Good Grief…

This post is about bittersweet endings to books.  I figured I’d better get my thoughts straight on why exactly I like morbidity as a factor in modern literature.

The biggest cliche in writing that there is is the happy ending.  Thus, it naturally follows that a sad, or slightly unhappy ending will be more original than a happily ever after.

The average reader gets to know things about writers and the usual style of writing incorporated in books.  Once they get moderately knowledgeable, they suddenly become opinionated.  “Oh, the author won’t do that.  He won’t do this.  This is the only way to keep the story going.”  The best books, in my opinion, are those that make me spout my opinions like a truncated waterpipe, then all of a sudden slap me in the face and tell me I’m wrong.  I said something to that effect in this post.  But the specific thing readers always think they know is the exact thing I want to talk about here: the assumption that the author wants a happy ending, and is going to write accordingly.

A happy ending, generally speaking, is one where the bad guy gets his comeuppance, the guy gets the girl, and the world narrowly avoids destruction.  Most of the characters are unscathed (except the antagonist, who no one cares about anyway), and the main character gives everyone a moral to the story.  Happy, happy, happy.

The tragic ending (according to Shakespeare) is the one where over half the characters die, good and bad alike, at least two are maimed, and no one ends up with the person they love (mostly because the person they love is now dead).  But what author really wants to do that?

The reader always assumes that the author is going for the happy ending, and won’t kill more people than necessary (of course, one supporting character will be sacrificed in saving the world and we will all cry about that, but his or her death is necessary– sort of).  The bittersweet ending is an ending that proves the reader right and wrong at the same time.  The world probably won’t end (the reader was right), but the main character might die and if that happens he won’t get the girl (reader was wrong).  Antagonist probably is destroyed (right), but one of the main characters– but not the one who dies– is maimed or scarred for his or her remaining life (wrong).  This mixture of rights and wrongs leads perfectly to the term “bittersweet”.  You have the bitter… and you have the sweet.  The term is quite apt.

Perfect example for you: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud.  I won’t go into spoilers, but if you know the books, you know what I’m talking about.  Those are great books.  Unique storyline, perfect ending…  But I digress.

Here is an even better example, but less applicable to the outline above: Les Miserables.  All the interwoven plot lines are absolutely brilliant, and all but two of them end in death, and most end in despair as well.  Suicide, death with unfinished business, valiant attempt at heroism ending in death…  All of it ends in death except the stories of four characters: two of which are good guys, and two of which are bad.  They both get the same amount of happiness.  Bittersweet ending indeed.  Do you hear the people sing?  Singing the songs of angry men…

There are three types of reader when it comes to bittersweet endings.  There is one who sits and thinks for hours after finishing the book about how the author should have done it differently.  There is the kind that throws the book across the room and swears not to look at it again.  (This one is most likely to assassinate the author at a book signing.)  And there is the kind that bursts into applause (me).

See, the concept behind the perfect bittersweet ending is this:  The author works hard to make the reader fall in love with the character all through the book.  Once he or she is certain of the attachment, bye-bye character.  The reader, meanwhile, is annoyingly confident that the author won’t do anything serious to the character– at which point he or she is proved wrong.  It’s all about playing mind games with the reader, toying with their feelings.  The love triangle I described a few days ago is a perfect tool for playing with the reader, combined with playing with the character.  This uncertainty is utilized by writers of mysteries throughout the book, and normally very well.  Agatha Cristie is a prime example.  But for endings like this…  You must be a master.

Now, I can’t say that things like this are great in real life, too.  Grief is a devastating thing, and there’s a difference between fiction and reality.  There are things in books I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and those are sometimes those things happen to the protagonist.  Though these things are slightly dampened when in literature, they can be terrible in real life.  Know the difference.

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30 Comments

  1. Agatha Christie is definitely awesome at this! This is all she does in And Then There Were None.

    The Harry Potter series is bittersweet. No spoilers here, but let’s just say that Deathly Hallows, the last one, was the first book to make me extremely happy and extremely sad at the same time.

    Reply
    • Good. I’m glad Rowling isn’t a follow-the-leader type of person.

      Reply
      • At first I wanted to throttle Rowling, then I realized that:

        A) Some characters had to die. They would only be awkward later on.

        B) You only love things once they’re not there.

      • Indeed. That was supposed to be a part of this post, but I forgot.

  2. I often forget parts of my posts…

    Reply
  3. Erin

     /  May 11, 2012

    Read Delirium, by Lauren Oliver. You probably wouldn’t like the story all that much, as it revolves primarily around romance, but the ending makes the book worth reading. I couldn’t believe the surprise the author threw in, which resulted in a bittersweet ending. It definitely caught me offguard.

    Reply
    • I might try that… Oh, and while we’re recommending things, go read the Last Dragon Chronicles, by Chris D’Lacey, beginning with The Fire Within. It’s well worth it (I finished the series today– full spoiler-free series review coming out tomorrow).

      Reply
  4. Thanks to this post, my Camp NaNo novel is not going to end as happily as I previously thought.

    Reply
    • YES!! Give me a synopsis of the main character’s death when it happens, will you? (Just kidding. I’m both glad and partially sad to hear it. I wouldn’t want you to throw away a great ending just because of this.)

      Reply
      • No worries – I didn’t have an ending mapped out, but I generally go with the cheesy ‘everyone is happy’ ending… I like this version better – it’s not an Antigone ending, where everybody kills themselves, but it has ups and downs. It’s more creative and it builds the characters more. 🙂

        Also, it’s just too much fun to outrage your friends with by killing off their favorite character. *evil laugh*

      • Indeed. One of the best ways to get a character moving is through despair.

    • Haha, now I’m thinking about doing a bittersweet ending for my Camp NaNovels…

      Reply
  5. Cool! I already knew that I wanted the ending to be sad. But I’ll add that bittersweet element to it…

    It can’t get too bittersweet, though. It’s a trilogy, so I’ll save most of it for book 3.

    Reply
    • Nah, it’s okay to load it all on. It makes the main character all the more sensitive when it comes to book three, where you’ll break the character’s heart a second (or third, if you do it in book two as well) time with a series of tragic deaths culminating in a heart-rending soliloquy just before suicide. Right?

      Reply
      • *considers that* Yeah…. and my series is set in the time of the prehistoric beasts (and later, dinosaurs), so there’s plenty of opportunity for someone to… ah… have a slight accident involving a saber-toothed tiger, etc.

      • Indeed. Vicious beasties, those. Could have no end of fun there.

  6. Would you mind if I used that quote for one of my characters? “Vicious beasties”? 😛

    Reply
  7. Good post.
    As much as I hate to admit it, I’m planing a novel with a bittersweet ending. It’s about a revolution, told from the POV of a rebel. I plan on killing a lot of characters that I have yet to invent. The hard part is I plan on letting myself (and therefore the reader) fall in love with the characters and deciding who needs to die when someone needs to die. That’s gonna hurt.

    Reply
  8. Miriam Joy

     /  May 19, 2012

    I’m definitely the one to like bittersweet endings. Although in my most recent draft I only killed off two of the main characters (in fact, THE two main characters), previous drafts had four of them die. Those two that lived this time, they’re dying in book three. Just sayin’. No, I killed one because if she lived it’d be boring, and in the process completely screwed up her sister and best friend. The guy that loved her, well, he was screwed up anyway. He dies too, and his dad kills him, which screws HIM up. Oh, and his former worst enemy almost loses the person HE loves because she thinks HE killed the other guy, but he didn’t… well, not exactly. So basically, when it comes to book two, the most innocent character is Alys, who watched her sister die of a stab wound in front of her 😉
    When it came to drafting book three I knew I wanted a sad ending, but I’d explored the whole possibility of killing everyone so many times that I wanted to do something different. So I did something where none of the absolute main characters die and the good guys triumph over the evil ones, and then wrote an ending that made me cry – ME, and I’m the evil hard-hearted beast! I have to redraft because of the changes I made to book one, mentioned above, but I’m going to try and keep that ending because I know it was what had to happened. I’m just not sure I’ll be able to bear it.

    Reply
    • Interesting… I’ll pretend to know what you’re talking about, but I’m glad you got the gist of the post.

      Reply
      • Miriam Joy

         /  May 19, 2012

        Hee hee, yeah, I rambled there a bit. It makes a lot more sense in my head.

      • Many things do that. It’s one of the downsides of being young; you understand things, but you can’t put them in the right words. Our brains aren’t that literate yet.

      • Miriam Joy

         /  May 19, 2012

        Also because I know my stories so I know what I mean, but you don’t, so you don’t know what I mean. If I were summarising the plot of a book you liked in those terms, you’d get it… but you’ve never read mine.

      • Indeed. It’s hard to know what someone’s talking about when they’re the only person who knows what they’re talking about, eh?

      • Miriam Joy

         /  May 20, 2012

        I don’t even know what I’m talking about half the time.

      • Again, one of the things of being young.

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