The UN-Fairy Tale Ending
Let’s face it—not everyone can get their happy ending. And we wouldn’t want them to. For authors, unhappy endings actually can be a powerful tool in moving the story forward. I’m not talking about torturing characters along the way, but true irreversible endings where things just don’t work out for our pals on the page.
The Secondary Couple
My favorite example of this comes from Last of the Mohicans (the movie, not the book). The two sets of siblings pair up—Hawkeye and Cora, and Uncas and Alice. Since Hawkeye and Cora are the main couple, we’re pretty positive no lasting harm will befall them, despite all the dangers thrown their way. However, we’re much less sure about Uncas and Alice.
At the end, they both die rather dramatically, but this unhappy ending serves multiple purposes. One, it allows us to see more of Hawkeye’s and Cora’s character in their reactions to their siblings’ deaths. Two, Uncas’ death completes the entire theme of the book and movie…leaving Chingachgook as the last of his people.
Uncas and Alice exchange only a handful of lines in the movie, but we feel their love through their looks and their actions. Regardless of their sad end, they’re an essential part of the story’s tapestry.
The Partial ‘Dream Come True’
Here’s another book/movie example for you. In Lord of the Rings, Eowyn has two great loves—her infatuation with Aragorn and her undying devotion to her uncle and her land. While she doesn’t get her wish regarding Aragorn, she does emerge as a heroine for her people.
The first ending is “unhappy,” but it allows her to demonstrate incredible character growth regarding her commitment to Rohan. She’s able to defend her uncle in his dying moments and reconcile with him. That’s where her true “happy ending” lies.
In Linnea Sinclair’s Shades of Dark, the romantic interests end up together, but Sully sacrifices his eyesight and power along the way.
The ‘Let’s Increase the Stakes’ Approach
Sometimes authors are evil. *laughs gleefully* We need to highlight the stakes, increase the tension…basically, we need to kill someone off. And 99% of the time, it can’t be our MC (unless we plan to bring them back or narrate as a ghost!).
That means we need “throwaway” characters. Except, I really don’t like that term, because the best “throwaway” characters are anything but throwaways. They’re secondary characters we know and love, and that our characters know and love. Yet, we know deep in our hearts, even as we’re first creating them, there’s no way they’ll get a happy ending.
In Harry Potter, Sirius and Cedric are perfect examples. We know they’re gone and they’re not coming back, but they’re never forgotten because the other characters continue to be affected by their absence.
The Sucker Punch
Every once in a while, we need to throw readers for a twist. Something huge, dramatic and irreversible that makes them sit up, move their face closer to the page and shout, “Holy shit, no way!”
Enter the unexpected unhappy ending.
These hurt. Really badly. For both readers and writers. Yet, they make a story so much more powerful.
One of my very favorite books is M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions, and in the final pages, she kills two characters in a battle you don’t really see coming and, boy, do you feel it!
Another example that still gets me is when Prim is killed in Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay. Collins does a wonderful job of making unhappy endings work for her. Her treatment of Peeta’s hijacking is yet another good use of a relatively unhappy ending (Though I have other issues with this).
The ‘Strength of Friendship’ Test
This is when one character’s death, wounding or sudden disability shines the light on your MC’s true colors. How far are they willing to go for love or friendship?
Gotta love the poignant example of Lonesome Dove, where gruff, no-nonsense Captain Call conquers hell and high-water to escort the body of his friend Gus home to Texas.
For me, Dragonheart manages to be the happiest sad ending ever! We all know what’s coming by the time Bowen swings his ax, but it’s still heartbreaking to know the situation he faces—forced to kill his friend in order to stop the evil. Yet, it captivates us because there’s nobility and honor in Draco’s sacrifice.
Death as Release
In some cases, unhappy endings are the best a character can hope for quite simply because they’re an END. Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator is basically fighting so he can die. He yearns to be with his family again.
For characters like this, life is already one never-ending stream of unhappiness. Death must seem a welcome relief, and as readers, a small part of us cheers when we see a character released from such pain.
The GRRM Approach
No one gets a happy ending. *grin* I couldn’t resist!
Pay special attention to which of your characters wind up with UNhappy endings and why.