Story Resolutions: Mastering the Happy-Sad Ending

Very often, it’s the ending of a story that sticks with us—because it’s our last memory of it, our most recent emotional connection. So nailing the ending is important. This is why I was so excited when Gilbert Bassey reached out with a post idea about a satisfying story resolution that isn’t discussed much. Purely happy or sad endings don’t always provide a solid emotional punch. But combine the two, and you’ve got a resolution that readers just might be thinking about long after they’ve turned the final page.

It was 10pm, and I was trying to sleep when my door flew open and my sister came in, wailing like a wounded puppy. “Why did you kill him?”

I cleared the sleep from my eyes. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Michael! You killed Michael!”

At that, I couldn’t help myself from laughing. Not a nice thing, I know.

Curiously, she went ahead to profess love for the story—particularly the ending that made her cry. Fascinating, right? My story was able to create such a strong emotional reaction because it avoided the safety of a happy ending and the depression of a sad ending. Instead, it opted for the more fulfilling happy-sad resolution. 

Why Happy-Sad Endings?

Before we answer the question of why, let’s explore the story endings that we commonly see. To put it bluntly,

  • A sad ending is when the story ends on an overwhelmingly negative emotion 
  • A happy ending is when the story ends on an overwhelmingly positive emotion 

In both instances, it’s clear what the final emotional beat of the story is. However, the third type of ending introduces a new kind of experience. 

In a happy-sad ending, the story ends on two opposite emotional beats, making it harder to pick one over the other and leaving the audience in a happy-sad state. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a perfect example. I wept like a child and I loved every bit of it. 

One reason these endings work is because they seem closer to real life than happy or sad ones. Life rarely has happily ever afters. There’s always a price to pay, and many times, the sacrifice is unexpected. When a story is able to reflect this familiar experience, it gains an extra philosophical depth. 

Secondly, if one emotion creates a desired effect, two will multiply that effect. Story is about emotional manipulation, and what is a grander act of manipulation than getting the audience to feel more than one emotion?

The Secret to Creating a Happy-Sad Ending

While working on the story that made my sister cry, I knew from the beginning that I wanted the ending to be sad. But that’s not what happened, thanks to the advice I got from a writer friend at work. 

One day at the office, I narrated my story to him. His response? Even a sad ending should give the audience something positive.

It was an epiphany that slapped me into a new story consciousness. I took his advice to heart and reshaped my story. After some tinkering, I stumbled onto a secret for creating this emotionally complex story resolution: For the happy-sad ending to work, the two emotions should be tied to each other in one sequence of cause and effect. In other words, one should not be possible without the other. 

Let’s return to the resolution for the Fault In Our Stars. It’s sad because August dies, but it’s happy because his death helps Hazel appreciate her life more. Because of him—and specifically his death—she’s able to grow.

To state the secret in the clearest terms: Let the sad lead to the happy (or vice versa). There are a few ways to make this happen:

1. The Character Deliberately Sacrifices the Goal So They Can Attain Something More Important

In this ending, the character decides to let go of their goal to gain something better. For this to work, the goal has to be vital to the character. The more we feel it’s important to the character, the sadder we will feel when they let it go for something else. 

We see this in the movie Rainman. Charlie Babbitt spends most of the story holding his estranged brother hostage to protest his lost inheritance. But as Charlie gets to know his brother, he comes to care for Raymond and realizes that he has value. In the end, he gives up his claim to the inheritance in favor of a relationship with his brother.

2. The Character Fails in Achieving Their Goal, But They Do Attain Growth

In this instance, the character doesn’t get the luxury of choosing to let go of his goal; he simply is unable to attain it. Again, for this ending to work, the goal has to be very important, and the lesson learned or character growth has to arc towards the positive. 

A good example is Your Name Engraved Herein on Netflix. Protagonist Jai-Han doesn’t get the relationship he was seeking, but he learns how to deal with not getting what he wants.

3. The Character Is Only Partially Successful

With this ending, the protagonist is successful—kind of. They mostly get what they want, but it’s only a partial victory. So they win, but they also lose.

In A Few Good Men, Daniel Kaffee exonerates his clients of two of the charges against them and keeps them out of jail, but they’re found guilty of Behavior Unbecoming an Officer and are dishonorably discharged. This is a major victory, because Kaffee himself had doubts about his ability to save them from spending the rest of their lives in prison. But as men who value honor and integrity—men who have dedicated their lives to the Marine Corps—being banished from it due to their poor choices is a huge blow. Viewers are left feeling mostly happy but still a bit sad that Kaffee couldn’t deliver the whole package.

(PSST! Head over to One Stop for Writers to see Angela and Becca’s breakdown of the plot line for A Few Good Men.)

4. The Character Gets What They Want But They Lose Something Vital

In this instance, the character gets what he wants but loses something or someone emotionally valuable. If we experience victory and loss at the same time, the ending is made much more compelling. 

We see this in the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series when Harry finally obtains the prophecy he’s been seeking, but in the ensuing battle, he loses Sirius.

5. The Character Sacrifices Himself to Gain Victory for Good 

In this instance, the character sacrifices themselves so that a greater good can win out in the end. An example is Endgame, where Tony Stark sacrifices himself so that the universe can defeat Thanos.

Conclusion 

One of the most important parts of your story is the ending. How you handle it will determine how much people love or hate what you’ve written. A happy resolution may work fine, but consider harnessing the power of two opposite emotions with a happy-sad ending. 

What stories or books have you read with this kind of story resolution?

Gilbert Bassey is a writer, filmmaker, and story consultant dedicated to telling great stories and helping other writers do the same. Subscribe to his Storycraft newsletter and get a free copy of the happy-sad ending builder

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This entry was posted in Character Arc, Characters, Emotion, Endings, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.
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Vivienne Sang
5 days ago

A great post. I’ve been worrying somewhat about the ending to my current wip. I think I now understand what’s wrong with the current ending. Many thanks.

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Robert Billing
7 days ago

Great post, that’s documented something I’ve been trying to do intuitively for years.

My Jane novels are basically 4 with a variant of 5. Jane defeats Duncan, but on the way not only does Alan die, but she only realises that he loves her as he is bleeding and torn apart on the spaceship deck in front of her.

This gives her the strength to take on Arthur and she is prepared to go the whole way to 5. However she takes up the “Dying and Rising Deity” persona. She defeats him but just as it looks that she has not only thrown his super weapon into the sun, but she is about to follow it the rules change. She gets right to the point of being prepared to die, says goodbye and then Space Fleet find a technical trick (one that is foreshadowed) to pull her out.

Jan Sikes
Jan Sikes
10 days ago

Lots of food for thought in this post. Thank you so much for sharing!

Gilbert
Gilbert
7 days ago
Reply to  Jan Sikes

Thank you for reading and commenting. Means a lot to me that you find it useful.

Dave VanDyke
11 days ago

Great post! #5 is a classic for adventures. Heroes sacrifice themselves for victory, sometimes redeeming themselves in the process. Boromir comes to mind. Colonel Nicholson, played by Sir Alec Guinness, in Bridge on the River Kwai. More conventionally, Spock in Wrath of Khan, Kirk in Generations. Obi-wan against Vader–incidentally, another chance for Alec Guinness to die heroically. Gandalf against the Balrog. Morpheus expected to die fighting Agent Smith. Ripley knew she was likely to die trying to rescue Newt.

In fact, I would suggest almost every really great adventure story incorporates this trope. Victory requires sacrifice, and it’s no sacrifice if the loss is not significant to the story.

And there are other ways to sacrifice. We feel Arwen’s mingled pain and joy because her sacrifice makes it significant. Her story is poignant not primarily for her taking up arms–though her movie moment with Frodo at the river was a great reworking of the book. It’s poignant and moving because she sacrifices her immortal life for love and family.

I made sure the culmination of my own adventure series ended with a heroic sacrifice by a beloved character, and my fan mail reflects the happy/sad engagement. It’s a solid item for every author’s toolbox.

Gilbert
Gilbert
7 days ago
Reply to  Dave VanDyke

You nailed it! The quality of the sacrifice influences how we appreciate the victory. Your examples are also very apt.

As you said, every author needs this in their toolbox. Thank you for reading.

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ANGELA ACKERMAN
ANGELA ACKERMAN
13 days ago

Great post. I find with any ending that has an element of sad to if delivered well, it’s honest. Realistic. It feels right, even though you also feel a bit sad about it, it resonates.

Gilbert
Gilbert
7 days ago

Exactly. The resonance is the most important factor. That’s why it works.

Ingmar Albizu
13 days ago

After reading this post, now I want to try my hand at writing a happy-sad ending.
Great post, Gilbert. I learned something new.

Gilbert
Gilbert
12 days ago
Reply to  Ingmar Albizu

I’m glad that you did, Ingmar. I’m sure your happy-sad ending will kick ass.

BECCA PUGLISI
Admin
13 days ago

I was so happy to see this post from you, Gilbert, because this kind of story ending can be so powerful when done right. Charlotte’s Web, The Outsiders, The Hunger Games trilogy—so many amazing books end this way, and part of their draw is that ending. Thanks for pulling back the curtain to explain one way to do it well.

Gilbert Bassey
13 days ago
Reply to  BECCA PUGLISI

Thank you for accepting the post. I love happy-sad endings. The Hunger Games ending was so good.