I'm curious. After reading some other questions, I've been pondering about the frequency and reason for happy endings. That is, a positive and/or hopeful ending, even if not everything went right, such as the protagonist sacrificing themselves for the good of those around them.

I think personally, I don't like the idea of a negative or hopeless ending because as a reader essentially trying to be entertained in some fashion (intellectually, imaginatively etc), I would rather be left feeling positive at the end of a story. Something good has to continue on or else it can make me feel strange afterward.

An example of a movie with an ending not unlike this is The Departed. By the end almost every character you thought you were emotionally invested in gets gunned down, even the good guys like Di Caprio's character and the sole survivor wasn't a major character in the story and certainly wasn't the nicest guy on the block (at least as far as good guys go).

So my question is, how often does a story end badly for the protagonist or the "good guys"? And how does it affect you as a reader?

5 Answers 5


Moral ambiguity = the fuel of good literature.

To answer your question in more concrete, and perhaps useful, terms: As all us really old people know, there's really no such thing as a happy ending. Things break down, everyone dies, entropy rules, and so on, blah, blah, blah.

Whether an ending is "happy" or not I've found to be negligible as far as the reading audience is concerned. Whether the ending to a story is SATISFYING or not--there's the rub.

There are two types of satisfying endings, as far as human storytelling goes:

  1. The satisfying ending in which the reader's belief that "good conquers all/right always wins" is reinforced in a way that is interesting enough that the reader can't see it coming, and finds that his beliefs are, after all, reinforced by the author at the conclusion of the tale. (After a lot of scary ups and downs during which belief is tested.)

  2. The satisfying ending in which the reader feels that, though the "good guys" didn't "win" there was some sort of equation adjusted, refined, or corrected; in other words, balance was achieved.

(Note: If we are talking about an epic, saga, or serialization of some type, none of the above applies. Or a manual. That's also a different deal.)

A good story is not really "true to life" and CAN'T really be. The only thing the reader's gonna be reacting to in your story's ending really has nothing to do with "good guys" or "bad guys"--it has everything to do with satisfaction (the reader's). Satisfaction usually is involved not with "good versus evil" but with BALANCE.

To get some idea of what I mean here: Look at one of your favorite paintings. Does it matter which color/shape is "winning"...? or is balance more the thing that makes it satisfying...?

I hope this was helpful.

!w21q2@#e%^2*(qiphjq yours in Chaos, Scarlett

  • I suppose my explanation of what I was trying to say was a little simple but I get your point about satisfaction. I think #2 was probably the clincher. #1 is a typical scenario for those more classic types of good vs evil, rebels vs empire, apprentice vs master sorts of things. Feb 16, 2011 at 7:29

To add a little to Scarlett's answer (which is excellent BTW):

Happy endings are far more prevalent than tragic ones because they're easier to pull off badly.

In order to understand how an ending should be executed it is necessary to understand a little about endings.

It cannot have escaped your attention that in many happy endings a male and female protagonist are united in a relationship. One theory about why this is comes from Jungian psychology.

This theory states that the uniting of a man and a woman represents, psychologically, the reconciliation of the rational and the emotional (which are not necessarily the same thing as the ego and id in Freudian theory but share some common features). Jungian theorists have put forward the notion that as we all seek this reconciliation the story of how a protagonist we identify with achieves this goal is what is of interest to the reader.

It is possible, for various reasons, for an author to take a set of incidents, tack on an arbitrary happy ending which is completely divorced from the journey of the protagonist and still produce a story which satisfies some audience members. This could be termed a sentimental ending where sentiment is the enemy of true emotion.

It is also possible for an author to tack an arbtrary tragic ending on to a plot leading to a nihlistic ending.

In both cases the story tends to seem stale. However people have a higher tolerance for being told a sweet lie and a greater likelihood of speaking out against a toxic one.

For this reason a tragedy must endeavour to have some sort of balance or else it is likely to be rejected by a large number of audience members. A lower number of audence members tend to reject sentimental rubbish.

Whoever said dying was easy and comedy was hard was speaking somewhat ironically. In truth, however, it is a lot easier to see when you have screwed up a tragedy than it is when everyone is happy at the end of the story.


An ending does not have to be happy; it has to be satisfactory. That is, it has to affirm something that the reader believes, or wants to believe, about the world. That can be something sad. It is often something sad. Sad stuff happens and we have to deal with it. It is often preferable for people to believe something sad about the world than to believe that life is simply chaotic. Sadness I can understand is more tolerable than mere chaos that I cannot understand.

Stories are, for the most parts, assertions about orderliness in human life. They assert that the world makes sense. As so many people like to say, "everything happens for a reason". Outside of a specifically religious view of the world, or as an expression of pure determinism, it isn't clear what this claim really means, but it clearly comforts people greatly to believe it. Stories are an illustration and an affirmation of this faith that everything happens for a reason. This is why there are rules about what works and does not work in a story, why we can define a shape in stories and discover archetypal characters who play specific roles in stories: all of this is about everything happening for a reason.

There are, of course, stories that assert the opposite: that life really is chaotic and that, other than in the strict determinist sense, nothing happens for a reason. But these are not shaped like regular stories. They are not so much stories as anti-stories. And very few people read them.

Even hard materialists, who should logically affirm that the things that happen in human life are meaningless, nevertheless prefer regular stories, which, implicit in their very construction, assert that everything happens for a reason, because, in a story, everything does. I suppose (if they cared to) such folks could justify this choice by saying that reading stories that affirm the meaningfulness of life is psychologically comforting, and that such comfort is a useful thing in a universe where, in fact, nothing happens for a reason.

And that is really the point about stories. A good story is satisfying because it affirms our hope/need to believe that everything happens for a reason. This is perhaps even more needful when it comes to facing the tragedies of life. It is when tragedy strikes, seemingly out of nowhere, that people are most likely to say, "everything happens for a reason". Tragic literature is an affirmation of this belief.

When good things happen, it is less urgent to affirm that they happened for a reason, but when bad things happen, the idea that they happened for a reason may be our last bulwark against despair. Thus tragedy has as much of a role to play in our lives as comedy, if not a greater role.


The most important thing to me is that there is a distinct ending, not that the author just stopped writing. There has to be some kind of resolution/event that concludes the story.

If the characters are in exactly the same place as where they started that's far more dissapointing than if it ends badly for them.

Most story endings tend to be a mix of good and bad.


Simply the best ending:

And they lived happily ever after, at least until she died of cancer, their children got crushed by a train, and the bombs at last fell in WWIII.

Seriously though, I think a satisfying ending is better than a good ending. A lot of writers leave off on a cliffhanger, or leave many threads of the story unfinished. Unless you are highly prolific and truly are going to finish the story, tie up the story arcs.

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