CharactersPlotting/ Structure

Endings: Bitter, Sweet, and Everything In-between by Anna Denisch

Happy endings.

They’re everywhere you look. Or maybe they’re no where you look. Maybe they’re where you look but they aren’t quite happy, in a way you recognize. No matter where they are, or aren’t, the concept of a ‘happy’ ending is one that gets debated in the writing world like nothing else. 

Should they exist? Should they not? Should they but only some of the time? And if so, which times?

I’ve heard it said that there are two types of people in the world: Those that like happy endings and those that don’t. But what classifies an ending as happy? And is there really only one other type of ending? Discussion surrounding this topic would have you believe that there are two types of people, and two types of endings. Happy or Unhappy. But what about the other two types of endings out there? Does anyone like them? Does anyone know they even exist? Did you?

The truth is, there are more types of endings.

The state of the world might have you believe that there’s only two. Happy and sad. Black and white. Let’s mix it up with a little gray and shed some light on this disagreement. 

And let’s talk about it in terms of candy because, well, that just makes everything better. Or bitter. 

Happy endings are sweet.

They give you that rush of dopamine that only a good piece of candy can give you. They may be too sweet. They may give you cavities. But all the same, they are a delicious taste of yum.

Sad/unhappy endings are bitter.

They leave you with a taste in your mouth that you can’t get rid of no matter how much you brush. They linger and bite. They eat you back. They may be unpleasant. But all the same, you remember that taste for a while. 

Two types of people in the world, right? Milk chocolate vs. dark chocolate. Sweet vs. bitter. Instant relief vs. lingering impact. Yet all of these can have a mix. You can get a milk and dark chocolate swirl. You can have a wave of relief that is slowly replaced by a lingering oh man over time.

You can have a bittersweet ending. You can even have a sweet & salty ending. 

Let’s take a classic example of a typical sweet ending: Disney’s Cinderella.

She gets the prince, she gets away from her terrible family, and she gets to live her days in luxury and love. Doesn’t get much sweeter than that. This is your ultra-triple surgery milk chocolate candy right here. Nay-sayers of the sweet ending say it’s too simple, too easy, too unrealistic. Write an ending like this today and you might find yourself laughed at.

So, imagine that the prince hadn’t found Cinderella. Or the slipper, somehow, hadn’t fit. How bitter an ending would that have been? Cinderella getting a taste of what the good life could be, being so close to having it all, only to lose it and be stuck in her old life forever. It’s shocking. It’s bitter. It stays with you. It’s a pure cocoa bean you’re meant to eat. Nay-sayers of the bitter ending would say it’s too harsh, too mean, too likely to happen. Write an ending like this today and you might find some angry letters in your inbox.

But what if there was an in-between. Two in-betweens, in fact. 

What if Cinderella is found by the prince, is taken to live in the castle and be loved and be lavished? What if, in finding this new power and lifestyle she becomes the very type of mean-girl she was trying to escape from? Instant relief…lingering impact. A sweet & salty ending that would get pulled to the bitter end of the spectrum

What if, instead, she never was found by the prince. She misses out on that great royal life and the joys that come with it? Yet the courage she gained from going to the ball in the first place gives her the strength to leave her abusive family. She goes off and makes her own way in life. She finds new love (if that’s what she wants to find), and she becomes a beacon of joy in the town she settles in, teaching the ways of goodwill to all who will listen. A bitter taste in the back of your mouth, yet an overarching sweetness that takes precedent. A bittersweet ending that would get pulled to the sweet end of the spectrum.

But would the movie be so judged for its happy ending if it was the bittersweet ending? Would people call it an unrealistic expectation of life? Would they blame it for creating dreams too big in the hearts of those who watched it? Probably not. Or certainly not as much.

The truth is, there are four columns of endings in the world. And if you push them all down to two, you’re missing out on a lot of great analysis, and you’re causing confusion in both writers and readers. How can something be a happy, sweet ending when there’s such lingering pain? How can someone who gets all they ever wanted still have an unhappy ending? How do I, the writer, know the difference?

There’s been a sort of back and forth push between happy and unhappy endings these days. But what’s really going on is a push between sweet and bitter endings. More than that, so many stories out there cannot be satisfied with one or the other. The narrative arch of your characters will decide your ending. Believing in such a polarized view of endings is a bad habit to break. You could be writing a narrative arc that sets up a beautiful bittersweet ending only to dissatisfy readers with a sweet ending. It happens more often than you’d think, and readers are over it. 

A bittersweet or sweet & salty ending is the most refreshing thing in the world right now because it’s gotten a little lost along the way. 

When someone says they’re tired of happy endings, they mean they’re tired of sweet endings. They’re tired of the, usually, unrealistic and tidy endings that wrap up with a pretty bow, with no consequences for what characters have been through. These readers have seen some things in life, and they want their media to reflect it.

Just like when someone says they’re tired of unhappy endings; they mean they’re tired of bitter endings. They’re tired of the doom and gloom endings that reflect, perhaps too realistically, the bleak life around them. These readers have seen some things in life, and they want to forget about it and remember what hope feels like.

Is there a way to satisfy them both? Maybe not. Maybe they really do just want their bitter and sweet endings respectfully. But maybe there’s someone out there who’s tired of all the arguing and just wants something in between. Something a little bitter and a little sweet. A hint of sweet to go with their salty.

Maybe they want a Katniss Everdeen, who ended up with the family-life she never wanted (minus the family she did) but the safe world she always dreamed of.

Maybe they want a Frodo Baggins, who has the adventure of a lifetime and saves the world but has to leave behind his home and friends to find peace.

Perhaps there are two types of people in the world.

Those that want reality in their media, and those that don’t. But who’s to say whose reality is the truth? People do get sweet endings, just like they get bitter ones. But perhaps, most of all, everyone lives with the combination. Everyone has to give up something to get something else, whether they know they’ve lost it or not. 

Maybe bittersweet or sweet & salty endings are exactly the kind that will resonate the most with readers. Maybe you can have your happy ending without getting chewed out by fans of the bitter taste. Maybe you can have a bit of that lingering impact without overwhelming readers with a sea of pain and regret. Maybe you can satisfy your narrative arc while remaining committed to your characters.

Maybe, just maybe, you can have it all. And you can lean it one way or the other, to fit what you want. 

Because sweet, bitter, or somewhere in between, you are at the heart of your story. And if you don’t like the ending, no one will.

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