Story Resolutions: Mastering the Happy-Sad Ending

From Writers Helping Writers:

It was 10pm, and I was trying to sleep when my door flew open and my sister came in, wailing like a wounded puppy. “Why did you kill him?”

I cleared the sleep from my eyes. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Michael! You killed Michael!”

At that, I couldn’t help myself from laughing. Not a nice thing, I know.

Curiously, she went ahead to profess love for the story—particularly the ending that made her cry. Fascinating, right? My story was able to create such a strong emotional reaction because it avoided the safety of a happy ending and the depression of a sad ending. Instead, it opted for the more fulfilling happy-sad resolution.

Why Happy-Sad Endings?

Before we answer the question of why, let’s explore the story endings that we commonly see. To put it bluntly,

  • A sad ending is when the story ends on an overwhelmingly negative emotion 
  • A happy ending is when the story ends on an overwhelmingly positive emotion 

In both instances, it’s clear what the final emotional beat of the story is. However, the third type of ending introduces a new kind of experience. 

In a happy-sad ending, the story ends on two opposite emotional beats, making it harder to pick one over the other and leaving the audience in a happy-sad state. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a perfect example. I wept like a child and I loved every bit of it. 

One reason these endings work is because they seem closer to real life than happy or sad ones. Life rarely has happily ever afters. There’s always a price to pay, and many times, the sacrifice is unexpected. When a story is able to reflect this familiar experience, it gains an extra philosophical depth. 

Secondly, if one emotion creates a desired effect, two will multiply that effect. Story is about emotional manipulation, and what is a grander act of manipulation than getting the audience to feel more than one emotion?

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

1 thought on “Story Resolutions: Mastering the Happy-Sad Ending”

  1. “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”
    -Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

    Reply

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