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When to Dance to Death – How to End Your Story

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, Hamletlike 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? 640px-Snow_White_Iron_Shoes.pngWhat 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)

Comedy

A comedy ends in rejoicing, marriage, and the promise of a bountiful future.

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A tragedy ends with death, suffering, and general doom and gloom.

COMEDY

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.

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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.

TRAGEDY

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.

The InformantI 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!

RECAP

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.

Fairy Tale Princesses – The Heroine, the Anti-hero, and the Victim

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the fairy tale princesses of Perrault, Anderson, Grimm, etc., were written to be heroines, role models, perfect representations of the perfect woman; an archetype, if you will. Snow White’s habit of lying around in a coffin teaches girls passive acceptance. Sleeping Beauty reminds them that beauty triumphs over any difficulty. And they can clearly see that Prince Charming only marries Cinderella because her self-abasement after the ball is appealing to his male chauvinism. In misreading these fairy tales, modern individuals seek to alter, prune, or explain away the negative elements, reworking the female lead into a strong, independent heroine who will stand for no weakness, no saving prince, and no redemption. But not all princesses were written to be role models, and many of those that were, represented virtues generally overlooked, but by no means outdated, in modern society.

Besides the heroine, there are two other types of Fairy Tale Princesses: the anti-heroine and the victim.

Heroine

Cinderella is one of the most controversial characters in fairy tale lore. Is she a good woman who exercises virtue, or a passive, weak victim of her abusive family? “If only Perrault wrote Cinderella as a molder of her own future! If only she had defied her oppressors and won respect! Then she would be a proper role model for our daughters.” Thus argue some critics of the tale, but such an argument puts emphasis on the wrong part of the story: on the wrong virtues. Cinderella is much more real and her triumph far more wonderful. Sometimes, we are not masters of our own fate; sometimes, we are trapped in a world beyond our power; and that is Cinderella’s reality. In such an unfair world, despair easily blots out all light, joy, or promise, but not for this Princess. Perrault describes her with a “sweet and gentle nature”, saying that she got this from “her mother, who had been the nicest person in the world.” He says that “the poor girl endured everything patiently, not daring to complain to her father.” Not because she was passive and weak, but because he was. He “would have scolded her, because he was entirely ruled by his wife.” Her actions, then, instead of being weak, are prudent. When the sisters are preparing for the ball, Cinderella offers to help them. This displays the virtue of brotherly love, or liberality, which is remarkable in her situation and shows great maturity of character, “anyone else but Cinderella would have done their hair amiss, but she was good-natured, and she finished them off to perfection.”  When they leave, she does something completely human and not at all wrong: she cries. cinderellaNot in despair or to complain, but from a natural, human heaviness of heart. Finally, Cinderella displays incredible trust in the divine when, over the course of three days, she makes no claim to her magnificence but waits to see how all will come right. Cinderella may not display the typical feminist virtues of action, self-salvation, or emotional strength, but she displays something much greater: trust, patience, and strength of soul.

Anti-Hero

Snow White, it may surprise you to hear, is not a heroine. She was never meant to be a role model, but to serve as a warning.apple In the Grimm’s version, wherein she is known as Snow Drop, she is young, innocent, and beautiful, and for this reason must flee for her life. Right from the start, we learn goodness and innocence often lead to oppression. As the story unfolds, the innocent Snow Drop faces cruel reality, evil cloaked in deceitful goodness, and three times she is blind to its tricks. The Dwarfs tell her, “The queen will soon find out where you are, so take care and let no one in.” She tries to rely on her own judgment, disregarding the advice of the seven little men, cottageand all three times, she fails.

  1. “‘I will let the old lady in, she seems to be a very good sort of body’…Snow-drop did not dream of any mischief; so she stood up before the old woman; but she set to work so nimbly, and pulled the lace so tight, that Snow-drop lost her breath, and fell down as if she were dead.”
  2. “Snow-drop said, ‘I dare not let anyone in.’ Then the queen said, ‘Only look at my beautiful combs;’ and gave her the poisoned one. And it looked so pretty that she took it up and put it in her hair to try it; but the moment in touched her head the poison was so powerful that she fell down senseless.”
  3. “‘I dare not let any one in, for the dwarfs have told me not.’… ‘You silly girl!’ answered the other, ‘what are you afraid of? do you think it’s poisoned?’…she had scarcely put the piece into her mouth, when she fell down dead upon the ground.”

As punishment, she falls into a death-like slumber. In a way, she deserves to remain there: she was naive to a fault, and received not only a second chance, but a third, and ignored prudence every time. It is by the mercy of God that she not only receives a fourth chance when the Prince comes along, but a passionate, adoring love. The final lesson, then, from Snow White, is sometimes, through no merit of our own, we get a happy ending.

Victim

The last type of Princess is the victim.The victim succumbs not to a witch, or a dragon, or a wicked step-mother, or an evil king, but to something invisible, intangible, powerful. Two examples of such princesses are The Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. The Sleeping Beauty is the victim of fate, sleeping-beauty-1503326and her story asks the question whether we can escape our curses and blessings? Her parents do all they can to save their daughter from her terrible fate, but ultimately there is no salvation. Not, that is, until she has first suffered. Then her salvation finally comes to her in the form of her godmother’s blessing: she is awoken at the end of one hundred years by a gallant prince who risks death for her sake. The final life lesson the story of Sleeping Beauty leaves its reader is the assurance that just because our inescapable fate may lead to years of misery, there is joy at the end.

Rapunzel’s fate, on the other hand, is not external, but self-inflicted. Like Snow White, she is naive. But unlike Snow White, she does not merely make a mistake: she falls into the sin of lust. Both she and the Prince fall victim to sin in this story. Tfairytale-1735367he miseries that befall them are in expiation for their failures:
Rapunzel is exiled to a desert to raise her twins conceived in sin, and the prince is blinded (effectually removing the occasion of his sin, sight) and wanders the world alone. This story has been extensively altered from its original version by both the Brothers Grimm and more recent storytellers, but its original conveys the idea best.

Between once upon a time and happily ever after is not always the cute, clear-cut story we pretend it is. Like real life, fairy tales are full of mess, consequences, and human frailty. There are good people, evil people, and then just people, who do their best to be good but sometimes fall low.

Sources Cited:

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. 2010, Puffin Classics, New York.

Perrault, Charles. Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales. 1961, Dodd, Mead and Company, United States of America.

http://childhoodreading.com/the-princess-and-the-pea/

http://www.catholicbible101.com/thevirtues.htm

http://www.authorama.com/grimms-fairy-tales-31.html

http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0410.html#grimm

http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm012a.html