Thursday, May 28, 2009

How to Write a Tragic Ending

I like happy endings, but no happy ending is ever as affective as a tragic ending. Sometimes a story just needs to come to a tragic conclusion. There’s several ways to do this. One way is to have action to the end, but the heroes just aren’t up to the task. This is somewhat common with the older nuclear weapon movies. Our hero is trying to prevent an explosion, time runs out, there is a flash of white light and we fade to black. Game over. It works, but it doesn’t give the audience time to think about what just happened. A reader puts the novel down and starts thinking about doing laundry instead.

The audience needs a breather between the tragic event and the actual end. Not a long breather, a few pages or so, but enough to respect the reader’s mourning over the loss of a character. Suppose a character decides life isn’t worth it and jumps from a bridge. We know he’s dead, but the story goes on and we find something that indicates he may not be dead. Then they find his body and sure enough, he is dead. That section in which we question his death gives us time to breathe and then finding his body is the nail sealing the coffin. It gives the tragedy an extra punch, making it even darker.

We can also go the other way. You may recall the ending to the movie My Girl. Following the death of a friend, there is a period of mourning, but then we see hope for the future. We see the lead character playing with a new friend. She isn’t over the death of her best friend, but the healing process has begun and there is hope for the future. There’s something about that hope that makes the ending so much more poignant.

With these last two endings, the point is that life goes on. By showing that, we are telling the reader that the surviving characters are going to have to live through the feelings that the reader is having. With an abrupt tragic end, the reader doesn’t see that because there isn’t anyone there to experience the feelings.