Everyone likes a good “and they lived happily ever after” story. The princess rescues the puppy, he saves her life from the big bad wolf in return, and they become best friends. The spies find the secret documents and prevent a war. The little boy studies instead of playing baseball and aces the test. In short, whatever the goal of the main characters was, they succeeded in it objectively, and this success is shown by the author to be a morally good thing.
However, the “success good” ending to a story is only one of four that an author can use to great effect.* The others, logically, are “success bad,” “failure good,” and “failure bad.” (Except, of course, for those occasional stories that don’t end, but just stop. This is supposedly very literary. It may be. I’m not a particularly “literary” kind of author – just one who tells stories that people like to read.) For those of us who like to read or write classic stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end, it’s worth paying attention to all the different types of endings that can be chosen.
The problem with “success good” endings is that audiences expect them. A different kind of ending tends to make audiences think more. Other endings are also often seen as more realistic and serious, if you’re trying to tell a story about the Hard Things in Life. “Failure good” stories, for instance, result in a main character not getting what he wants, but this being the best thing for him in the end.
For instance, consider a Jewish protagonist who tries for an entire story to keep his parents from finding out about his secret marriage to a Gentile. He is certain that if they find out they will never speak to him again. Through the story it becomes more and more difficult to maintain the fiction that he’s single, until finally, just as he has once and for all relieved his parents’ suspicions, his wife walks in and, with a large surprised smile, says, “Oh, you must be David’s parents. I’m so glad he finally decided to be honest with you about our marriage.” David winces, bracing for the storm to come, but his parents are triumphant that they were right – and elated that he has finally chosen to settle down. (“Now tell me, darling, when can we expect our first grandson?”) While there may still be some feathers that will need to be unruffled, the readers will be assured by the end of the book that 1) David would have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had just told his parents about his wife, but that 2) he has learned from the experience and is now a better person, and 3) he and his parents (and his wife) will have a better relationship in the future than they did when David still feared that his parents would reject him.
The other two kinds of story endings are downers – but still powerful. Some, told well, can be cathartic, while others are terrifying, chilling, or intriguing. “Failure bad” stories are the simpler plot/moral structure of the two. In this type of story, the main character is trying to achieve a goal that, if achieved, would bring him/her happiness. Unfortunately, the main character doesn’t succeed. Thus, happiness is lost. The end. Sadness. Romeo and Juliet is a classic example. (“Why didn’t you wait another FIVE MINUTES before you killed yourself? You could have been HAPPY FOREVER!”) This approach is also used in horror stories, when the main characters fail to keep the Ancient Evil from rising and taking vengeance on mankind, or when the main character can’t reform his bad habits or falls prey to his Achilles heel and ends up the worse for it. Often, these stories show the “true character” of mankind – that everyone has a fatal flaw, or that you cannot escape fate, or something similar.
The last main type of story ending, “success bad,” is often more ambiguous or mixed in terms of feelings. In this plot, the main character strives for and attains his goal – but it was the wrong goal. These are “empty victory” plots, where the main character realizes too late that he should have failed, and that he is his own undoing. These plots work very well with the stories of unstable or evil characters. Since their personalities are warped, so are their goals. They are convinced that killing the president, or taking revenge on their coworker who slighted them, or winning the tournament at all costs, are worth whatever sacrifices they have to make to get there. In a perfect example, Sweeney Todd (in the musical of that name) goes on a murderous bloodbath of a mission to kill the man who he thinks killed his wife. He succeeds, but in order to do so, ends up kills a meddling old woman who turns out to be – you guessed it – his wife. Horrified and driven mad, Sweeney doesn’t even notice when his own throat is slit.
These plots give audiences the satisfaction of seeing the character they sympathize with achieve their goals, but also gives a satisfying ending to those who don’t approve of the character’s actions. Murder is shown to be wrong. Revenge doesn’t satisfy. Money doesn’t bring happiness. And so forth.
It is also worth noting that these story endings can be put to good use to further a plot as well as finish it.
Every long story (such as a novel) has mini-plots that serve to drive the main character onward, either encouraging him to change his strategies or to maintain them in the face of danger. Success-good episodes encourage a character to continue doing what he’s been doing. This doesn’t lead to character growth, so typically, success-good comes either in stories with a relatively flat main character (e.g. Superman comics) or at the very end of a story after a character has already changed.
Failure-good encourages a character to reassess his/her goals and priorities. Take Sally, an athlete who is convinced she will only amount to something if she wins her track and field competition. She neglects her friends and studies in order to train, but then tears a muscle in her leg the day before the competition. As she is forced to take time off of athletics and spend time with people, Sally comes to realize that relationships with her friends – and with a certain young man in particular – may be more important than racing. In the end of the story, perhaps Sally will have to choose whether to accept an offer from a university far away for track and field, or a larger academic scholarship to a nearby university where her friends are going. While at the beginning of the story she would have chosen the sports offer immediately, now she has grown and changed enough that it is a victory for her to have received the other scholarship offer, and the fact that she chooses it will be good for her and her future.
Success-bad is an even easier way to have characters reassess their lives halfway, or three quarters of the way, through a story. In this case, characters might either actually need to change their strategy and this is a wake-up call, or they have the right strategy but it is cast into doubt. The middle-manager who succeeds at being promoted but garners the ill-will of her rival and the people she is supposed to supervise, for instance, will either need to reconsider striving toward promotion as what will make her happy, or trust that she is right and that continuing her strategy will ultimately resolve satisfactorily for her. The trick with this strategy is that the main character is actually good at what they do – they just may be doing the wrong thing in a given circumstance.
Finally, “failure-bad” plot points are an arresting way to pull the rug out from under a character. When a character blunders through a situation that he should have known better than to enter, or if he makes a stupid decision (e.g. entering a knife-throwing competition against a wizard) that turns his life upside down (e.g. being forced to abandon his job to go on a quest), it shows him that something in his life needs to change. Perhaps, like Alaric in The Quest of the Unaligned, he needs to pursue a different goal with different means. (In his case, “become the Prince of Cadaeren and stop dark magic – and trust people!” instead of “return to Tonzimmel and the individualistic life of a security chief as quickly as possible.”) In other cases, failure-bad plot points simply happen because the hero was not prepared, was tricked, or fell victim to bad luck. In these cases, the hero’s goal and methods may be appropriate, but he needs to try harder, think smarter, or otherwise step up his game before he can overcome his foe. For instance, an arrogant duelist who thinks that a young untried woman could never defeat him might not pay full attention to the fight – resulting in an embarrassing defeat and a subsequent vow of never underestimating an opponent.
As you read (or write), then, pay attention to both whether or not a person achieves his goals as a book progresses, but also to how the author crafts a narrative to give the character moral feedback on his/her actions. When does success NOT lead to happiness? When is failure actually a good thing?
Have you read any good book lately that don’t have a success-good ending? Post in the comments below!
*I learned this four-endings paradigm from the writing system Dramatica. It may be used by others, and it may be exclusive to that system. Either way, it’s a helpful way to conceptualize a story!