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There are questions like, ‘What makes an ending happy?’ Or ‘What is considered a happy ending?’

That’s obviously not what I’m looking for. It’s more the opposite.

Tragic love plots gives me cringes while endings like, ‘They live happily ever after.’ really spoil my mood. To be honest, even ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Shakespeare sounds extremely cheesy to me.

What makes a ending so tragic yet leaves a deep impression engraved into the reader’s mind?

Also before you could say ‘Because of Love’ I would like to say that this question stretches out to all genres.

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    Well if the suicides of two teenage lovers leave you thinking of a good Camembert I think we'll struggle to suggest any ending at all that you would find satisfactorily tragic. Or perhaps if you dropped your own ice cream on the beach you would be rendered inconsolable with grief? Nov 16 '21 at 14:53
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    @HighPerformanceMark I detected sarcasm in your words and would like to tell you that the weather is too cold to have ice cream. Plus it is noted that, not all tragic endings should be involve with love, after all, it’s not good to throw dog food around at the resolution of the story. Nov 16 '21 at 16:28
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    Can you give some examples of what you find tragic?
    – justhalf
    Nov 17 '21 at 13:34
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    "it’s not good to throw dog food around at the resolution of the story" What does this mean? Nov 17 '21 at 17:47
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    I was serious in asking that question. So that we can help to see what makes what you feel as tragic.
    – justhalf
    Nov 18 '21 at 4:08
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That is the real question, isn't it? What is it that makes an ending sad, tragic, happy, bittersweet? What does it take for a story to make us feel things if not for its relevance to our own experiences?

The reason you don't find Romeo and Juliet's ending tragic is probably because our culture finds their love closer to 'cringe' than to 'romantic'. Our blunt emotion receptors are not tuned to tragedy... unless you are a highly empathetic person.

That said, not all people find the same things tragic, or even remotely sad. Even if we are unaware of it, we are perfectly attuned to situations we find relatable. And the impact of a 'tragic' or 'sad' ending is also correlated to our personal experiences.

So, what really makes an ending tragic? Our empathy. Our connection to what we perceive as universal values. Our sense of justice. Our need for community. Our humanity.

Now, my own two cents on love plots, because you seem to be focused on romance: I also believe that 'They lived happily ever' endings are cheesy. I find them cheesy because they are not the end; just a milestone. Really tragic endings in love stories do not allow for sequels or 'what next' interpretations. They deal with the end, the finite, the absolute. The tragedy comes in the lack of redemption. The impossibility of a 'hidden' happy ending. And that is what makes it have a deep impression. It's not the 'what if' in the story; that's over. Done. It is the possibilities hidden in your own life and the lives of the people around you.

I am sure there are endings out there that you would find tragic. You just need to find one that feels real.

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    Out of all the answers, yours was the easiest to understand and comprehend. There are other answers that had more votes and more information but your sense of what tragedy should be had a direct answer of what I was looking for. Nov 18 '21 at 14:27
  • Thank you, Artemis! I really appreciate it. Nov 19 '21 at 15:14
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Kurt Vonnegut's Shapes of Stories

Satirical writer Kurt Vonnegut describes the "shape" of stories on a simplified graph, plotting happiness and misfortune from beginning to end.

Vonnegut stands next to a chalkboard with a simple bell-shaped curve as a diagram

He's intentionally reductive to illustrate how certain narrative archetypes can be viewed as a dynamic progression of the protagonist's circumstances over the course of the story. He describes the archetype Man in a Hole as someone getting into trouble then getting out of trouble. He describes Boy Meets Girl as finding happiness, losing it, and then finding happiness again.

The graph becomes surprisingly nuanced as he describes Cinderella's shape through individual story beats, before plotting happily ever after as an infinite value somewhere off the chart.

An excerpt of the lecture: Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories (Vimeo)

A brief analysis with diagrams: Kurt Vonnegut on 8 ‘shapes’ of stories (Big Think)

It's the curve that makes the story feel like it's come to a conclusion. Without the curve stories feel episodic, like the protagonists circumstances are always preserved for the sake of a TV show, or it's just another average day in the life of Adventureman™.

Comedy vs Tragedy

If we plot Comedies and Tragedies on Vonnegut's graph, they spend most of the story headed in the opposite direction from where they end up.

An archetypal Comedy might involve a character going through a series of comedic disasters. We laugh at their misfortune as their circumstances turn worse with each plot development. There is mistaken identity, they slip on a banana peel, the wife burns the pot roast. Various plot threads collide in an inevitable crescendo. In real life this would be the worst possible moment in a person's life, but styled as comedy it is the satisfying release of all the plot complications leading up to it.

In an archetypal Tragedy the story shape is also curiously inverted. The tragic hero doesn't foresee the disaster that's coming – that thing readers/audience already know is going to happen. Oedipus rises out of poverty, becomes a national hero, and marries the Queen – all of these plot beats appear to be leveling up on the Vonnegut scale. He rises higher to fall farther.

As characters evolved beyond guy who did a blasphemy to characters with POV and agency, their tragic missteps start looking like character flaws. The Macbeths believe they are maneuvering closer to the throne. Othello believes he is uncovering a dirty secret about his wife. They are written as having a moral choice, which they debate – they know right from wrong (at first), but they make the wrong choice again and again. They take small steps, each plot beat taking them further out on a limb.

The tragic hero sets himself up for a fall which the reader knows is coming. The 'hero's fall' can be abstracted to a flawed political movement, a dysfunctional relationship, a misguided ambition or agenda, a scientific discovery that poisons the discoverer.... The goals appear lofty, but the means, or the moral core is somehow polluted.

Cause and Effect

Another aspect of tragedies is cause and effect: the ending is a result of actions and decisions compounded throughout the story. It's not necessarily about assigning blame, it doesn't need to be anyone's fault, but tragedies work best when characters drive their own downfall. Little Red Ridinghood isn't just a little girl who gets assaulted, she is a flashy dresser who talks to strangers and disobeys her mother.

Horror is not tragedy because characters lose their agency to an overpowered antagonist (however abstract). Lars Von Trier and Scandinavian murder mysteries use misery and melancholia as a style, but these also are not tragedies. Nihilism and bleak worldviews are not tragic, it would be hard for those worlds to inspire false hope. Endings that are abruptly dark for no reason are Gotchas or Shaggy Dog stories – getting hit by a bus is just random (if not author ex machina).

These generally lack Vonnegut's curve that promises happiness/success, then snatches it away. Tragedies can be small, a personal hubris leading to humiliation. Tragedies can illustrate a larger issue or act as a parable, the Tower of Babel, et al. They can be fractal components within a larger story or character arc.

But more than character downturns and misguided motives, tragedy is a kind of bait-and-switch on the protagonist (not the reader). Romeo and Juliet are saccharine because the they are the pure innocent lambs who are sacrificed (well, they sacrifice themselves because – love reasons – even though they've already run away together? I agree it's kind of a dumb story.) The tragedy is their parents who perpetuate a feud ironically at the cost of their children's lives. R&J don't actually make it to the final scene to learn the moral of their tragedy.

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    I agree about the bait-and-switch. The difference between a tragic ending and a "downer" ending is that you feel like everything would have been so much better if they hadn't died. Eg in a war movie, someone is just about to save the day and give us all a happy ending when they are shot by a random soldier in the back. Out of nowhere, victory has been snatched from us. That is tragedy. I think maybe it helps if there is some kind of ironic component to it perhaps? Nov 18 '21 at 16:05
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Tragedy is relative

A story that ends with a sole survivor of the human race realizing she is alone could be hopeful. A story that ends up with you winning a million dollars (while watching someone else walk away with the love of your life) could be tragic. A story where you barely survive a catastrophe, and limp away injured, could be a triumph!

It's not so much what happened in a story which makes it tragic; it's what could have happened. Romeo and Juliet is tragic not merely because the protagonists die, but because they could have been happy. And if you cynically disbelieve that Romeo and Juliet could have been more than briefly happy, given the violence of their emotions and how changeable Romeo is portrayed at the beginning of the play... Well, then the tragedy falls flat, because it's just two love-struck teenagers overreacting yet again, just like when they eloped, just like when they started meeting secretly, etc.

If Romeo and Juliet lands poorly, part of the problem is your comparative expectations of what else could have happened. There's more to it, though:

Tragedy is an attitude

Someone is walking away with the love of your life. But hey, you just won a million dollars! You can find somebody else.

Compare that to: You just won a million dollars, but the woman you want to spend your life with has lost faith in you, and is leaving with another man. You're now rich, but you know you won't have the happiness you could have had with her, even without the money. Money is just money without the people you care about.

Tragedy is subjective (of course, because it's an emotional experience), and that means it requires an attitude, a frame of mind, an emotional vulnerability. A rowdy, disrespectful crowd of high schoolers might crack jokes during Schindler's List, where if they had sat and watched it separately, they might have been in the right frame of mind to be moved by the tragedy of it. Likewise, the feel of a story will be different if the character subject to a tragedy has a sympathetic attitude (determined but overwhelmed?), rather than a hopeful attitude, or one so unsympathetic that a typical audience feels that character deserves whatever suffering comes.

Tragedy is personal

A quote which often gets thrown around: "One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic."

It's not a tragedy to hear that an invading army came and killed every man, woman, and child in Verona. Well, not in the literary sense. It is a tragedy (potentially) that, as a result of a misunderstanding, two young lovers from Verona commit suicide, one after the other, because of a misunderstanding - moments before they could have escaped to happiness.

You've followed Romeo and Juliet, seen their lives and hopes. They are (supposed to be) relatable!

It's not like hearing about a refinery exploding in some state you've never visited, killing 150 people you don't know existed until they were numbers on a piece of paper. Well, it's not a tragedy until you hear about the little girl in tears because Daddy will never come home again, or the wife who can't sleep, can't bring herself to even watch TV, who just stares at the wall for hours, in shock.

So, what makes tragedy go off the rails?

  1. "I saw that coming a mile away"

Sometimes, a reader will disengage when realizing where a story is going. I personally checked out of Rogue One about halfway through, when I worked out that every single character of interest was going to die. If you start reading Romeo and Juliet already knowing how it ends, it's less likely to make an impression.

  1. "You didn't make me care"

If tragedy is personal, then when you fail to make a story personal, it isn't a tragedy. If you didn't particularly care about Romeo or Juliet, or their love affair, then what do you care whether they melodramatically kill themselves? Meh.

  1. "You broke my suspension of disbelief"

If a twist in a story is sufficiently absurd, your audience will check out. "And then everyone's head exploded!" If a twist is too hard or illogical, it isn't a story anymore, just words on a page, or images on a screen. When the characters stop being people, the story stops being tragic (or anything else).

Tragedy is an emotional experience, so (successful) tragedy can only happen when the audience is feeling.

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    "I personally checked out of Rogue One about halfway through, when I worked out that every single character of interest was going to die." No one dies in Star Wars, not even when they die a few times.
    – wetcircuit
    Nov 17 '21 at 14:33
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    @wetcircuit I honestly have no idea what you're trying to say.
    – Jedediah
    Nov 17 '21 at 14:59
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    Your answer puts a high value on unpredictable endings (valid, for certain genres at least), but could you enjoy a story about a 'doomed' fate or a no-win situation or sacrifices? These are some of the themes in tragedies…. Like, I get not wanting my adventure candy to be a bummer, but Star Wars has received criticism in this last installment for being nonsensical with previously very dead characters. I'm wondering if that is an improvement considering the franchise did a hard 180° away from 'grown up' 'dark' stories like how Rogue One was (presumably) intended.
    – wetcircuit
    Nov 17 '21 at 15:15
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    @wetcircuit It's valid to point out that some tragedies are effective even with endings you know are coming. (Grave of the Fireflies made me cry, a lot, even when the tragic ending was literally the opening scene.) The "what makes tragedy go off the rails" piece wasn't intended as the main body of my answer, but was me attempting to address the subtext of the OPs question - why some tragedies, like Romeo and Juliet, don't land well for the asker. I still don't understand your original comment.
    – Jedediah
    Nov 17 '21 at 15:31
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    Re: "If you start reading Romeo and Juliet already knowing how it ends, it's less likely to make an impression": But line six of the prologue already tells you how it ends -- "A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life" -- so if different people feel differently about the play, it shouldn't be because some of them knew what was coming and some didn't.
    – ruakh
    Nov 18 '21 at 7:51
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I remember reading somewhere (not here, but the link should suffice), that the essence of tragedy is hubris: those who put their will against and above the fates. Romeo and Juliet isn't tragic because two kids kill themselves; Romeo and Juliet is tragic because two kids believe that their love can conquer all of the forces of the world that are arrayed against them, and are forced to learn otherwise. They fight and struggle to bring what they know in their heart is right to fruition, but every step forward is twisted out of true and every plan and stratagem is subverted against them.

Tragedy isn't just a sad story; done properly, it's an exemplification of karma.

It's worth noting that (for the ancient Greeks, at least) the difference between tragedy and comedy is mainly a matter of perspective. In tragedy we are brought to identify with the person struggling to pit his will against the universe, and his downfall strikes against our own cherished ideals. In comedy we are alienated from the person struggling to pit his will against the universe, and his downfall seems ironic. An objective chain of action is morally and dramaturgically ambiguous. Say, for example, that a plot line has someone charge down a hill into a battle, only to slip, fall, and suffer an injury. If it happens to a noble person whose cause we think is just, we find it awful; if it happens to a pompous ass with selfish goals we find it funny.

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Tragedy is choice

In order to be a tragedy, the protagonist has to have a reasonable choice to back out and stop the ball rolling. What makes it a tragedy are the negative consequences of choosing to continue on this path.

Macbeth is an obvious tragedy. At many points through the play, he has chances to back down - but he chooses not to. Everything that follows is the inevitable consequence of his actions. This is pretty clear-cut. Othello goes the same way - he could just start trusting his wife a little bit, but he chooses not to.

Hamlet goes one better by being a double tragedy, both of Hamlet and of Claudius. Claudius plots for power (like Macbeth), and Hamlet dedicates his life and sanity to stopping him. Again, both could back down but they don't, and everything that happens is because of their choices.

The problem comes with "fake" tragedies, where the "tragic" finale doesn't come from any logical reason. Romeo and Juliet is a perfect example of this. Shakespeare had got the characters into an interesting situation, but then apparently couldn't find a better solution than an absurd double suicide. This isn't a consequence of anything at all that came before it, so it is deeply unsatisfying. There isn't even any reason why the two families should come together at the end to learn from it, since they've been happily killing each other for years, so that's unrealistic too. By any conceivable standard of analysis, it's simply lazy writing. (Yes, I am saying that Shakespeare had his crap days, like the rest of us, and the final act of R&J is certainly one of them.)

King Lear has a similar problem if you see Lear as the tragic figure. However Lear's trajectory is actually hubris, nemesis and redemption. The tragic figures are really Regan, Goneril and Edmund, and the tragedy is what the three of them do to achieve and keep power. Cordelia's death seems senseless if you consider it from Lear's perspective. From Edmund's perspective though, he's made a dying attempt at some kind of redemption in trying to rescind the order for her execution, and her death is a failure which ensures his damnation.

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  • Agree with all of this, especially unearned 'fake' tragedies that are just lazy writing. Shakespeare's liked to punish an innocent so the main characters can talk about how sad it is – the 16th Century girlfriend in refrigerator trope.... Titus Andronicus makes no sense at all, but wikipedia suggests it's what audiences wanted, more gallo than tragedy I guess.
    – wetcircuit
    Nov 18 '21 at 17:39
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    @wetcircuit That's something that's hard for us to appreciate today. Torture and executions were public entertainment back then, basically the entire Saw franchise for real. So considering what everyone had seen actually happening to people, Titus Andronicus wasn't an attempt to shock, it was simply putting it on stage.
    – Graham
    Nov 19 '21 at 12:22
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A drama is a tragedy when the flawed pre-eminent figure fails to overcome the moral flaw that occasions the drama. Its a comedy when the flaw is overcome.

The distinction, like drama itself, is entirely based on the central character's struggle to overcome the flaw. The resulting effect on the character's physical condition doesn't matter. A drama based on a great bronze age warrior struggling against greed might be a comedy if the warrior gives away all of his loot before going into battle, or a tragedy if the warrior was certain he would die and gave it all away expecting to be rewarded in the afterlife.

Drama, as a form, is Greek in origin, and pre-Christian. The moral and philosophical framework of classic ancient drama is generally recognizable, but the relative weight of specific elements has changed in recent centuries with some becoming unfamiliar. For example: the classic host-guest relationship found in most cultures from the bronze age through the late 19th century is almost non-existent in 21st century industrial cultures.

The classic dramatic comedy is also called 'high comedy', alluding to "the divine comedy" but the perspective isn't necessarily culturally defined.

Humor, and other things that make people laugh are all 'low comedy'. Its only related to dramatic comedy in the sense that apart from the limited appeal of; "gallows humor", nervous laughter, and the relieved reaction from seeing a bad thing happen to someone else instead of themselves, people won't laugh at dramatic tragedy. Moral self-aware adults won't truly laugh at anything surrounded by dramatic tragedy. Sociopaths will - thus the evil laugh. Johnny Carson observed that "there are no funny 'death jokes'" because there is no available sudden change in perspective to produce true laughter which comes from a child-like wonder from seeing something good that was unexpected.

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For me, tragedy is largely borne by the loss of the thing that was sought so desperately - at the hands of the thing itself.

For example, let's say our plucky hero strives and labours tirelessly for years in an attempt to find true love. Finally, after many failures he finds "the one", and they share a brief romance of epic proportions.

The lover has always wanted to visit Elbonia. Our pluky hero, at great cost to themselves, visits Elbonia to set up a life-changing experience for their lover when they both return in a few weeks time. However, it turns out that the Elbonians carry a disease to which they are immune. Our hero catches the terrible, highly infectious disease - and will soon experience great pain and eventually will die if left untreated.

This prevents them from seeing their lover for fear of infecting them. The only way to recover from the disease is to find a one-in-a-million genetic match and eat their brains. After an exhaustive search, it turns out the exact match is the hero's lover.

This, to me (if constructed and told considerably better than I have done), is the basis of tragedy. The hero has found and enjoyed the love they sought so tirelessly, and in the process of enjoying that love, has caught a disease. Now they must either die alone of their terrible disease, or can recover by killing their lover. Their lover also, having seen the lengths the hero went to to try to please them, having been offered but then lost the chance to see Elbonia, can either live alone knowing they did nothing to save or even to comfort the hero, or can sacrifice themselves so the other can live.

In summary, for me, a tragedy is a circumstance which irrevocably undoes the thing most sought. The thing most sought is the cause of that undoing itself and results in an outcome in which those that are left behind have all "lost" in some way.

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