Happily ever after doesn’t work all the time. Sometimes, an unhappy ending is necessary for your plot. But how do you write a less than pleasant ending without offending your readers? Let’s break down some essentials to keep your readers reaching for the tissues–then passing your book along because it’s just so good.
It Can’t Rain All the Time …
My goth heart still loves The Crow, a dark movie based on a graphic novel. The story follows Eric Draven, the resurrected-male counterpart of a brutally murdered couple. **Spoiler alert – even though he was technically dead, he dies at the end.
The line, It can’t rain all the time, was a prominent theme throughout this dark movie. Eric said these encouraging words to the young character, Sarah, daughter of a prostitute/junkie, who sought refuge with Eric and his once-living bride.
Why is this important to you? If you plan on having a tragic ending, your whole masterpiece can’t be all doom and gloom. You need to build in some sunshine. For example, in The Crow, Sarah would fondly recall happier times, listening to records and dancing with the ill-fated couple before their demise. This joyful scene added balance to the story and included the line It can’t rain all the time. These words were carefully woven throughout the story to remind you of the balance between happiness and sadness.
So, When Do I Add the Sunshine?
A good rule of thumb is to create a strong contrast between joy and sorrow. For example, take a page out of George R. R. Martin’s books and make all your happy occasions (ahem, weddings) into nightmares. The trick is to allow the characters and your readers to experience some sort of joy before you rip the rug right out from beneath them.
An Unhappy Ending with a Purpose
The fall of your protagonist needs to be noble and justified. Otherwise, your readers will feel cheated. Also, one small point before we go on, don’t get all schmaltzy. There’s no need to drag out the melodrama. Less is more in these situations. Please, no sobbing hospital bed/gravesite scenes.
There are two main ways of creating an ill-fated protagonist. One is building a crucial character flaw right from the beginning of the story. The method is to build towards a noble sacrifice.
- The Crucial Flaw – Right from go, include a character flaw that is completely unavoidable. Something the main character is constantly battling throughout the story. Make them a Tragic Hero. In the end, they lose their battle and cross over to the dark side. In other words, create a self-fulfilling prophecy for your protagonist, then fulfill it.
- The Noble Sacrifice – This takes conviction. You must commit to the fact that your main character is going to off themselves for a damn good reason. Therefore, you must make the protagonists ‘want’ very clear in the meat of the story. Do they want to be part of a family or peace for a tormented society? Whatever that want is, make it bold-faced. When the main character gives up this want for the greater good, you’ll tug on people’s heartstrings.
Best of luck with your doom and gloom. However, remember this when you write your unhappy ending–no schmaltz.