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How do you make a "bad" ending satisfying for the readers? I want to write a story where the protagonist dies without achieving his goals, but I am not sure if it's possible to write such an ending while making it satisfying for the readers. The only way I think I can make it work is by writing a terrible main character, anti-hero, like the Joker, but I am not sure if there's a way to make it work while writing a generic main character who is not a anti-hero or is at least morally grey like Geralt from The Witcher.

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    What is your theme? "C'est la vie"? That life does not always fulfill our dreams. Or do you have another theme?
    – Bassem
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 6:36
  • Btw, your questions teach me a lot. Thanks for the efforts you put in them.
    – Bassem
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 6:38
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    Define "bad". If it's satisfying, it may be bad for the protagonist, but not the reader.
    – chepner
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 12:45
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    "satisfying for the readers" is different than "no sad/troubled/conflicted feelings for the readers". else why would there be so much scorn (not from everyone, admittedly) for movies with "hollywood endings"?
    – davidbak
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 14:46
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    Have you read 1984? The protagonist failed in every way against Big Brother. I will admit to not enjoying the end of the book as a youth, but it was a very well written story and some measure of "satisfaction" in the story has grown over the years. Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 16:56

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I can't help but feel that you're looking at this backwards - for a "bad" ending to work effectively it needs to be a natural product of the story. Starting with the idea of "I want a bad ending" and working backwards is always going to be difficult to do, it's very easy to end up writing characters' actions or plot events in a counterintuitive way because they're constrained by that element of the ending and the whole thing stands a very good chance of feeling contrived.

It's not quite the same scenario but as a recent example consider the recent Obi-Wan Kenobi series, Obi-Wan defeats Vader as is to be expected, Star Wars after all generally adheres to the traditions of good triumphing over evil. Then, with Vader defeated and absolutely everything in-universe, and by the general notions of common sense screaming that he should kill him. He just.. walks away. Were the writers trying to tell us something about the evils of killing? Were they trying to say that everyone is redeemable? Were they even just trying to tell us that even after everything Obi-Wan still couldn't bring himself to kill a person he had considered a brother? Unfortunately the answer to all of these is no - instead they were simply constrained by the fact that Obi-Wan killing Vader then would have invalidated the films that take place afterwards (from an in-universe chronological perspective). From a writing point of view that moment was unsatisfying, frankly bad writing. They tried to write a story that said one thing but they had a hard plot constraint that didn't fit that and as a result it forced a hard left turn at the last second which was jarring.

A worthwhile thought exercise for your writing brain would be to pick that or something similar to your tastes and identify why it doesn't work and how you would go about fixing it - this is actually a really important thing to do as a writer, IMO anyone who tries to learn by only examining successful examples is only getting half an education. Learning what doesn't work and why is just as important.

If you contrast this with examples where the "bad" ending was a natural consequence of the story being told and the difference is palpable. Alan Moore's Watchmen for example, the book ends with the "villain" of the story (who is a well-intentioned extremist) not only winning, but to all intents and purposes convincing the heroes of their argument and, ultimately, being proven right. This works because a large part of the point of the book is a subversion of the normal comic book archetypes and tropes and the ending stays true to that.

Perhaps the most extreme example I can think of in terms of pushing this boundary would be Kafka's The Trial, where the book's protagonist is summarily executed at the end without even finding any answers as to what's going on or even what his crime was, and neither does the reader - while in a conventional story this would be seen as unsatisfying in The Trial the impenetrable nature of the situation and the wholesale futility of it all is the whole theme of the book and had the ending been victory for the protagonist, or even anything that demystified what was going on it would have completely undermined the rest of the story.

So if you want to create a story with the sort of ending you describe you need to think about what sort of story would have that as a thematically appropriate ending. The archetype of the main character is at most a minor factor, if the story your trying to tell and it's themes fit that ending then it will work - it doesn't really matter if they are a hero, morally grey, anti-hero, or even outright villain protagonist.

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    So to be satisfying the ending must stay true to something. Not necessarily a happy ending. Just something. Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 13:13
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    I'd add "Flowers for Algernon" as a superb "bad ending" story. The protagonist's goals change throughout his mental transitions, and his descent is heartbreaking. But that's why it's such an amazing piece of writing, because the whole book remains true to who he is.
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 14:52
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    +1. Two other good examples are Pierre Boulle's novels Planet of the Apes and The Bridge over the River Kwai; in each, we as readers see the ending coming from a mile away, because it's clearly the conclusion that the book is driving to, but the characters do not, because they don't know they're living in a book. The result is satisfying in the way that I think the OP is looking for -- and both books are highly regarded -- though I'm not ashamed to admit that I also found it a bit frustrating. I really wanted to yell at the characters. :-P
    – ruakh
    Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 1:19
  • Paths of Glory. The characters knew what was coming, but I didn't. Holy crap! They don't make movies like that anymore, or before either. And the (horrible) end of the TV show, Sons of Anarchy when dude suicides by truck, where that whole town should be nuked from orbit for murders, running guns and drugs, so yeah.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 4:03
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The goals of the protagonist may be different from the goals of the story.

Suppose that all that the protagonist really wants is to find a wife, marry, have kids, be happy. Instead, in pursuit of that goal, she saves her city, the country, and dies saving the world. She may not have achieved her goals, but the reader may be pretty satisfied with her saving the world.

The protagonist doesn't need to get a happy ending to make a good story ending. Sacrificing their own happiness for a greater good can elevate them as heroes.

Even if the protagonist does achieve their goals, that doesn't necessarily mean they get a happy ending. A happy ending might be precluded form the start by terminal disease, or some other inevitable end. It would be a bitter-sweet ending where they achieve their goal before being swallowed by fate.

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Your readers' satisfaction may be indirect: Your story made them live through strong emotions — in the end sadness, sure, but still strong.

Stories with a sad ending are commonly called tragedies. Some of the greatest plays from antiquity are tragedies, as are some of Shakespeare's greatest plays. Romeo and Juliet, the story of the lovers who cannot live their sincere love, has become proverbial.

Perhaps we can briefly explore the question just why anybody who is not a masochist would watch a story with a sad ending, instead of one with a happy one. One answer surely is catharsis: By living through strong ersatz emotions, the theory goes, we get them out of our system, or at least reduce their grip on us.

It is also a known psychological fact that realizations we have during emotional upheaval are much better retained: We learn things that are connected to emotions much better (PTSD is the extreme, re-wiring our nerves). A tragedy or a tragic book that explores moral and ethical questions in terms of a tragic story — how we wish with all our heart that these innocent teenagers can live the life they deserve! How heart-wrenching that they can't! Whose fault is this? — may have a larger effect on the audience than your average romantic comedy.

Last not least I personally think that sad stories also let you appreciate your hopefully not-quite-so-sad life more.

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You are describing a tragedy

One of the most famous plays ever written by Shakespeare is the tragedy "Hamlet". In "Hamlet", out of a grand total of 18 characters here are their fates. 11 end up dead, and only one ends up clearly achieving their stated goal. (Fortinbras gains control of the castle, it is unclear in some readings if Hamlet avenged his father) The reason people get invested is they know things will end badly, but it is not clear how. Telling readers explicitly that the story will end badly in a dramatic fashion will have readers waiting to put the pieces of their end together. You can do this either by directly telling the readers about the event with a flash forward or have other characters discover a tombstone with markings of a massive battle around it.

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  • Or take the movie Titanic. Out of the 2240 characters in that play, 1500 die. Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 9:59
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica yeah, and very very few people go into titanic thinking "Oh boy, I'm sure the boat will get there with no issues!"
    – user55696
    Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 16:06
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An ending isn't satisfying because it ends the narrative on a high note, but because it resolves all the story arcs in a meaningful way.

A bad ending with the protagonist dying can be such a resolution. For example when:

  • It becomes obvious that the goal the protagonist was fighting for was never achievable for them.
  • When the central conflict gets resolved by the death of the protagonist.
  • When the protagonist has a major character development just before their death.

However, when there are still dangling plot threats which aren't resolved but cut short by the death of the protagonist, then that's an unsatisfying ending. The example from the question, the protagonist dies without achieving their goal, appears to be such a dangling plot threat. This is because the central story arc - how the goal is achieved - remains unresolved. But that is only the case when the story was actually about achieving that goal in the first place! That's not necessarily the case. Good stories are often not about the protagonist achieving their goal, but about their character development during the process. For example, a story "Bob climbs a mountain" might be not so much about telling the story of how the mountain gets climbed, but rather about what Bob learns about himself while mountain climbing and how that changes him as a person. The mountain and the process of climbing it just serve as a backdrop for that character development.

It is very well possible to write a story where the character has that satisfying epiphany the plot was working towards before reaching their stated goal. Perhaps they achieve it not despite but because they fail. They can then die in peace, because the story already has its satisfying conclusion.

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If you watch the movie "Gladiator" with Russell Crowe; you will see a "happy" (satisfying) unhappy ending.

Crowe is a Roman general, victorious in battle, the favorite and an old friend of his Emperor. It is the end of war, and Crowe's only desire is to return home to his wife and young son.

But his Emperor dies, the Emperor's evil and jealous son takes over. He tortures and kills Crowe's wife and son, Crowe is reduced to a slave, sold as a Gladiator to fight to the death, against impossible odds, in the Colosseum against Roman soldiers. To die for the entertainment of the new Emperor.

The rest of the movie, Crowe fights with distinction, but in the end does die in the arena, but takes out the Emperor's son with him. As he dies, bleeding out on the Colosseum floor, we see a dream state in which he finally reunites with his wife and son in their villa and farm, the ending he deserved and never got.

We the audience are wistful and feel great pity for Crowe, but we feel like he died a worthy soldier. It is an unhappy ending that satisfies.

Is that a happy ending for Crowe?

I don't think so. He was the hero of the war, both the architect of victory and a master strategist and warrior himself. And this ending is his just rewards?

Yet it seems like a good ending. In the end, Crowe, in keeping with his character from the very start as a master tactician and warrior, gets his revenge against the man that stole away and destroyed everything and everyone he loved.

But that was far, far from the goal he began the story with.

The lesson of Gladiator is that, to have an unhappy ending, your character's original goal must be subverted, and replaced. The protagonist's goals must change, until it seems like they succeed, they give their life to a greater cause.

Crowe dies as he lived, protecting his country. At first from Invaders, but just when he thinks he can relax, in the end he must protect Rome from a cancer within, the young jealous coward that inherited the throne.

Of course that is not the only formula for a satisfying unhappy ending, but you need the same idea.

The goals of the protagonist are irrevocably made impossible by the villains, and progressively she (by her character and skills, like Crowe) moves to new goals. The goalposts keep shifting, until in the end, the only way she can "succeed" is to sacrifice herself, and she makes the decision to do that.

And the ending resonates, her death is indeed for the greater good, like Crowe's death. That will be seen as a satisfying ending, and reflects real life:

Few of us achieve our own dreams and expectations we had for our lives as children; those fantasies were never realistic. And they became modified and toned down as we experienced life. But I think most of us still arrive at something realistic for us, that works in the real world.

I think the Gladiator story resonates with us because it is a similar arc of continuously revised expectations from childhood to adulthood, constantly modified from impossibly "idyllic" to brutally "realistic".

Look for that theme in your story, or revise it to fit.

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    And for another example - coincidentally (?) also starring Crowe - the remake of 3:10 To Yuma. It's not the same "satisfaction" described in your answer but still a good ending. (Crowe's character is the protagonist but not the one here dying while not achieving his goal, that's a different main character, but maybe this counts.)
    – davidbak
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 14:49
  • Maximus (the character played by Crowe) has indeed lost his family and his position, but he could keep his honor and courage in the face of death; from that perspective it was the happiest possible ending.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 6:02
  • @EvilSnack You' ve missed the point. Crowe doesn't deserve the fate that befell him. This is a site for authors, this story was written from the beginning to have an unjust and unhappy ending, Crowe served well and victoriously and gets nothing he deserved; it isn't even clear the citizens of Rome that he saved from this (intentionally) horrible emperor will recognize they were saved, or remember him well. We don't celebrate those that kill our Heads of State. He is left dying with nothing but the dream of what should have been.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 12:28
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You want to make sure that somewhere along the story, what the audience considers "bad" diverges from what the protagonist considers "bad".

That does not mean your protagonist has to be a villain or anti-hero. Look at the Batman movie "The Dark Knight", where he essentially spies on everyone's cellphones. Imagine that after defeating Joker, Batman had decided to keep this system running in order to fight future crime. At this point, the audience would've most likely considered that a "bad" outcome. If, after some other conflict or struggle, Batman fails to achieve this goal, say because some well-meaning computer guy spots the system and disables it, then he would've failed to achieve his goal (of preventing all crime), but the audience would be "it's better this way", even without turning Batman into a villain (he can continue being a vigilante, the role already has some moral ambiguity).

What matters is that the reader doesn't need any particular story goals to be accomplished in order to feel satisfied. He needs to have story arcs come to a satisfying conclusion. A failure, or a partial victory, can be satisfying if they make sense, conclude the story and character arcs, and make the reader feel that something was accomplished, or changed. The Hero's Journey doesn't need to lead to the point the hero wanted. It can lead to the point the hero needed to be.

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