In the Grimm’s version of Snow White, the evil queen attends Snow White’s wedding at the end and receives the sentence to dance in iron-hot shoes until she dies. Snow White gets a happy ending, and the Queen dances to death.
Here, the protagonist is happy and the villain is miserable, and all is right and just in the world, but what about the stories where the main character has a tragic ending, like Hamlet or Gone with the Wind? Why did the author decide to give the protagonists in these stories a pair of theoretical iron-hot shoes? What was the point? Was it just to break the hearts of readers and make them feel betrayed for investing all this time and attention into the character?
Probably not. If that was their only reason, then they’re a terrible writer (Not to mention person).
But allowing for the benefit of the doubt, what would be their good reason, and how can we know when to apply it in our own stories?
There are two endings to any type of story, and we see them to best advantage in Shakespeare’s brilliant two categories: The Tragedy and the Comedy. (All his Histories can fit into one of these two categories)
A comedy ends in rejoicing, marriage, and the promise of a bountiful future.
A tragedy ends with death, suffering, and general doom and gloom.
Every story has a protagonist, a main character. It is the job of the protagonist, throughout the story, to overcome the internal and/or external dangers that come their way. Sometimes they overcome them through brawn, sometimes wits, sometimes unflinching goodness, and sometimes just pure good luck.
All of those reasons are legitimate and popular methods of storytelling.
Luke Cage uses brawn. Adrian Monk uses wits. Emma Swan uses goodness. The three stooges use luck.
These stories explore the meaning of good fortune, and how we can achieve it. Often, the main character begins without believing in the benefits of his/her force for good. They think they are destined for unhappiness, and don’t know how to use their inner strength. The riveting nature of the story is how he/she learns to accept and grow, until they are a major force to be reckoned with, and can overcome great evil.
Sometimes, however, their inner strength is not enough, or they are not able to grow enough to harness it. This is where fallen nature comes into play.
I watched The Informant the other night, a movie wherein Matt Damon plays a man helping the FBI to uncover illegal activities inside his company. However, about half-way through, the story takes an unexpected twist. We discover that, although he has been helping to uncover legitimate corrupt activities and thinks of himself as a hero for doing so, he has been stealing 11 million dollars on the side all along.
And he doesn’t see himself as a villain.
This is significant. We realize that he was actually an evil force all along, and his refusal to see it results in the FBI turning their attention away from the first crime and entirely onto him. He finally ends up in jail because he refuses to see that he was in the wrong.
This is a tragic ending.
The Informant involves an internal evil that Matt Damon’s character was unwilling to defeat. There are a few stories, however, which are fewer and far between, in which there is an external villain the protagonist cannot conquer.
This rears its head in plays, mostly, such as Shakespeare and Aeschylus. There are very few films that deal in this genre.
This particular evil is almost always Fate. Any evil can be overcome, the story tells us, unless Fate is against us to begin with. We cannot see it, feel it, or get our hands around its throat, so our lives end miserably because Life/Fate/the gods had it out for us in the first place.
Tragedy is either about refusing to wage inward battles, or losing battles against fate.
So there you go! This is the difference between a happy ending and a sad. You can choose to end your story happy, but make sure it’s because your characters learned their lessons. Or, you can end it sad, but make sure it’s either on account of fate, or block-headed characters!
Did I miss anything? Did I leave out a genre? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
Comedy endings are about people who overcame all obstacles, inward and outward, and have a hopeful future because of it.
Tragic endings involve either the protagonist’s refusal to accept their weaknesses and seek to overcome them, or else involve intangible Fate destroying them from the outside, no matter what they do.