, authors that darker and bleaker doesn't mean better. SM Stirling, author of the Domination series, has made a career of writing the most repulsive Nazi-esque villains imaginable opposed by plucky heroes only to have the bad guys win. Every.single.time. This subversion has repulsed as many fans as it's attracted. Let's face it, a lot of people come to series wanting to see evil punished and good triumphant--monsters are rarely characters you enjoy see triumphing. The exception is horror and rarely does this work outside of short stories or as a stinger to the ending.

    What do I prefer? I think I generally prefer endings which are hard fought. My favorite urban fantasy series is the generally uplifting Dresden Files. The series is sprinkled with a number of unhappy or bittersweet endings despite the fact its primarily an action-comedy story. The deaths of characters we love adds to the drama and makes the struggles meaningful. While I doubt I would enjoy a story where Harry Dresden dies locked in a cellar forgotten by everyone, the tragedies he endures give the story dramatic strength.

    In short, the question of what sort of ending you want to have is something you should consider as to how it makes the audience feel as well as how you want the characters to feel themselves. Sometimes, a character's story ending comes suddenly and unexpectedly in the middle of the story. These facts should be considered when you're doing a write-up of your tale. Many a good character has been created to die and this isn't a bad thing.

    Just my .02.


  1. The Domination Series is horrible because it is so implausible. The author would want use to believe that the British Empire would let the Draka do whatever they want when the British crushed the Indians, Chinese, and Scots for much less. Not to mention an economy based on slavery can not compete with an industrial one. It is just so far fetched.

    Now, the best ending downer ending I think is The Godfather. The whole movie is basically Michael Corleone's descent into a terrible person and the dashing of Vito's dreams for him.

  2. Yeah, the Godfather duology (not trilogy!) is a good example of a "Happy Bad Ending." In the first two movies, Michael Corleone "wins" but loses more of his humanity each time he does so. In the first movie, this isn't so bad because the people he kills are mostly scumbags. The second movie, however, shows him going even further down the road of damnation to the point he loses everything meaningful.

    Racial politics and South apologism aside, Gone with the Wind's ending is memorable for much of the same reason. Scarlet has achieved financial independence and wealth but has nothing MEANINGFUL to show for it.