In 2014 I wrote an article for crafting the rare story with a sad ending. However, I didn’t fully understand turning points at the time, so I lumped together stories that seemed similar but are actually quite different. Since then, I’ve also learned just how tricky and unpopular tragedies are. That’s why in most articles I write today, I focus on positive endings. But for the tear lovers in the audience, I’ve brought this old guide up to date. You can read the original via PDF.
Spoiler warnings: Don’t Look Up (2021), Madoka Magica, Carrie, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, BBC’s Merlin
Is Your Ending Bittersweet or Tragic?
Both bittersweet endings and tragic endings can make people feel sad, but they’re constructed differently. Since this article focuses specifically on tragedies, let’s make sure you’re writing one before we continue.
Bittersweet endings are more common than tragic ones, and while they might cause an audience to cry, they are similar to happy endings. In these stories, the protagonist proves themself and actually succeeds at their goal. However, they prove themself by sacrificing their life or giving up something else that audiences care about. For instance, in Madoka Magica, Madoka saves the other magical girls from a cruel fate by transforming into a new law of the universe. This means she no longer exists as a person, and no one remembers she ever did.
In other cases, the protagonist may succeed without a sacrifice, but it’s still impossible to avoid disaster entirely. This often occurs for the final girl at the end of a horror movie, who saves her own life but can’t resurrect any of the people who died. While these endings are less likely to make audiences cry, they may not be happy either.
Because the protagonist proved themself, bittersweet stories use standard turning points and have a positive outcome to soften the blow of the sad parts. That means if you’re writing this type of story, you can follow the same plot guidance I’ve given elsewhere.
An ending that is truly tragic has a hero who commits a misdeed, earning a punishment at the end. At some level, tragedies are all cautionary tales, just as every well-told story with a happy ending offers a lesson about what positive deeds might bring success.
While critics usually view tragedies positively, this is misleading. Critics love stories that are different, and they don’t always care if that difference creates a good experience for most people. The average audience member prefers endings that don’t make them feel bad. Even so, there’s a niche audience for these stories.
As the genre that attracts the most dark-loving fans, horror has more than its fair share of tragedies – but not as many as you’d think. If the main character lives or is suddenly slaughtered without agency, it’s not a tragedy. On the other hand, Stephen King’s Carrie is a tragedy. It’s about a girl with psychic powers who dies getting revenge on all the people who were cruel to her. Everyone does bad things all around.
Outside of horror, BBC’s Merlin is a rare fantasy tragedy. Merlin’s goal is to keep Arthur alive, but instead Arthur dies because Merlin makes an immoral choice to protect him. The irony of this ending follows the legacy of classic Greek tragedies, such as Oedipus Rex.
Uplifting elements are often added to soften the blow of tragic endings. Carrie discovers that a side character didn’t mean her any harm, and she chooses to spare that person’s life right before she dies. After Arthur dies on BBC’s Merlin, Guinevere takes the throne and ushers in a new golden age. Regardless of these uplifting elements, tragic stories are still about the consequences of bad choices.
Since many stories have multiple arcs and turning points, some stories may have some arcs that end tragically while others end happily.
In Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Dr. Horrible’s primary goal is to get into the Evil League of Evil, but he’s also determined to woo his crush, Penny. The League tells Dr. Horrible that to get in, he has to kill someone. He’s reluctant at first, but after his nemesis, Captain Hammer, starts dating Penny and rubs it in Dr. Horrible’s face, Dr. Horrible decides to kill him. But just as it’s time for murder, Dr. Horrible hesitates, giving Captain Hammer the chance to grab the deadly weapon and use it on Dr. Horrible. Instead of firing, it explodes, killing Penny.
Dr. Horrible’s choice to make a deadly weapon is a misdeed that results in Penny’s death. Even so, his hesitation partly absolves him, and he gets into the Evil League of Evil. The ending is presented as a tragedy, but the audience is meant to enjoy Dr. Horrible’s new status as a super villain. So really, it’s more bittersweet.
Popular stories sometimes use these kinds of mixed endings to make tragedy more palatable, but they’re trickier to coordinate. Unless you feel ready to take on a more challenging story structure, consider keeping things simple.
Choose Your Cautionary Tale
If you’re not delivering a feel-good ending, you should deliver a meaningful one. So before you do anything else, decide what lesson you want the audience to take away from the story. Your hero will be punished because they don’t learn this lesson.
A good lesson isn’t “don’t laugh wickedly while you slaughter innocents”; that’s too obvious. What bad things are people actually doing in real life that they may not realize are bad? That’s how you’ll get the best commentary, but you don’t have to be literal. Analogies work great, especially for speculative fiction.
Take the 2021 movie Don’t Look Up. In this tragic comedy, the protagonists discover a giant comet is heading straight for Earth. Unless something is done soon, humans and countless other species will die. Instead of stopping it, the US president and her rich backer, a tech CEO, choose to allow the comet to get closer so they can attempt an impractical plan to extract minerals that are worth trillions. They politicize the issue, which keeps everyone from uniting to stop them.* As a result, the Earth is destroyed. This is a great analogy for both climate change and COVID.
Instead of covering current events, your story can also impart lessons that are translatable to countless situations. Perhaps your tragic hero wants to reform a toxic system, so they join up and follow the rules to gain influence, but only end up as a cog serving the machine. That could apply to the struggle against any number of powerful groups or institutions in the real world.
While horror has a long legacy of punishing personal misdeeds, some of the misdeeds it punishes could use an update. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that killing off sexually active women first is misogynist. Punishing scientists just for innovating isn’t constructive either. However, if new technology is shown to be unsafe or environmentally destructive and the protagonist uses it for personal gain, that’s certainly worthy of punishment.
Design a Tragic Hero
One of the biggest hurdles to creating an engaging tragedy is designing a hero who will get the job done. A tragic hero must be deeply flawed, because they have to be the kind of person who will make the wrong choice at the end. But if they aren’t likable despite those flaws, the story’s engagement will suffer a great deal.
This gets easier if your hero isn’t outright villainous, just unwise or a little self-centered. Their flaw only needs to be bad enough to motivate them to make reckless choices or ignore the needs of others.
- Eddard Stark in Game of Thrones keeps sticking to his principles even when that jeopardizes his king and his family.
- Hamlet’s tragic flaw is that he won’t take action when it’s needed.
- Merlin prioritizes the welfare of Arthur over the many people who are suffering under the rule of Arthur or his father. However, he also puts Arthur before his own welfare, making it look more selfless.
- Carrie is vengeful. The people she wants to hurt deserve some punishment, but they don’t deserve death.
Some audiences will be frustrated with the choices of a tragic hero. That’s what happens when the audience cares about the outcome and they can see the character’s choice is disastrous. So if your vengeful hero chases after the big bad and your readers can tell it’s a trap, they may start yelling at the page. They might also insist the hero would never chase after the villain like that, even if the hero’s motivation is strong and their choice is in character.
One way to fix this is to make it less obvious that the character is making bad choices until consequences arrive. However, if you go too far, it may not feel like the character did anything wrong. Eddard manages to walk this tightrope because characters frequently benefit from noble but unwise decisions. This means audiences are unlikely to expect Eddard’s noble choice to backfire even if other characters warn against it.
Another option is to get the audience rooting for the misdeed. No one is sad about Carrie’s plans to hurt terrible people, even though the audience knows killing those people is wrong. An audience who loves dark stories is also less likely to be frustrated by tragic choices, so make sure your beta readers like the type of story you’re writing.
While some tragic heroes, like Eddard, are selfless, many can’t be. For this reason, creating sympathy is usually essential when making tragic heroes likable. Hardships used to create sympathy can also give the character a more understandable motivation for misdeeds. The better you communicate where the character is coming from, the more your audience will tolerate their questionable actions – within limits. If your character will be selfish, see Five Ways to Make a Selfish Character Likable.
Remember that even though your hero will be punished for their misdeeds, as the protagonist they will still be presented as a person worth rooting for. Some severe flaws like bigotry are not a good match for a protagonist, even in a tragedy. This is why in Don’t Look Up, the US president and her tech CEO backer are not tragic heroes, even though they are the most responsible for what happens. We can’t teach their real-world equivalents to do better, and sympathizing with them won’t motivate us to stop them.
Building Up to Their Downfall
Your tragic hero shouldn’t make bad choices and face consequences at every opportunity. That would be too gloomy, and the climax wouldn’t stand out like it should. So like in most other stories, your protagonist should have both victories and setbacks. The victories can turn out to be false later, but it should feel like the protagonist is succeeding in the moment.
If your story is dark, keep hope alive. While secondary protagonists may die, the primary protagonist needs a plausible path to victory. By the last third or fourth of the story, let them create a feasible plan and work toward it. It should never look easy, but the climax will be more powerful if success is in sight by the end. For instance, in Game of Thrones, Eddard Stark investigates the death of his predecessor and succeeds in discovering who is plotting against the throne. All he has to do is tell the king, and then Eddard makes his big mistake.
If your story isn’t especially dark, you’ll need to set appropriate expectations about the type of story you’re telling. Sad events or frustrating failures at the beginning of the story can both create sympathy for your tragic hero and set the stage for their downfall.
The hero’s tragic flaw shouldn’t come out of nowhere. Establish any character traits that contribute to the hero’s downfall early, and keep them present throughout the story. If you’d like to make the hero’s flaws clearer, you can have a trustworthy character caution the hero against succumbing to them.
However, the hero’s flaw doesn’t have to take over the story. For instance, instead of a hero who makes the greedy choice at every opportunity, you can have a hero who:
- Is sympathetically low on cash when the story opens
- Creates a disaster by trying to get rich quick
- Works to make things right, while still wanting money
- Decides to choose money over morals at the climax
Another option is for your character to continually do the wrong thing but not face any consequences for it until the climax. That’s when the comet hits Earth, the devil comes to collect their soul, or an angry mob descends upon them.
Crafting a Downward Turning Point
I’ve described in previous articles the qualifications for a typical turning point that leads a character to success:
- The character must have agency in the outcome. That means they make a choice, and that choice determines which ending they get.
- The character must do something significant that the audience considers worthy. That generally includes acts of selflessness, determination, or cleverness.
- The turning point has to be difficult for the character. The more they struggle or the more challenging their worthy deed is, the bigger impression it makes.
Rule #1 is still true for downward turning points. In most cases, it’s easier to have the choice happen at the climax, but prior misdeeds that come back to haunt a character can be great fun. In that case, the choice must go unpunished until the climax, when their doom finally arrives.
For #2, you just reverse the traits.
- Instead of an act of selflessness, the character can commit an act of selfishness. A common way to kill off villains is to have a lethal attack on the hero backfire.
- Instead of making a sacrifice, the character can refuse to give something up when they should. Maybe they try to keep too many of their belongings when running for their life, so a monster catches up with them.
- Instead of showing determination, the character can embrace temptation. Perhaps they cling to the illusion of a perfect life instead of fighting to fix reality.
- Instead of coming up with a clever solution, the character can make a choice that they’ve been warned is unwise. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke goes to Cloud City even though Yoda tells Luke he isn’t ready. This leads to Luke’s defeat at the hands of Darth Vader.
For #3, instead of showing determination by doing something that’s difficult or remarkable, characters will earn more punishment by taking shortcuts or choosing the easy route. A character navigating a downward turning point rarely struggles to give in to temptation; often, they actively chase it. Similarly, if they are arrogant about their bad choice, that will strengthen the turning point. Instead of merely ignoring a warning, they might laugh in the face of the person who gave it to them.
With all of that in place, you only need to ensure that their bad choice is the direct cause of their failure.
- If your character’s flaw is that they’re greedy, they might cut corners on a big construction project to maximize profits, ignoring warnings from their experts that it isn’t safe. Then cutting corners could result in a structural collapse.
- If your character’s flaw is that they’re vengeful, they might succumb to temptation by chasing down the person who wronged them instead of helping their comrades. As a result, the attackers break through the comrades’ defenses and destroy what the tragic hero is supposed to be protecting.
- If your character’s flaw is that they’re stubborn, they might selfishly ignore complaints from other people. Then when the character finds themself in trouble, no one comes to their rescue.
Just like in any other story, a tragedy climaxes when the tension of the story is at its highest. Build up the stakes of the plot and put your tragic hero on the spot at a critical moment. Then, if possible, give them a moment to believe they’ve won before it all comes crashing down.
While a tragic ending will always be a bit of a downer, it can still be told in a variety of ways. It’s up to you to decide whether your tragedy will be comedic, poignant, tense, or teary but hopeful. Once you choose your tone and message, make sure everything else in the story supports that. That’s how you craft a tale that’s more than the sum of its parts.
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