Most stories carry some element of realisation. Whether that realisation is the best sort of fireball for defeating the Dark Overlord, or how I can lessen my pride to make my marriage work, the characters change and learn as the plot progresses.

I tend to think of the learning process, and by extension story structure, as occurring in three stages. But the way the stages are currently presented always seems to result in a downer ending.

A well-known three part story is as below (feel free to decide yourself what it is "I know" about)

  1. I know :)

  2. I don't know :(

  3. I know that I don't know :|

Another example (about swordfights)

  1. I am the best swordsman in my village. I am the best swordsman :)

  2. Wow! All these swordsmen outside my village are super strong. I am the worst swordsman :(

  3. Actually they are not naturally talented. They put in an awful lot of hard work every day to get strong as they are. :|

Another example (about media cynicism)

  1. The news is a reliable source of information about recent events. You can learn what's going on in the world. The news is the best :)

  2. There are many kinds of misdirection on the news. Some things are true but not "new"s. Other genuine news is lied about, misrepresented, or not reported at all. Every commentator is pushing their own agenda. No one is interested in candid discussion or objective fact. The news is the worst :(

  3. You can still learn from the news. You just cannot take what is said at face value. Yes people are lying but they are not doing it by conscious decision. And white lies need not be a bad thing. We tell each other white lies every day. Some of your closest friendships only work because of what you omit to tell each other. On top of that the idea of presenting something 100% objective simply doesn't exist. So the problem is not solely with the news. :|

To me the third parts all sound like downer endings. let's look at the last one since it has more meat. What makes this a downer ending?

(a) "Our closest friendships" are a Good Thing and they got corrupted by the Bad Thing "Lies"

(b) Our goal was objectivity and truth. But we can never attain it because it has stopped existing

(c) The problem is not solely with the news. That means it's bigger than we thought!

I want to make these stories sound less hopeless. If I can do that I can probably adapt the idea to longer and more complex ones. But for now all I can see is. . .

  1. Here's a good thing
  2. Here's a bad thing right next to it
  3. Turns out the good thing was never real to begin with

How do you find the bright side of a good thing turning out to be a bad thing?

Edit: One can certainly argue that the part 3s are neither positive or negative, neither hopeful or hopeless. I probably agree with you. But in that case I think they should be about 75% hopeful to make up for the 100% hopeless of the part 2. Especially since (in these stories at least) the 100% hopeful part 1. is presented as the normal. It is our starting point. Thus the 'plot' only really begins once the 2. starts.

4 Answers 4


You're missing item 4, or 3a:

"Here's another Good Thing which will allow us to win!"

In your swordfighting example:

  1. I can put in the same kind of work they do and become as good as they are!

On the news:

  1. There may never be a 100% objective news outlet, but I can study and compare, and do my research, until I can find a handful of reasonably reliable news sources, and remember what their blind spots are.

Just because the original Good Thing isn't as pure as the driven snow doesn't mean it's now 100% a Bad Thing, or that all Good Things are now corrupted. And sometimes you can still win with the 99 44/100 percent pure thing.

Your "downer ending" is the Fall from Innocence. This is a classic story arc. If you don't want a sad ending, then your Hero has to learn from the Fall and turn the Experience into Wisdom.

In Lord of the Rings, the Witch-King of Angmar is imagined to be undefeatable because Glorfindel once prophesied that "he could be killed by no man." So everyone is very depressed because it seems this Nazgûl can't be beaten. Except that "man" was very literal. It didn't mean person. It didn't mean anyone from the race of humans. So the two beings which took him down were Pippin, a hobbit (not a human), and Éowyn, a woman. There's your "downer" being overturned.

  • I am not familiar with the term; but I would rather describe 2 as the 'fall from innocence' since that is when what we thought was revealed to be false. Wisdom is achieved in 3 but my problem seems to be it only makes us a sadder and a wiser man.
    – Daron
    May 5, 2017 at 13:56
  • @Daron Then you need to find happier solutions. Seriously. Brainstorm with other people if the only answers you can find to problems make you sad. I gave you examples of Non-Downer endings. Do those not work for you? May 5, 2017 at 17:44
  • I think all the Part 3s are already, as you said 'turning experience into wisdom'. What I'm having difficulty with is presenting that wisdom as being good to have, rather than a source of disillusionment with the world we thought we knew.
    – Daron
    May 5, 2017 at 19:55
  • @Daron Wisdom can mean "won't get fooled again." How is that not a good thing to have? You're a better swordsman, you have better news sources, the Witch-King is dead and prophecies aren't as strict as you imagine. What is depressing about these outcomes? I'm not being sarcastic. What's the problem? May 5, 2017 at 21:45

A good story creates an experience. The reader draws their own conclusions and has their own emotional reactions to the experience it provided. Some will therefore find your ending more of a downer than others.

What we want from stories is not necessarily uplift. It can be understanding. It can be acceptance. Understanding and acceptance of life's limitations can be far more satisfying than a false or facile hope that we know to be false. Indeed, the facile hope can mock the understanding and undermine the acceptance, making us actually feel worse.

In other words, whatever your subject and your theme is it better to be truthful about them that to be fatuously optimistic. Any good feeling that result from false optimism is brittle, and when it breaks we can plunge into despair.

  • I am in favour of being truthful to the subject. But I am limited in that the truth is Large and I am small. I cannot possibly include all of it, and my instinctive reaction is to primarily include negative things. I have noticed that problem and would like some tips on being, if not entirely truthful, then at least less biased .
    – Daron
    May 5, 2017 at 19:58

When aiming for realisations there is only one narrative tool at your disposal.

These two things are the same

Your examples feature a Good Thing and a Bad Thing. You're already using the tool above by presenting the two things side-by-side.

The internal logic of the story need never state the two things are the same or that they are causally linked. For example me being however good at swordfights, and these other guys being twice as good, are not causally linked to each other, and that's fine.

You present the Good and Bad Things side-by-side and are wondering how this can do anything other than corrupt the Good Thing. Well you've already done it with "the swordsmen outside my village are super strong". You compare the protagonist's skill and the strangers' and come out with a positive realization rather than the negative one: "I am really weak".

Now "I am really weak" does feature in the story. But that realisation comes later.

Imagine the first time the protagonist meets and is rescued by a foreign swordsman whose skills far exceed their own. The prevailing state of mind is "Wow! This guy is amazing". It's not until later when the rescuer brings the protagonist back to his camp where everyone is that skilled that the realisation "I am really weak" appears.

So what makes the realisations happen in the order they do, and not the opposite way around?

These two things are the same is only a realisation if we used to think the two were different. We used to think the Good Thing and Bad thing were unrelated. Now it is revealed they are the same. This leads to cognitive dissonance for the reader. The two things are the same so they must be either both good or both bad. One of them is forced to change, and this is your realisation. You want to control which half does the changing.

The less important half changes. The one less established in the reader's mind changes. The first part of the story focuses on the protagonist's village and how skilled they are. We know that. It's well established. So when an outsider appears and suddenly makes a fool of the protagonist, our view of the protagonist does not change. Our view of the outsider is what changes. They come off as super good, "Wow! This guy is amazing" rather than the protagonist coming off as super bad.

Then the perspective shifts away from the protagonist's village, and onto this camp of amazing warriors. Once we get used to being there, once that camp s established in our mind, our view of the protagonist is free to change. They come off as bad and the strange warriors become normal. "Oh no I am really weak!"

How to make it the other way around

To make the two realisation happen the other way, you have to change what is established first by refocusing the narrative. First present the foreign warriors. Then introduce the protagonist. This time we are used to them. Their skill level is normal to us. This time he is the outsider. This time he comes off as weak.

Then refocus onto the protagonist. Establish his lack of skills in the story. Then the foreign warriors come off as strong.

The most straightforward way to do this is, rather than the narrative following the protagonist, it follows one of the foreign warriors. Once the two meet the choice of narrator might not make a difference. Or you could swap back and forth from that point on.

Exercise: This shows how to put an earlier realisation the other way around. Use an analogous method to put the final realisation the other way around.


I am not as fantasy orientated as the majority of members. Nor am I a fan of "Disney" plots, stories written for the purpose for being popular. Unfortunately the tribal nature of society does not allow for others to 'win'. Germans, terrorists, Russians, Injuns cannot be heroes in popular. Making an 'other' to be a hero or obtain the moral ground impacts sales. Any writer who defies this 'convention' is considered 'breakthrough'.

In another comment I quoted Shakespeare: "There is neither good nor bad, only thinking makes it so." Applied to an intelligent story telling can be translated as one man's hero is another man's villain.

Perspective and empathy are important in good literature. If we look at the real world we can examine the following statement.

"The only western nation who believes in capital punishment and incarcerates more of its citizens (disproportionately African-American) is obsessed with Nazis and believes they are 'bad'."

Great stories need not provide instant gratification. At the end of Bible the hero dies . . . but on reflection . . . that's okay . . . apparently he died to save our sins - who knew?

Endings of stories such as "Man of Fire", "Book of Eli", "Shane" (Did he die or not?) There was no positive ending to "Romeo and Juliet" or "Kramer vs Kramer".

It boils down to the difference between 'great literature' and 'pop literature'. If you're looking to fill your bank account tomorrow 'uplifting' stories with 'positive' endings are the way to go. If you're looking to write a great story it needs to leave something to be discussed. James Patterson will never make a college reading list.

  • You mentioned Romeo and Juliet as having a sad ending so let me ask you an important question about what makes it not 'uplifting'. The reason Romeo and Juliet do not run away together is ultimately because a letter cannot be delivered. But the reason for that (leprosy) bore no relevance to the main plot. It would have made just as much sense plot-wise for the letter to be delivered succesfully, and there to be a happy ending. So why was the sad ending chosen? Do you think the ending where they elope would somehow have less literary merit?
    – Daron
    May 28, 2017 at 15:23
  • Does the sad ending teach us something (even if it teaches the dead couple nothing) that the happy ending simply would not?
    – Daron
    May 28, 2017 at 15:27
  • I did not say the ending of Romeo and Juliet was 'sad'. The best stuff is thought provoking. Flip the script - the marriage of Amhed and Parminder was arranged at the their birth. As the wedding approaches both decide they would rather kill themselves rather than subject the other to an arranged marriage. They form a suicide pact to avoid being forced to marry . . . (Oh, bless). Irony = they loved each other so much they were prepared to die rather than subject the other to to the will of their parents. Or they were both martyrs willing to die to change tradition - you decide.
    – Surtsey
    May 28, 2017 at 16:01
  • I really don't think you have begun to answer the question.
    – Daron
    May 28, 2017 at 17:11
  • 1
    I think 'If you don't get it then it's not my responsibility' is the wrong attitude to have on a website where people are looking for help with their writing.
    – Daron
    May 28, 2017 at 19:05

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