Editor’s Note: This article is the final installment in our four-part series on how to balance darkness and hope in fiction. To learn why we did this series and how we approached the topics, read our introductory post.
All of us are experts at sad stories. We’ve read novels that schooled us in death scenes, betrayals, fractured relationships, and harrowing pasts. These examples taught us that tormenting the protagonist is easy: just thwart his deepest longings. Then we can type “the end” and congratulate ourselves for accurately reflecting our fallen world.
But the real sad story is how untrained we are in the art of weaving meaning into tragedy.
Writing catastrophe without a purpose in mind only adds to the shocking headlines, decontextualized statistics, and growing danger of our society. Pain for pain’s sake is useless. Pain for drama’s sake is cruel. And pain for realism’s sake, while closer to our goal, doesn’t instill readers with the hope we have in Christ.
As Christians, we understand that pain twists, molds, and shapes. Sometimes it casts us at the feet of God. Sometimes it drowns us in sin. But it always leaves us in a better or worse state than before.
If we’ve resolved to paint traces of hope in dark endings, this is where we’ll find it: in the change pain forges in the human heart.
Unexpected Tragedy Disillusions Readers
Effective bittersweet endings are never a surprise. Readers must sense that disaster is looming. After all, they spend the entire book rooting for the protagonist. If he suddenly loses what he was pursuing in the final chapter, they’ll feel like his effort was futile. Unless his actions affect his fate, he can’t experience poetic justice, and without it, readers will be blind to the story’s purpose. They need time to process the tragedy before it happens, and that requires intentional foreshadowing.
I hate to spoil A Monster Calls, but it perfectly demonstrates how to depict suffering. Secretly, Conor knows his mom won’t win her battle with cancer. He’s only thirteen, and the wait is wearing him down. Part of him wishes it was over. He hides this from adults and readers alike until a visitor, the monster, coaxes it out. The confession breaks Conor, but it also frees him. Before his mom passes away, he’s able to admit that he doesn’t want her to go. Only then can he finally accept the inevitable.
When characters have no chance to grieve and recover, readers don’t either. Shoving healing into the last few chapters is risky, if not downright impossible. Healing is a journey, and half a dozen pages isn’t enough space to foster emotional investment in a new quest. The rushed resolution will damage readers’ trust and put a bad taste in their mouths. Anger or despair shouldn’t be the emotion that lingers with them after finishing the book. They should be as transformed through the protagonist’s arc as he is, so the tragedy mustn’t be tacked on.
Compelling Tragedy Is Foreshadowed
In the most impactful stories, the protagonist doesn’t get what he thinks he needs. During the turmoil of the third plot point, he comes face to face with his true need, and his entire perspective shifts.
When Conor realizes that his mom’s cancer is incurable, he rages at the monster. Instead of listening, the monster drags out the source of Conor’s inner conflict: his secret wish that his mom was already gone so the pain would be too. It doesn’t alter the outcome, but it helps him open his heart and express love to his mom, which touches readers with hope.
This is the most moving moment in the story, but it only succeeds because readers have been primed for it. The author never announces that Conor’s mom will die, but she weakens day by day, and the adults in Conor’s life dance around the subject. When she can’t hang on any longer and Conor says goodbye, the release is therapeutic both for him and for readers.
How Do You Choose the Right Tragedy to End a Story with?
In A Monster Calls, the tragedy is tied to what Conor wants (for his mom to stay) and needs (to let her go). Those two dichotomous factors are the building blocks of all character arcs—and, unsurprisingly, anguish.
Once you’ve identified what your character wants and how he’s straining to reach it, you can tailor a tragedy to his arc. The news that Conor’s mom won’t survive jolts him out of his unhealthy coping mechanisms and pushes him to share his feelings, exchanging what he wants for what he needs. That’s the influence tragedy should have on your characters.
Perhaps your character wants someone who will never abandon her because she had a lonely childhood. When she starts dating, she relies on her boyfriend to ease all her anxieties, but that turns their relationship toxic. Getting fired from her job won’t teach her to be less paranoid, and neither will persecution or a tornado that destroys her apartment. Those incidents, though distressing, aren’t related to her fear of being alone. But if she discovers her boyfriend is cheating on her, she’ll be confronted with the truth: she can’t depend on another person for happiness.
After tragedy befalls a character, she has two options: remake herself, or dissolve under the weight of sorrow. Her choice represents two different realities: one with Christ, and one without.
Tragedy with Christ vs. Tragedy without
A Monster Calls isn’t Christian fiction. No one speaks about God, attends church, or listens to a sermon. Nonetheless, beautiful, tear-jerking stories like this still contain hints of redemption.
However, another kind of tragedy exists. Characters undergo trauma and seek their own solutions to pain that drag them deeper into the mire. Instead of being reforged, the characters degenerate. These endings emphasize humanity’s dire condition without Christ’s intervention.
Reimagine the lonely protagonist’s situation with her boyfriend. Gradually, her worries increase that he’s going to break up with her. When he doesn’t promptly reply to her texts, she demands an explanation of where he’s been. And when he’s out of the room, she flips through his call history. As she suffocates him, he revolts. When she uncovers his dishonesty during the third plot point, she becomes even more desperate and picks a fight with his new girlfriend.
Conor grows through his ordeal. But this character looks like she’s headed for destruction. Conor’s ending was stained with redemption. This character’s ending is accurate to real life, yet full of misery.
Not all Christians are called to write heavy tragedies. But these stories carry value because they address another side of the human experience. Like redemptive stories, they dive into the darkness, except the hope they bring to the surface is in the form of a warning.
Tragic Endings Convict Readers
Characters like Conor are reborn through pain, often with the help of mentors and friends. But characters who latch onto lies devolve into misshapen, bitter individuals, and the consequences of their stubbornness weigh on readers.
Though the middle-grade novel Inkheart has a happy ending for most of the characters, Dustfinger becomes trapped in our world, and the separation from his home and loved ones hardens him. Because he refuses to love again, he prioritizes his agenda over everyone else’s safety.
In A Monster Calls, Conor has a guide: the monster. In Inkheart, Dustfinger has Mo and Meggie as positive examples. Both have equal opportunities for redemption, but their decision to follow either their want or need determines the outcome. Dustfinger is torn between risking his heart and remaining alone. Conor is torn between suppressing and confessing his feelings. Dustfinger takes the easier path, but Conor doesn’t. He embraces the truth and frees himself, whereas Dustfinger rejects it and keeps himself imprisoned.
At first glance, a negative arc like Dustfinger’s seems to attack hope. But underneath the gloom it issues a challenge to readers. Dustfinger’s mistakes inspire them to make nobler choices. When he closes himself off, the importance of openness and bravery becomes clear. This is why Christian writers shouldn’t be ashamed to craft stories with devastating endings—because they encourage readers to live differently.
Each of us tends to conceal parts of ourselves that don’t align with God’s standards. But, as David Foster Wallace so succinctly states, “Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” When characters spurn the truth, it’s as if we’re looking into a mirror. Before we can change, we need to acknowledge that sometimes we behave more like Dustfinger than Conor. But, for the warning to be powerful, we must offer the character an alternate path during the third plot point. Even if he bypasses it, readers will see how close he came to salvation and can learn the lesson he didn’t.
Dustfinger receives chance after chance to be heroic, but he’s unwilling to jeopardize his own life. During the third plot point, he’s forced to choose between staying with a woman he loves and saving his skin. He runs, only to get caught in another dilemma: Will he backtrack and attempt to rescue her after all? Or will he shut himself off again? The lady survives, no thanks to him, and his selfishness serves as a wake-up call to readers.
Readers are healed by Conor’s sacrifice and warned by Dustfinger’s demise. But Dustfinger’s deterioration doesn’t make his story meaningless. It shows readers the muck they could sink into and points them to higher ground.
Why We Need Dark Endings
In this series, we’ve spent an extensive amount of time staring at darkness. We’ve discussed how to shake a character’s beliefs about God’s promises and horrify readers with suffering. We’ve learned that human goodness isn’t enough to save us from ourselves. As dismal as all of that sounds, we need stories that explore these topics and more.
However, simply pouring darkness into our fictional worlds won’t change how anyone lives in the real one. Every day we wrestle with anxieties we cannot name and emotions we don’t analyze. We’re a culture of masks and invulnerability, managing our depravity under the guise of perfection.
But watching characters struggle is cathartic. When they fret about losing something or someone they love, the dread that hovers over all of us feels less intense. When they’re deceptive and manipulative, our own craving for control is exposed. And once we see our flaws in vivid color, we have a shot at transformation.
This process is marked with the fingerprints of the gospel, for only by discovering our sins and fears can we recognize our need for a Savior whose resurrection offers forgiveness and peace. Even if an ending must be tragic to reveal the brokenness of our characters—and ourselves—it ushers us toward a hope that echoes with the footsteps of Jesus walking out of the tomb.
With this, our Beyond the Brokenness series is complete. However, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What’s your favorite story with a bittersweet ending? And have you ever considered writing a bittersweet ending yourself?
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.