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This may seem like an awkward scenario for a story's ending. My plot revolves around a constant struggle of the protagonist against the antagonist's forces, and eventually the antagonist himself. I've had some trouble finding an appropriate ending - I've already theorized about having the antagonist succeed over the protagonist, subverting a common trope of the "hero always wins" dilemma. However, recently another proposition had also crossed my mind.

What if neither the protagonist nor the antagonist is successful? Is this realistic, as a general idea? Would it be possible for neither side's goals to be accomplished, and in their attempt to fulfill their ambition, they sacrifice themselves and fail as a result? It is indeed partly to give a sense of "unfinished scrutiny" as victory is given to nobody, and failure is awarded to both sides. While the antagonist is no longer a threat, the protagonist is no longer a hero.

I understand that this is only plausible if the two opposing side's motives are not solely to eliminate each other as individuals, in which case both would be the winners. Rather, their influence is what has been left damaged - the protagonist's positive influence has been destroyed, while the antagonist's negative influence has been destroyed as well. Overall, I see this as creating a sort of "neutral" effect - neither good nor bad has come out of the final climactic ending, because of the two ideological opposites that collide with each other and eventually collapse.

Is this kind of scenario technically impossible, because the concept of defeat for either the protagonist or antagonist is dependent on the other's victory?

This kind of concluding effect may seem quite vague and hard to grasp, as I'm not sure as to whether the ending to any story is meant to be based on a black and white perspective of success vs. failure on either side.

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    I can't remember which James Bond movie it is, but one of them has both MI5 and the Russians trying to get their hands on this high-tech gadget, and eventually Bond just chucks it off a cliff so that neither of them has it. That's the closest example I can think of. – F1Krazy May 24 at 22:39
  • I saw a movie about "fixed" boxing matches. The young fighter was being built up, and he didn't know the older fighters were paid to take a dive (final fight he would be outclassed). He finds out the matches were fixed and creates a scandal, trashing his own career because he was honest about it… Later same boxer is washed up and now he is the older fighter paid to take a dive… There are a few of these brooding boxing movies. Amoral trainers, slimy promoters, a floozy girlfriend… Not quite your intended genre, but probably some dynamics and characters worth borrowing. Thematically similar? – wetcircuit May 25 at 2:48
  • @F1Krazy Perhaps, but then Bond's personal goal may have been to deny them both; thus he succeeded. Bond's personal goal may have been "nobody can be trusted with something this powerful". – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica May 25 at 14:01
  • Not done thinking about this, but what jumps out to me is that there's more than just "success" and "failure", even if you only look at one side at a time. My favourite kind of ending has the MC achieve something, just not quite what they were looking for, and learn something in the process that leads to a dramatic shift in perspective, or a new call to action. – Ruther Rendommeleigh May 27 at 13:25
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I don't think you quite understand the words you're using. This is a common misconception among writers who haven't thought about the meaning of those two words. Also, writers who haven't been in the right classes.

So, a lesson, before I answer your question.

Definitions

Protagonist - Character who is working towards one or many goals. They are pro-active. They do things.

Antagonist - Entity (person, place or thing) that is in the way of the protagonist getting what they want.

Looking Deeper

Nothing in that definition says there is one protagonist, but for the purposes of story telling we're usually only worried about a few protagonists and the main character tends to be a protagonist.

Antagonists don't have to want to stop the protagonist. They just have to be in the way. A mountain can be an antagonist and a mountain can't want (in most stories). A mother who loves her child can be benevolently in the way of that child doing what they want to do. Antagonists are typically people, animals, or forces of nature; things that do things that are threatening to the main character's goals. But, what is threatening?

Threatening just means putting the protagonist's goal in jeopardy. Sure, that might mean blowing up the world (very threatening). But it also might mean one girl getting the boy to fall in love her, when the protagonist wants that boy. The boy might even be falling for non-protagonist girl. Those two might belong together.

The antagonist in that last scenario does not want to directly thwart our protagonist. In fact, the boy might die. Or the boy might realize he's gay. Or the boy might go off to war and meet someone new. Or, and this isn't the common story, the boy and both girls might get together and they all 'win' (here's looking at you wheel of time).

There is no writing contract that a protagonist or antagonist must win. That is a false dichotomy.

Endings: Comedy, Tragedy & Satisfaction

If the characters have a happy ending, it's likely the protagonist got what they wanted. If the protagonist doesn't, then their personal story may be a tragedy. It is easiest to do what you want in a tragedy. Just take away whatever both parties want. But you can also do it in a comedy if it turns out that what the protagonist wanted to do wasn't important after all.

The problem with both of those types of stories is that they can be unsatisfying. If the ending comes out of nowhere, your readership won't be pleasantly surprised at your witty expectation subverting ending. They'll put your book down and tell all of their friends not to read it. So if you want to do this you need bread crumbs to indicate where you are going, what type of story you are telling, and the ending you actually pick needs to satisfy some part of the reader so that they are given something they didn't know they wanted.

  • I don't like these definitions. Lets imagine a common story. One character wants to blow up the world, and the other wants to stop him. The camera follows the one trying to stop him. He is clearly the protagonist here, but your detention places him as the antagonist. You could try to reword the MC's needs as "trying to not have the world end" but that can be done with any 2 characters making the dentition not too useful. – Andrey Oct 9 at 20:55
  • @Andrey; You misunderstand. Trying to keep the world safe is "protagging" if that's what the character wants to do. Both villains and heroes can "protag" and when they are directly opposed to eachother they are each other's antagonists and the protagonists of their own stories. – Kirk Oct 16 at 1:32
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Set up the novel so the reader knows what to expect, and you should be OK.

In other words, in the opening scene, or first chapter, be very clear about the 'truth' in what it is you are doing--that life is messy, there is no resolution in life, just a sequence of events, people giving of themselves (or taking or whatever) and ultimately being completely wrung out, giving up, or what have you.

It's more to do with how you set the contract. If you promise a trope-y book with a hero and a big bad villain and keep signaling that good will prevail, then the ending you've described is problematic. But if you set the contract appropriately, the reader will accept the ending you have described.

Books have done this before. This posting has a couple examples:

https://www.quora.com/Does-every-novel-have-a-resolution-What-are-examples-of-stories-that-end-at-a-climax

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There are several different factors here. I will first list them and then go on to talk about them and answer the question more specifically.

  • Narrative Problem
  • Narrative Tension
  • Narrative Ending

These are three interconnected but different things, so it's worth taking a moment to take a closer look.

A Narrative Problem is what the reader is indirectly called to ponder on. This is always* carried forward by the protagonist. In other words, the reader vicariously experiences and ponders on the Narrative Problem through the protagonist.
*The narrative problem is always carried forward by the protagonist, but the protagonist is not always a specific entity or single character (and neither is the antagonist). This is where most people become confused. A narrative protagonist (as a role) can be someone's dark side, a group of characters, or an abstract concept (like, say, an emotion). Furthermore, it can often be so that, where one reader sees character A as the protagonist and character B as the antagonist, another reader will have the exact opposite perspective. Ask people, who is the protagonist in Bram Stoker's Dracula, and see their answers. Finally, a Narrative Problem is not entirely clarified until the very end of the narrative - to this I will come back later, when I describe your own specific case.

When we talk about Narrative Tension, we describe the conflict between protagonist and antagonist - in the way I defined them just above. There can be no narrative without tension; period. A story such as "John met Mary, they got married and lived happily ever after" is about as useful as a raincoat in the Sahara desert. On the other hand, a story such as "John met Mary, they got married and were happy; until John met Anna" is an entirely different thing, because it presents narrative tension.

A Narrative Ending must be certainly inevitable and preferably surprising. Here, inevitable means that it must be a logical conclusion of the narrative preceding it. Here's a counter-example: Think of a detective story that has grown to be so complex, that the author has lost the plot (literally) and introduces a new character in the last chapter, who conveniently brings everything together. This is a Deus-ex-machina ending, and it's an avoidable ending. A surprising ending would be one the reader didn't expect - pretty hard to combine inevitability with surprise, but that's a sign of skill.

Now, let's go to the specifics of what you describe...

First of all, it's entirely plausible (and if you ask me, recommended in certain genres like literary fiction) for a narrative to have an ambiguous ending. Meaning is created by the reader as well as the writer, and the greater the gaps (the less the over-explaining, in other words), the better the reader's chances to supply this meaning.

Can we have an ending where both protagonist and antagonist "lose"? The answer must be "no". But again, most people confuse what this entails. The reason they do is because they become too preoccupied with approaching the narrative roles of protagonist and antagonist in a simplistic, linear manner.

Remember what I said earlier, about narrative problems that don't become quite clear until the very end? This is often a related literary device. Let's see this with an example, it will be easier to understand. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the narrative problem appears to be who will get the Holy Grail. We have a pretty straightforward case of Indy being the protagonist and Donovan (with the Nazis) being the antagonist. There is tension, related to the narrative problem (getting the Holy Grail).

Nobody does, in the end.

Both protagonist and antagonist fail. At this point, it becomes apparent that the true narrative problem is not the protagonist getting the Grail, but the antagonist not getting it.

The narrative ending is surprising-and-inevitable. It is surprising because you couldn't expect both sides to fail, and it is inevitable because there is no possibility (in the world of the movie) for anyone to gain access to immortality.

So, ultimately, although on the surface the protagonist, Indy, and the antagonist(s) have "lost", the shadow protagonist ("Good"? "Justice"? Take your pick) has won and the shadow Narrative Problem ("How can we stop Nazis from becoming all-powerful) has been resolved.

Sources: 1, 2

  • Eh, in Last Crusade, the protagonist doesn't get what they wanted at the start of the story, but part of the narrative progression is realizing that it's more important that the Nazis don't get it; so I'd still call that a protagonist win at the end of the book along with some narrative arc/character development. Its a good example that what people want changes. – Kirk May 25 at 12:06
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Whether you can do this depends on the nature of the villain's goals and the MC's goals. If the villain seeks power, then even if it costs the MC her life, if she prevents the villain from getting power then she has unequivocally won.

For example, in Armageddon; Bruce Willis has to blow up the asteroid. (This is a man-against-nature movie; but it works as an example). His goal, from the beginning, is to fly his team to the asteroid, plant the nuke, and get safely away before detonating it.

But complications happen; the remote detonator gets lost or won't work or something, so somebody has to detonate the nuke by hand. Bruce takes the hit to save his team; there's an emotional end where he says goodbye to his daughter by video, etc. He blows up himself and the asteroid in the nick of time.

So you might say Bruce didn't accomplish his goal, but he accomplished his true implied goal, to save humanity (made personal by saving his daughter's life). It cost more than he planned, but the villain (Nature) was defeated in its plan to wipe out all life on Earth.

This is a general rule for protagonists, no matter what the cost to them, even death, they are considered to have won if they prevented the villain from getting what they want. So in order to defeat the protagonist, you have to let the villain win.

There may be some way around this by playing with the goals; but they would almost have to be disconnected from each other, and then I wonder why the protagonist wants to stop the villain, if the villain's plans won't affect her negatively in any way. Why would she risk her life or time or injury to stop the villain?

An out that you can use here is "partial success." In Star Wars, Vader succeeds in destroying a planet full of people, but the rebels succeed in destroying the death star -- But not Vader, he gets away. Eventually Obi Wan dies too, but his spirit lives on. Star Wars is full of mixed results where nobody wins completely, every win comes with losses.

And individual stories can do the same. It doesn't have to be a "lives happily ever after" ending, the MC can prevail but lose the true love of her life; or stop the plans of the villain but not kill the villain; like Vader he escapes. Or the villain partially succeeds. In fighting competition (IRL) it is very seldom the "victor" escapes unscathed. Instead they are bloody, injured, exhausted and in pain. Victors, but the cost is high. Fiction can emulate life in that respect, at least metaphorically.

So invert "nobody wins", make it so nobody escapes without suffering terrible loss.

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