Most good protagonists have a mission. They want a million dollars so they can buy Grandma’s surgery, or they want to steal the magic crown so they get power, or they want to win the tournament and impress their beloved prince. Wanting to accomplish something provides a constant. Whether your protagonist succeeds or fails in their mission will determine the tone of the story. There are only two kinds of endings (in a broad sense) and there are only two kinds of stories. Is your story happy or sad?
Most movies have happy endings. People call an ending with goal success the “Hollywood” ending. A happy ending reaffirms that what the protagonist did throughout the story was right. The structure will find the story alternating between success and failure until reaching a huge success at the end. This is classic story structure. A shepherd saves the world and becomes godlike (Wheel of Time). A Tatooine farmboy saves the world (Star Wars).
The happy ending story places the main character in a disadvantaged position to start. This helps make the heroic transformation more dynamic. The obstacles the protagonist overcomes will determine the impact on the reader. Ideally, the low points will be truly threatening to success, and the high points will be bittersweet. Until the protagonist succeeds, of course. When the story has a happy ending, the reader feels happy afterward. The story will focus on what allows your protagonist to succeed.
You won’t find as many stories with sad endings because they make people sad. Moviegoers hate sad endings and Hollywood’s allergic to them. As a society, we’ve been conditioned by mass media to expect a happy ending. Unlike the happy ending story, sad ending stories usually begin happily. If you’re going to write a sad ending, you want your protagonist to have a lot to lose. A young man and his girlfriend lose everything to drugs (Requiem for a Dream). Star-crossed lovers from feuding families commit suicide rather than live apart. (Romeo and Juliet).
Many stories using the tragic structure will feature the protagonist dying at the end, but that’s not always the case. The plot will move a content person away from success and plunge them into failure after failure until they suffer their tragic end. The tragic story will focus on what allows your protagonist to fail.
Plenty of stories don’t fit into the sad ending/happy ending criteria, but many more do. The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin comes to mind as I write this article. The ending is neither happy nor sad. It’s ambiguous. I believe the third category may come from stories with ambiguous endings which can be very thought-provoking. The reader draws their own conclusion about the character’s actions and forms their own theories about the ultimate fate.
Do you like happy endings or sad endings? Is there something I’m missing, something I left out that you just need to bring up? Please do. Drop in the comments and let’s talk writing. Like this post if you enjoyed reading, and follow for more thoughts from a daily discovery writer.
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