Every once in a while you have that conversation with someone where you got into a book or a film you really enjoyed. One of the most significant parts of any story is the ending, as the third act is where the action of any story comes to a head. You will often find that story with the dreaded ‘downer’, one that doesn’t provide any sense of relief or satisfaction when the story is done, and just leaves you feeling on edge or depressed. As much as we dislike these endings, sometimes they are necessary.
In the endings discussed below, I’ll try to keep things spoiler free while still explaining how and why they work.
Some genres work well with the so called ‘downer ending.’Tragedies such as Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth and so forth have incredibly bleak endings where the heroes are denied their happy endings, in spite of the stories constantly, sometimes cruelly, teasing us with the promise of them riding off into the sunset. It is this unattainability of the happy ending that makes these stories so frustrating, but at the same time so endearing. They would not have had their long lasting power had they contained more upbeat endings. Other genres such as horror and thrillers often set their characters up for less than sunny conclusions, as per the conventions of the genre. Sometimes a bleak ending is just appropriate for a story, and having your heroes escape it can betray what the narrative is all about.
Dystopian stories for example are about being stuck in a cruel oppressive world and the despair such a world can bring. 1984, Brave New World, The Giver and Harrison Bergeron have notoriously dark endings, but one must think of just how the protagonists could have gotten out of the scrapes they were in. Each having the happy revolutionary ending would have quickly turned the genre stale and repetitive. Like tragedies, having a happy ending in such stories would have done more harm than good, because it would have negated the purpose of the narrative. The purpose of dystopian fiction is about the dangers of losing individuality and freedom. The most effective way to convey that message is to not to show an individual the audience cares about rise up and save the day, but show them being destroyed.
There can be a compromise to this type of ending in dystopian fiction. Escape From New York is a good example, where the hero still triumphs and delivers one final insult to the system that used him. When all is said and done though, the oppressive system is still in power, ready to use someone who won’t be as resilient as our hero. Though our hero is safe at the end, the rest of the world is not.
Horror is another example of a genre that can require a downer ending. Looking at classic horror stories like The Wolf Man, Halloween, Frankenstein, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and others, they have some very bleak, but also satisfying endings. This is because the primary focus of horror stories is to frighten their audience. Sometimes the most effective horror is that which continues after the story is finished, leaving the audience with that one final sentence or image that stays with them after the final page is turned or the end credits roll. You go to bed at night, find yourself unable to turn off the lights, and find yourself jumping at shadows. There’s something enjoyable about being scared in this way, and it’s something very hard to do if the story ends with the evil vanquished.
There are examples of successful horror stories that have happy endings. Jaws and Poltergeist are a few. In those cases though, it seems tonally appropriate for the stories to end on the notes they do. By contrast, take a look at a movie like The Thing. This story tells of a twelve man crew in Antarctica battling a shape shifting alien able to mimic any life form it touches perfectly, right down to their memories. An atmosphere of paranoia and dread permeates the entire film as the ever dwindling crew tries to find out who among them is the imposter. The film’s ending offers no guarantee the villain has been vanquished, leaving the audience with the same uncertainty the characters have. Anything else would have been a cheat.
Even a crowd pleaser story can have a somewhat bleak ending. Raiders of the Lost Ark for example is one of the best films ever made, as well as one of the most guaranteed good times anyone can ever have at the movies. In the end, our hero does triumph over evil, throwing many Nazis under trucks and in plane propellers in the process. But the Ark of the Covenant, the artifact he sought to keep it out of the wrong hands, is taken away from him by members of the government. As Indiana Jones leaves with Marion Ravenwood, he wonders whether he has done the right thing, or if the Ark should have been left buried. The Ark is wheeled away into a warehouse, perhaps set to be misused all over again. Even with a bleak ending like this, people still left the theater satisfied.
A dark ending can sometimes be necessary note on which a story can end, but sometimes not. As a happy ending can be forced, so can a ‘downer.’ I may stir the pot when saying this, but I didn’t much like the ending of Easy Rider because it seemed to go too dark. Prior to the ending, there’s a scene between Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper where Fonda laments that they may have all the money they will ever need, but their trip was a spiritual failure. That would have been a perfect ending for the movie. It was bleak, but also thought provoking, and showed how the characters had grown. Then it continues on, ending on a note that seemed to speak of the hardships the counterculture was facing at the time. I argue the movie already made that point before, so to me, the ending was overkill. I understand many will disagree as this is a beloved film, and rightfully so. Just remember that if you want to end your story on a downer, only do it if the story calls for it.
One of the primary purposes of fiction is to allow us an escape from mundanity and grant us a little excitement for a few hours. However, fiction does have another purpose, and that’s to examine the real world, the good and the bad of it. It is a sad fact that in the real world, not every life has a happy ending, so putting the dreaded ‘downer’ in a story may make it easier on someone when something doesn’t work out for real. Lets face it, you can’t cheat your way out of a sad ending in life. Also, these bleak endings can serve as warnings for us in the real world. They usually come from the characters in the story making mistakes. If we see those mistakes, and learn from them, maybe those sad endings don’t have to be ours.