Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sometimes the Boy Shouldn't Get the Girl

I recently read a series (that shall remain nameless) where the love interest died at the end. It kind of came out of nowhere, no foreshadowing, no build up, no big romantic sacrificing moment, just a sudden, tragic death. And even though I really liked the character, I had no emotional response to his death. It just fell flat. I couldn’t figure out why the author killed a main character like that.

 So I went to her website and read through the frequently asked questions, and I wasn’t alone. One of the first questions was why did that character die? Her answer was because he was just a causality of war. In real life, sometimes people just die without any reason, and that was how she wanted his death to be.

While I respect her decision as a writer and staying true to her vision, I think stories need a stronger sense of purpose than what we find in real life. Random things happen in real life, but not in stories. Everything needs to makes sense, everything needs to relate in to the main plot, everything that happens needs a reason. If you are going to deny the reader a happily ever after, it needs to fit the story and the theme. It really needs to be the point of the story.

 There are a number of love stories that I love that do not have a happy ending. In fact, when these types of stories strike an emotional chord with me, they stay with me forever. Stories with tragic or unhappy endings can be very powerful, but they need to be done right. Here are a few of my favorites, and why I think these endings are absolutely perfect.

1. Gone with the Wind. Okay, I love Scarlett O’Hara. I think she is one of the greatest characters of all time. But her endless selfishness, inability to give up on what she couldn’t have (until she could have it), and her pride destroy any chance she had of true happiness. Rhett clearly loved her and did everything he could to win her over, but in the end, he had too much self-respect to put up with her any longer. I like the open ending (I will never read Scarlett, blasphemy). Maybe Scarlett would change and win Rhett back or maybe not. But at the end of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett hadn’t earned her happily ever after.

2. Titanic. To me, Titanic really wasn’t a love story. It was about Rose finding the courage to break away from a life that was controlling her. Jack inspired that change, and in that way he saved her, but it was Rose who made the choice to leave everything she knew behind and start a new life. Although the romantic in me would have loved to see those two go off in the sunset together, the story was stronger having Rose go off on her own. It showed her transformation. That she became brave enough to start a new life on her own, without anyone to help her. She built a rich life for herself, became an actress, flew an airplane, got married and had children, but through it all, she always kept Jack in her heart.

3. City of Angels. This ending was very tragic. Seth gives up being an angel for Maggie only to lose her after one day together. I heard that a lot of people didn’t like this ending, but I thought it was perfect. Seth chose to human, and the good comes with the bad. Love comes with loss, happiness comes with sorrow, pleasure comes with pain. Both the good and the bad experiences are what makes being human so wonderful. Even though Seth only got one day with Maggie, to him it was worth the “fall.” Loving her was worth the pain of losing her.

4. Casablanca. I think real love is about selflessness. It’s about sacrificing that one thing that you want the most for someone else. In Casablanca, the thing Rick wants most in the world is Ilsa, and Ilsa clearly loves him too. But keeping her in Nazi controlled Casablanca and away from her revolutionary husband who needs her isn’t what is best for her. Rick can see that even if Ilsa can’t, so he gives up what he wants most and convinces her go. It’s incredibly romantic even if it isn’t a happily ever after ending.

5. Wuthering Heights. Some people think Wuthering Heights is a great love story and others call it a hate story, and I think they are both right. Love and hate are closely related. Both are very passionate and consuming emotions. I think in their own selfish way, Cathy and Heathcliff really did love each other. But it was a selfish, obsessive, all-consuming love that destroyed them and everyone around them. Wuthering Heights is a fascinating story of the darker, destructive side of love, and if Heathcliff and Cathy ended up with a happily ever after, it would have romanticized that type of love instead of showing how truly devastating it can be.

Of course all of these stories, except City of Angels, are classics.  To me they are perfect from start to finish, and their endings are emotional and connected to the major themes and stayed with me long after the story is over.  This level of storytelling is hard to achieve.

Honestly, I struggle with endings. To me, they can make or break a book. Happy endings are usually the safer way to go, because most of the time, readers want happily ever after. So if a story is going to end in heartache, there needs to be a good reason for it, or it will fall flat.

 So what are your favorite unhappy endings?



  1. This might seem at first an extremely obvious statement, but an unhappy ending for me works if it follows the flow of the story. Which is the case for all endings, right? Sometimes a too-happy ending can be just as irritating.

    What bothers me most are those endings that seem to be unhappy just because the author wants them to be tearjerkers, to get an emotional reaction. There was one movie I particularly hated - I think it was Message in a Bottle? - where some guy meets this great girl, and just as he's learning to love again... he dies. There was no point to that ending, the way I see it, except to be depressing. No lessons were learned from his death.

    Unhappy endings can be done very well, of course. One of my favorites is the Darkangel trilogy by Meredith Anne Pierce - though I suppose whether or not the ending is unhappy depends on which character you ask. I might talk about that trilogy in my post this week, for a different reason (but also to say more about the ending and why it worked for me).

    1. I've never heard of the Darkangel trilogy. I'll have to look into it. :)

      I agree too-happy endings can be just as irritating. Sometimes it feels like the author loves her characters too much and the happy ending feels forced.

  2. I agree with you Maryann and Sabrina. I don't like to be shocked or made to cry for no reason, and it feels like the writer in just trying to create an emotional response for the reader. Romantic books or any novel endings should always fit the story being told. A book I really like with a sad ending is called the The Return of the Native. It isn't really a romanance. I like Eustacia and feel bad when she dies, but it is the right direction for the story.

  3. I think it was a book called Charlie that made me cry and vow not to read any more romantic fiction. Of course the ending worked with the book, and everyone else raved about it, but I'm one of those that wants a happier ending than real life. Even Frodo going off into the west with Bilbo and the Elves was too much of a sad ending for me, although I grew to understand why as I got older. I wasn't too happy with the ending of the last in the Hunger Games series either. I felt the writer used her anti-war agenda to make Katniss act against her deepest convictions, from protecting children to punishing them for the sins of their fathers. Okay, that's enough. I could go on...

    1. My husband calls the Movie Charlie, and evil, evil movie, because ( don't tell anyone) it made him cry.

      I like when endings don't end perfectly, like when there's still just enough injustice for the world to feel real.

      My favorite unhappy ending, is Tess of the D'urbervilles. Go read that book, or watch the BBC version. Brilliantly beautifully tragic.

    2. @Sher I felt the same way about Mockingjay. I actually blogged about it in my post Dinosaurs, Fairies, and Hunger Games.

      @Sheena. I like endings that don't end too happy either. It makes the ending more poignant to have some sense of loss at the end. I've never read Tess of the D'urbervilles, but it is on my mountain hight TBR list. :)

  4. I used to love sad, 'deep' endings, but finally realized most weren't all that deep, they were just manipulative. I think the examples you give, though, are excellent.

  5. I think Casablanca is my favorite unhappy ending. I believe an aspect of real love is unselfishness--loving someone or something more than yourself.

  6. I agree with everything you all are saying. :)

    Endings shouldn't be overly sad or overly happy in an unnatural, manipulative way. Every story needs the right ending.

    I have a really hard time finding the right ending for my stories, but I feel it is really important to get it right.

    Thanks everyone for your insights.

  7. When I was a teenager my parents came home from a movie and found me on the laundry room floor sobbing. It took them 10 minutes to figure out that no one we loved had died or been in an accident. I'd just finished watching the movie Love Story. Saddest movie ever. Of course I don't remember much about it, except that I loved it. Now I avoid sad stories whenever possible.

    I still get angry over the way Suzanne Collins handled Finnick's death. When a character enters our hearts, they deserve a more fitting death than he got.

    1. I feel the same way about Finnick's death. The thing that bothered me the most was that none of the characters even seemed to grieve him. I mean the guy saved their butts on more than one occasion. They could at least feel some sort of loss.

      If you make the readers love a character, their death needs to mean something. I know that isn't realistic, but it's good writing IMO.

  8. Great post! One of my favorites is "Bridges of Madison County." I know a lot of people hate the book, but I loved it and the movie. Oh, the heartache! This kind of tragic ending really does require masterful writing and balance. Sometimes sad or mad is more memorable than happily ever after. I'd love to write one some day :)

    1. I agree. A tragic or sad ending when done right, always affects me more than a happy ending. I'd love to write a story like that some day too, but it does take some serious skills to pull it off and not come off as manipulative.

      Thanks for commenting. :)


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