Caught Between Happy and Sad: The Anatomy of a Bittersweet Ending

Josh Gastin Featured, General Thoughts, Literature & Poetry 4 Comments

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The best stories share a unique characteristic. It’s not a specific type of plot or a certain set of characters; what sets these excellent stories apart is their mastery of the bittersweet ending. This applies to more than just monuments of classical literature. Les Miserables and War and Peace leave the reader drifting in emotional limbo for days afterwards, but so does Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia. While it should be no surprise that such beloved stories have something in common, I believe that it actually couldn’t be otherwise. I think that the components of narrative necessarily work best when the resolution to the story is a bittersweet ending.

Having grown up reading The Lord of the Rings over and over I will admit that I am biased when I say that my favorite bittersweet ending is in The Return of the King. That was, to be fair, the first time a conclusion made me so perfectly sad and happy at the same time.

I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do except pick up the first book again to see if it would evoke the same feeling a second time through. It did. It still does. The movies do a pretty good job of capturing this feeling, and I think that’s why fans of the books enjoy the films so much. But, as I was delighted to find, this isn’t unique to Tolkien’s writing. It’s actually a key element of the myths and fables that he drew from when creating his world. The more I read, the more I found that bittersweet endings show up all throughout history and in many of the best stories we have. But what exactly makes a bittersweet ending? Let’s take a look at its components and see how the parts work together. A bittersweet ending has three elements, the first of which comes from the conflict in the story:

Element Number One: Loss

Loss is key, separating decent stories from the stories that you can’t forget. Loss tells the reader that the stakes are real and that the characters are truly in danger. The danger doesn’t have to be physical; the threat of heartbreak fuels romance novels so well that some readers spend their whole lives caught up in the tension of “will they end up together?” stories. Likewise, the threat of failure looms in many stories of courage and hard work. The point is that our characters aren’t just on holiday. Jean Valjean stumbles and is cast down over and over, suffering overwhelming loss. Every time he starts to rise he is met with destruction. Author Victor Hugo was illustrating the dysfunction of the state, and he knew that the most powerful way to convince people of that dysfunction was to demonstrate loss, because loss is something we can all understand.

Loss is vital because without experiencing loss in a story we tend to dismiss the plot as unrealistic and idealistic. Anyone can sit down and write a story about the man who has it all, but, as Fitzgerald demonstrates so memorably with Jay Gatsby, the man who seems to have it all becomes far more interesting when you discover his flaws. Those flaws drive Gatsby’s story forward, introducing loss in an otherwise glamorous life of partying. Loss by itself leaves us frustrated. Gatsby can’t change, and we watch from the edge of the frame as his story becomes tragic. At least in my experience, Gatsby is a great story not because it’s bittersweet, but because it makes me wish I could have told him what was coming. To achieve a bittersweet ending requires more than loss; loss needs an emotional counterweight. Hence the second component:

Element Number Two: Growth

Growth may not seem terribly interesting at first, but it is important. Loss and growth together form the foundation of the bittersweet ending. Growth plays a functional role, helping to pull the reader through the story. Growth keeps things interesting when plot twists and conflict get too repetitive. Characters with newfound strength give you that warm “yessss!” feeling that real life often lacks. Lucy Pevensie is a great example, as are Bilbo Baggins, The Karate Kid, Arya Stark and numerous others. Weak or put-down characters becoming strong is a great thing and delivers a true sense of fulfillment.

Weakness made strong is an underlying characteristic of God’s nature and also His promise to us: we long for it not just because it makes for an interesting story, but because God patterned us with a deep-seated desire for growth. Deus ex Machina, while a great movie, makes for a poor story. The alternative, more substantive way to advance a story is to force your characters to develop. Likewise, our yearning for betterment leads us forward, and it’s very gratifying when that inertia is mirrored in the progression of a story.

As a brief aside: The interesting thing with loss and growth is that they can be combined in many ways. A character could grow more destructive, like Anakin Skywalker. You can pair this growth of a negative trait with an otherwise positive story (saving the galaxy from warring separatist factions) and still end up with the emotional balance necessary for a bittersweet ending. Of course, when you have many characters, like in Les Miserables or A Song of Ice and Fire, you have a lot of flexibility to intertwine emotional ups and downs before you arrive at the final balance. Without that final balance the loss and growth in the story won’t resolve themselves in a bittersweet ending, which brings us to the last element:

Element Number Three: New Equilibrium

The third and final element isn’t easily noticed. I missed it at first because the first two encompass so much of what’s necessary for a bittersweet ending. It’s also a little more subtle, since most decent stories finish with some resolved state of affairs. What makes a bittersweet ending stick with you is that things are not only different, but they can’t ever go back to the way they were at the start. So much has changed that the only option left is to find a new equilibrium, or balance point, in the world.

The magic of a bittersweet ending is being held in place by the combination of sadness for what has been lost and joy for what has been gained. This can only happen when the emotional effects are matched in intensity. Disney movies, for example, tend to emphasize the happiness of the ending and downplay whatever loss or grief came before. Their stories certainly have both loss and growth, but they don’t leave you with a perfect blend of the two.

Many stories go in the other direction, focusing on loss and grief; these may receive critical acclaim but are an acquired taste that rarely connects with a broad audience. Not everyone has the discernment necessary to find value in difficult emotions. But that’s not entirely their fault — we all have an innate desire for a balance between joy and grief. We want to be in equilibrium.

How to Write the Next Les Miserables

The framework for bittersweet endings is pretty flexible, as I mentioned in the middle of this piece. The critical elements can be rearranged in many ways as long as the tension between loss and growth results in a new equilibrium. We can craft narratives with the same bones as some of the most powerful, moving and memorable stories ever created. We can also learn from the way that we respond to bittersweet endings. There are so many different aspects to this.

As an example, it can help us to understand why Eastern philosophy is so prevalent. Zen’s popularity makes a lot more sense when we can see the desire for balance in ourselves via our desire for balance in a story. Likewise, loss as motivation to grow is a much more productive and rewarding alternative to giving up. I wasn’t exactly writing this to be a self-help post, but the special thing about digging deep into what makes art impact us is that it tells us a little bit about how we function as well. This goes both ways, as the better we know ourselves the easier it becomes to create meaningful art. So get out there and use that knowledge! The framework for excellent stories has been established and proven, and the next great saga is just waiting for you to sit down and start writing.

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Do you like bittersweet endings? Which one is your favorite? Leave a comment below and let’s talk.

About the Author
Josh Gastin

Josh Gastin

Homeschooled, MCC and Geneseo alumn. Josh is a Rochester, NY Native but also spent time in South Africa, where his mom is from. Josh read so much as a kid that he had books taken away as punishment; that love of reading grew into a love of writing and thinking. Josh works as an analyst at Paychex.

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