Happily Ever After–Or Not So Much

On January 6, 2019, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, Does anyone have any advice on how to end a story in a bittersweet way? I’m a sucker for bittersweet endings. However, I’m not sure how to really do that. I often feel as if bittersweet endings aren’t satisfying enough, and there’s always going to be a part of readers that wanted everything to end happily. Any advice on how to fix this problem?

Ideas poured in.

Melissa Mead: I think that there’s no such thing as an ending that satisfies everybody. Why do you feel like bittersweet endings might not be satisfying enough? What are they missing?

Kit Kat Kitty wrote back: In the kind of stories I like to write, I like to make my characters suffer. Losing a loved one, getting their memory wiped, realizing they may be wrong…even I’m tempted to let them live happily. Most people are satisfied when they think that someone, after so long, can have a rest. But then again, I could be wrong. I personally have always wondered if people who fought in wars that took up most of their youth could really ever move on. I guess I want to satisfy the part of me that wants a happy ending, and the part of me that doesn’t.

Christie V Powell: I thought Harry Potter did a good job. The happy epilogue with the kids really helped. Before that, Harry was just exhausted, and still in shock/mourning for the people who had died. The epilogue, many years later, showed that things did work out and peace did come, but that it took a long time. On the other hand, Animorphs, if you read the last couple of books, was realistic but not satisfying. They won (I hope that’s not a spoiler– no one expected the evil invading aliens to win, did they?), but some of the characters are left as a huge mess.

TV Tropes has a list of examples: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BittersweetEnding

Melissa Mead: FWIW, I love Lord of The Rings, and that has a classic bittersweet ending.

Raina: One key thing I’ve noticed in a lot of bittersweet endings is that characters (and by extension, the readers) want a lot of different things, but only get some of what they want. Or there are two good possible outcomes, but only one can happen. Sometimes the characters have to choose themselves, while sometimes it’s decided for them by the universe. One example of the latter is the ending of the final Narnia book; the whole gang gets to go back to the magical world of Narnia at the end and stay forever but *SPOILER ALERT* they do so by dying in a train crash, which means they also lose access to the “real world” forever. Sure, Narnia is a paradise and the characters seem pretty happy with living happily ever after there, but I, at least, was a bit sad at the thought of them all dying.

From a different perspective, I think adding some “sweet” to a bitter ending can by done by showing that life goes on or starts anew, even when loss happens. A great example of this is Charlotte’s Web. While the story does kind of have a happy conclusion to the main conflict (all the efforts to keep Wilbur alive succeed, and he’s now safe from being slaughtered), the story also takes a major sad turn immediately after when *SPOILER ALERT* Charlotte reaches the end of her lifespan and dies. But there’s also a glimmer of hope at the end because Charlotte left an egg sac behind, which then hatches into a bunch of baby spiders, a few of which elect to stay and keep Wilbur company. So even though Charlotte is gone, there’s also a promise of new life and new characters that help make up for the loss.

Another option is a Pyrrhic victory, in which the ending is happy, but getting to that ending came at a cost. The Harry Potter books is the perfect example: Voldemort is defeated, all of the main characters end up with happy lives, and the wizarding world is back to normal, but a whole bunch of beloved side characters died in order to get to that happy ending. So while the epilogue is more of a traditional happy ending, I imagine there’s still some sadness when you think about all the characters that aren’t there to enjoy it.

Melissa Mead: A Pyrrhic victory is one where the cost wasn’t worth it. I just find those depressing. With Harry Potter, even though we mourn the people who were killed, it does turn out better for the world in the long run.

“One example of the latter is the ending of the final Narnia book; the whole gang gets to go back to the magical world of Narnia at the end and stay forever…” Except for poor Susan. I get nightmares thinking of what it must have been like for her, left behind with her whole family killed. The Chronicles are some of my favorite books, except for that..

This discussion got me thinking about completely happy endings in a less-than-well-crafted story. My husband and I just finished watching a sci fi series on TV, which I won’t name. It was entertaining, and we stuck with it because the characters were appealing, even though we knew that the whole thing was flimsy. The writers, in my opinion, wrote themselves into a dark corner and then fabricated a happy ending by sending everybody back in time! Honestly, I was okay with it–I didn’t want tragedy, but it wasn’t great. The plot was incomprehensible to begin with, so the writers could have come up with an incomprehensible twist to save the day, which would have been better–though still not good.

I’m now thinking about romcoms as a source of completely happy endings. One of my favorites, When Harry Met Sally, is delightful, but both Harry and Sally, especially Harry, I think, have to face a lot of hard truths about themselves to get to Happy Ever After, and those discoveries don’t go away.

Or take Pride and Prejudice. Darcy has to recognize his pride, and both he and Elizabeth have to face their prejudices. Neither Wickham nor Lydia go away at the end. Mr. Bennett has to admit his failings and their consequences. The only one who doesn’t suffer is Mrs. Bennet, who starts out hopeless.

Or even my Ella Enchanted. Ella suffers in the course of the book, and her suffering will inform the rest of her life and the choices she makes. The experience of Lucinda’s curse could make her a little overprotective when she has children–but I don’t know, since I haven’t written a sequel.

My conclusion is that, unless the author goes back in time or erases the characters’ memories, if there was real suffering, there is some bittersweet.

Tragedy is always a choice, although it might be worth considering (but not now) if there’s always some sweetness, at least for someone, in the bitter. (Hamlet does solve the mystery.)

Of course endings don’t just pop up at the end. We head toward them from somewhere earlier in our story. Not everyone does this, but I usually have an idea about the ending before I start writing and I drive my story in that direction from the beginning.

So if we want a bittersweet ending, how do we set out to achieve it?

In LOTR, for example, Mordor is defeated, but Middle Earth changes, a possibility that Tolkien intimates early on. Or take Peter Pan, the original Barrie classic. The children–other than Peter–get the lives they want (if not the lives I want for them), but Peter is left alone in the purgatory of his perpetual childhood. He isn’t sad for long, because he isn’t capable of any prolonged feeling, another bittersweet element.

Let’s imagine an old-fashioned scale, the kind we see in illustrations of Blind Justice, and let’s use the scale for our bittersweet-ending purpose. Take the example of Charlotte’s Web, mentioned by Raina. On one balance is Wilbur; on the other is Charlotte. At the end, they aren’t in balance. Wilbur’s up, and Charlotte’s down, but not all the way down, not only because of the egg sac, but also because her life had so much meaning, and she proved herself to be such a good friend and wonderful person, er, spider. Or in Peter Pan, Wendy and her brothers and the lost boys are up, but Peter is partway down. Or hobbits and humans are up, but the elves are halfway down.

So, we can get our bittersweetness by making two things be at stake in our story, say winning a war and saving the treasures in the royal museum. At the end, the war is won and the museum is saved, but the tapestry woven by the great-grandfather of our MC, which we’ve made precious to the reader, is damaged past saving by fire. Bittersweet. Or more bittersweet if we destroy the museum entirely and if we’ve made the reader know the significance of this for the MC and her world.

For an MC with a personal struggle, like a lost loved one in Kit Kat Kitty’s example, we still can set up a counterweight. Suppose our MC, Josie, loses her mom, Naomi, when she’s sixteen and really needs a mother. In this case, the bitter may be easy, the sweet harder. We set up the conflict. Josie’s father, lost in his own grief, isn’t available to her. She’s a talented violinist and usually can lose herself in music, but now she can’t let herself feel pleasure when her mother no longer can. We can pile it on. Her friends, after a while, drift away because she’s so sad. She can’t concentrate, and her grades go down. A new driver, she totals her dad’s car.

But all of these bitters are also opportunities for sweet. When she picks up her violin again, she notices and her teacher confirms, that her playing has more depth of feeling. An unexpected friend stands by her. Her dad realizes that he’s abandoned her. (Maybe the car accident wakes him up.) Her former confident self starts asserting itself again; she asks for tutoring and applies to retake some exams.

We probably don’t want to apply all these fixes, or we’ll get a totally happy ending, but the possibilities are there, and we can make use of them.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Take “Hansel and Gretel,” in my opinion the most troubling fairy tale of them all. Write the whole story or the final scene and resolve the parental abandonment in a bittersweet way.

∙ Prince Charming doesn’t find Cinderella, the girl who can squeeze into the glass slippers. Write his life before and after the balls, his challenges, whatever they are, his continued longing for the mysterious damsel who fit into his arms, just as the slipper must surely have fit someone’s feet. Give him a bittersweet ending.

∙ Prince Charming doesn’t make his way to Cinderella’s stepmother’s house. Her fairy godmother, disappointed in the empty outcome of the balls, finds another child to tend to. Cinderella continues to live with her stepfamily. Write a scene or the whole story, giving it a bittersweet ending.

∙ Write the story of the war and the museum. Give it a bittersweet ending.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Writing Ballerina says:

    First off — Yay, first comment!
    Second — I have written myself into a roadblock.

    So in my WIP, the bad king’s plan is to release a deadly epidemic on his kingdom then go away before he gets inflicted and bring back an enormous army to conquer the remaining weak subjects. The good guys have a plan to cure the disease, thwarting that part, but it is totally unrealistic for them to throw together an army in less than a month when they haven’t had one for a good number of years (BTW anything that seems like a loose end in this summary all checks out in the actual story it’s just too complicated to explain it all here). I considered having a good guy send a letter to the approaching army with all sorts of bluffs in hopes of scaring them off, but that’s also unrealistic.

    I need some help, please!! I have no clue how I’m going to get out of this.

    • You could have a group that wasn’t happy underneath the King’s rule and was already planning on raising an army anyway. Or have veterans of war be able to call on their old contacts, who are close by.

      • Writing Ballerina says:

        Hmm, yeah. I don’t know if I want a lucky coincidence to solve the problem, but it might be the only way. Thanks for the suggestions! Anyone else have any ideas?

        • Maybe one of the disgruntled subjects is the one who crafted the disease, and they expose the evil king to it. When the army sees their king showing signs of the Dreaded Plague, while the opposition looks perfectly healthy, they flee.

          • Ooh, I like it!

            Sounds like list time! Feel free to list any of these you like and keep going.

            An army is made up of people. That means they can be changed. Perhaps if you feed them propaganda, they’ll doubt their orders or even switch sides. Perhaps you could send a special task force in to defeat just the leaders, so that they’re now the ones issuing orders to the army. You could pretend to surrender to the king on the condition that he makes you second in command, and then poison him–especially if the poison mimics the effects of the disease, so people think it’s natural. You could use a natural barrier of some kind to block the army, such as an avalanche clogging a mountain pass or redirecting a river to make a flood. You could speak to the king’s underlings, subcaptains and whatnot, and offer them the cure in exchange for the king’s life.

          • Gail Carson Levine says:

            I’m so glad to see LISTS! Thank you, Christie V Powell!

            I’ve added the question to my list, from the more general standpoint of getting out of impossible fixes in our stories.

          • Hmmm…how did the evil king get his enormous army? Could he lose whatever gives him his hold on them?

            Does the EK have a wife? Children? How do they feel about what he’s doing?

            Who are the “weak subjects” he’s trying to conquer? If they’re already his subjects, what does he want from them?

            (I brainstorm by asking myself questions.)

          • Writing Ballerina says:

            Wow, these are all great! I’ll make a LIST 😉 and see which one I like best.

            Thanks for adding this question to your list, Mrs. Levine! I often write myself into corners, at which point I get frustrated and usually drop the story — but this time I have the blog!

        • Is there a way to take what seems to be a coincidence and weave it into the story in such a way that it no longer is a coincidence? Take the veterans idea. If you spring it on the reader right when you need them to raise an army, it’s a coincidence. But if you work it in from the beginning, it feels natural. One of your main characters could be a veteran or the grandchild of one. They could mention the days when there was an army, in passing conversation. They could mention their old allies of long ago, and the fact that they heard from them just last year. Then when news of the big army comes around, it’s not out of the blue that they have contacts and skills.

          Here’s another idea: the landscape could make it easier to defend the country than to attack it p. Again, this would have to be worked into the story early on.

          The Evil King obviously is counting on weakening them first. This tells me there must be some reason he doesn’t believe his big army is going to be sufficient otherwise. I’d say that definitely gives you possibilities to work with!

          • Writing Ballerina says:

            Good point. I go back and add necessary details in a lot! I suppose that’s the Pantser side of me!

            Thanks, everyone, for your suggestions!

        • It’s not a lucky coincidence if you add foreshadowing. 🙂 (I don’t know if that suggestion was the right one for the story, I just couldn’t resist pointing out how wonderful foreshadowing is. Especially since a person can go back and add it in, and then look really smart for things they didn’t know were going to happen in the first draft.)

          • future_famous_author says:

            Oh my goodness foreshadowing is my absolute favorite! I just love adding in little things that seem like they don’t matter, and then having something pop up and the reader’s like “whoa so that’s what that was about!” I also love finding foreshadowing in books, and The Outsiders (seventh grade and up) is really good at foreshadowing!

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      Thank you all SO much for all your wonderful suggestions! I’ve figured out what I’m going to do now, and if I ever get published, you’ll be in the acknowledgements 🙂

  2. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    Thank you so much for answering my question! I can’t tell you how useful this is. It’s so hard to find good information about writing Bittersweet endings! (Although I loved all the website links fellow writers on the blog gave me.)

  3. What great timing! Last night I had one of those wonderful, rare moments where a complete story idea pops into my head. It’s a bittersweet one, and I think the scale image will help me balance it out.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      Oh, I LOVE those moments!! It’s only happened once, back in January, but the story that resulted is still my WIP which is great! I might actually finish a novel for once, thanks to the blog and Mrs. Levine’s writing tips books!

      • future_famous_author says:

        I might finish one, too! (Note that I am on page twelve and the farthest I have ever gotten was about page sixty.)

  4. I MISSED this place! Hi Mrs. Levine, hi everyone! How are you? How are your WIPs?
    I actually popped on here (besides to catch up on wonderful blog posts and comments!) to ask if anyone is interested in joining a camp NaNoWriMo cabin I made? I am looking for fellow writers (and readers) and I thought I would ask! If anyone is interested, please give me your username and I would absolutely love to add you!

  5. Writeforfun says:

    I enjoyed this post a lot, because I’m generally a sucker for a happy ending, but there’s really no way for my current story to end completely happily. The good guys are going to be victorious in the war, but that’s the thing – there was a war. There are still so many beloved characters who will have been killed in the fighting, families torn apart and changed, things lost. So even with a victorious ending it won’t be entirely “happy.” And then there’s also one of my MC’s, who suffers from a condition that will never go away. If he survives the war, he’ll still be plagued by his condition. If he is killed, he’ll be free, in a way. I guess there’s bitter and sweet to both options, and I’m not entirely sure which way I’ll go in the end!

    Also interestingly, I was about to say all of my stories before have been perfectly happy, but come to think of it, they haven’t! In all three of my previous novels, they ended up failing at their main goal, but finding an alternative that made them happier. I never noticed that before!

  6. future_famous_author says:

    I personally really enjoy stories that–if they aren’t going to have a perfect fairytale ending–that end with people coming together and helping one another, or maybe remembering the good lives that were lost (did that make sense?), communities coming together always gives me chills, and a book that gives me chills is a really good book!
    (Did any of that make sense?!)

  7. Writing Ballerina says:

    Hey, all!

    SO CLOSE to finishing my first draft; just one more hurdle (hopefully)!
    One of my secondary characters has the disease I mentioned in earlier questions about my WIP. She’s really close to dying and everyone has forgotten about her (by no fault of their own — they’re not bad people lol) but on the day she’s going to die the MC remembers her in a dream and rushes to her side to save her.

    My question is: what should the dream be? A montage of happy memories of them together? A nightmare where the secondary character dies at the end? A flashback of when they last saw her?

    I tried to make a list 😉 but I can’t think of any past the options I mentioned above and I’m not sure if they’re perfect. Some suggestions would be greatly appreciated, thanks!!

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      Here are some thoughts I had:
      A) In the dream, they talk to each other, but then she falls down sick and starts coughing, possibly asking for help. That way it gets across that your MC’s friend is exists (having been forgotten), and she’s sick. And depending on how you do it it could be dramatic if that’s what they’re going for.
      B) Your MC and her friend but are talking normally in the dream, but when the MC wakes up she realizes her friend is sick.
      C) In her dream, she’s at her friends funeral and everyone is crying, saying they forgot her. When the MC wakes up, she’s determined to make sure her dream doesn’t become a reality.
      P.S. I wouldn’t be too concerned about whether or not the dream you choose is perfect. You can always go back later and fix it.

  8. Do they know where she is and how sick she is, or will the dream have to tell them?

    Is there some kind of bird, animal, etc that symbolizes trouble in this world and could appear in the dream? Dreams tend to be symbolic. Apparently bells often mean a warning.

  9. Hey y’all! I have a question regarding a fantasy-horror WIP. My main characters are Emmalise and Valerian. Valerian is stricken with a disease that slowly turns him evil and he goes back and forth from being good and bad. There is a cure but he has to rely on others to obtain it for him but there’s nothing he can personally do about it. Emmalise is deeply in love with him and sticks to her belief that he can be saved even when everyone else (including Valerian himself) begins to doubt whether he will be saved. Though she is proven right, my problem is I don’t want her to 100% believe in him all throughout the story, especially since Valerian nearly succeeds in killing her in his evil state, but I don’t want to force it either. How can I make her doubt without it coming off as contrived or out of character?

    • Emmeline Whitby says:

      I don’t know much about Emmalise, but it seems like almost being killed would cast some doubts, especially if Valerian came really close. He could also almost kill her several times…
      She could also have some secret fear/weakness that she didn’t tell anyone else about, and he exploited it. That could also shake her, even though it was because of the curse.
      Sounds like an interesting story! Hope that helped!

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      She could have secret self-doubts about him all along, but another side of her could stubbornly remain trusting. You could incorporate her internal arguments into the story. Throughout the story, the doubting side can start winning (or almost winning) the arguments. All in all, it sounds like a really interesting story!

  10. My WIP is being slightly difficult…
    a little background, The Pope family live in a small town in Kansas in 1899. The family is as follows:
    James “Papa” 34
    Mary “Mama” 32
    Emma 12
    Nicklolas “Cole” 10
    Cassie 9
    Lilly 8
    Peter 6
    Evelyn “Evie” 5
    Glen 3
    Anyway so Glen gets sick, and as a precaution all the other children are sent away to their grandma’s. Glen recovers, but both Mary(Mama) and James(Papa) die. The children are sent away. The story follows Emma, who is sent to basically be a live in babysitter at her aunts, Cole who ends up being taken in by a poor migrant family, Cassie who is sent with Peter to an orphanage and last of all Lilly who is taken in by the school teacher.
    My problem is, should they reunite or each follow their own path? Or a mix of both?
    Any help is appreciated.(Sorry long post)

    • Ainsley, I’d suggest thinking about the theme of your story. If it’s about family, then have them reunite! If it’s about, say, perservering through difficult situations, though, then you might have them all follow their own path. (Personally, I think them reuniting would be better, but I haven’t read your story!)

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