sad endings

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories that end badly. And I don’t mean that the storytelling is bad; I mean that the outcome for some or all of the main characters is tragic in some way.

My thinking on this was triggered when Beth (who won a pile o’ books sometime ago) emailed me to say how disturbed she was by the way A Thread of Grace ended for some of the characters. And it’s true. A Thread of Grace is set in northern Italy during WWII, and not everybody survives. Mary Doria Russell is one of those brave authors who can take on a story like that and do it justice. When she was writing the novel she tossed a coin (or maybe she asked her son to toss the coin; I can’t find the email right now where she told me about this) for each character. Fate is just as arbitrary, was her reasoning. And she was right, of course.

People die suddenly, in unexpected ways. Sometimes they are the people you love most and are most attached to. An author is like anybody else with a community of people. You like — even love — some of your characters, and you dislike (strongly, at times) others. The easy way would be to have happy things happen to the people you like, and make all the nasty people step in front of speeding trains. And that may work, but first you’ve got to earn those endings you want so much, by putting the characters through their paces.

So there I was, thinking still about Beth’s discomfort with the resolution of A Thread of Grace when three things happened. Both Grey’s Anatomy and Lost had their season finales, and in both cases we’re talking dark, dark, dark. Grey’s left everybody — and I mean every character — in a bad (depressed, enraged, disappointed, desperate) state. If you haven’t seen it but plan to, you had best set your mind for some serious stuff. Lost was even worse, in terms of dark and truly sad endings.

The third thing is this: I am listening to Lonesome Dove on unabridged audio whenever I’m in the car. I love that novel, I truly do. I think Augustus McCrae is in my top five favorite fictional men. But whenever I think about Lonesome Dove I think about the fact that McMurtry wrote a sequel sometime later, which I was looking forward to and then couldn’t read beyond the first chapter because I hate what he did with the characters who survived the first novel. One of them is summarily dispatched by the kick of a horse before the story ever gets started. That made me angry. Grey’s, Lost, A Thread of Grace — in none of those cases am I angry. I am tense, maybe. But I’m trusting the writers to take the characters — and me — someplace interesting.

Good writers take chances. A good writer challenges the audience. Such writers (or film makers, or whatever) are betting that you’ll come back. And they’re right, if they’ve handled things well.

My point (and I do have one) is that good storytelling isn’t about happy-go-lucky people who never have a problem, or bad guys who always get what they have coming to them. On the other hand, when bad things do happen to good characters, there’s got to be bedrock underneath. A solid story will survive terrible things happening to a major character. That is, the audience will go along with the loss, even if they are put out and unhappy.

If you’ve read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, you know exactly what I mean. King has said that PS is the novel that scares him most, and that he can’t re-read. It’s tragic in the classical sense, and it is scary. But nothing that happens is unfounded or unearned.

At the end of A Thread of Grace I was sad but the Lonesome Dove sequel just made me angry at the author, for the way he tossed a particular character aside. He could have simply left the character out of the story, in which case the readers would be free to imagine a future for him. That would have been acceptable.

So that’s a very long reply to Beth asking me about A Thread of Grace. I was shocked and disturbed by the death of characters I liked and who I expected to survive. One of them was even named Rosina, so sure, it shook me a little. But in the long run the story made both logical and emotional sense, and that’s what counts.

16 Replies to “sad endings”

  1. Rosina, whatever the reasons or motives are thank you for giving us a chance to get signed copies of your great stories. I am a huge fan already and plan on buying all your books for as long as you plan on writing them.

  2. Your books so far are great and I have waited over a year for the sequel. I intend to read it the moment I get it. Linda New Zealand

  3. Rosina,

    I cannot wait for Queen to come out. I have my sister and grand mother reading away so they will be ready when October comes.

  4. I agree that sometimes bad things have to happen to good characters to make a story worthwhile, and considering the setting of ‘A Thread of Grace’, it made sense for that to be the case. But honestly, Rosina. I’m not going to spoil the ending for those who haven’t read it yet, but I will say that there are many children involved. And these are children we grow to know and love throughout the course of the story; they are not arbitrary deaths, which, while equally tragic, a writer can get away with much more easily. The other tragic endings were definitely earned, and I thought Renzo’s was particularly moving, but I still can’t get past the kids.

    And I loved the season finale of Grey’s. Good, good stuff.

  5. I couldn’t agree more with this premise. Many of the books that truly reach me, the ones that stick with me long after I’ve finished, take this kind of chance – Tim Winton’s “The Riders”, David Malouf’s “Fly Away Peter”, even children’s books such as “Rilla of Ingleside”. An example on film would be “Girl, Interrupted” or “Hamburger Hill”. I was going to say that I like it when the characters are taken to the proverbial dark place, but it’s not ‘like’…I think, perhaps, that it’s necessary to some stories. There is a place for the shiny, happy fiction, but there is also a place for the darker moments and I am drawn to novels that do it well; that make the character’s suffering (or demise) necessary to the story.

    “A happy ending in Russian literature is when the hero finds out the reason for his suffering” – I can’t for the life of me remember who to attribute that quote to, but it fits what I’m trying to say. Sometimes, that kind of resolution is all that can be reached, and if it’s done well, it works far better than many forced happy endings.

  6. The book that came to mind for me as I was reading this post was My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. I felt this was a very well-written book. It had me turning pages until the very end, but the ending really ticked me off. I felt that it wasn’t the ending that she had set her readers up for. It wasn’t because it was tragic or sad or whatever. I can handle tragic when, as Rosina said, the author has laid the foundation for it. It just wasn’t the ending she had been writing towards for the entire novel. It took me a really long time before I could pick up another one of her books and even that reading experience was tainted by the fact that I still felt cheated.

  7. Great post and for me personally very timely and topical. I have just finished a draft of my first novel and the ending is up in the air for the main male character and two of his sons and my insides have been churning over about it as I worry what readers will think given the investment they have made in this character. My partner who has read my draft said, ‘I can see why you might be worried.’ Already I know the sequel and what happens to these characters who disappear at the end of my first novel and I’m not sure my readers (if I get that far) will be happy. However I wanted my story (the first and the second one) to focus on women as suvivors even though they may become unravelled by such acts of God. The books are about characters whose lives are up and down. They have elevated highs and they have incredible lows.

    I haven’t read A Thread of Grace but now I’m very interested. To try and gain some perspective on my story’s ending, I spent the week-end re-reading The Horse Whisperer which I haven’t read since it first came out. On both occasions I loved this book right up until the part – one chapter from the end – where Tom Booker knowingly steps into the path of a wild stallion fully aware that he will be killed in the process. And I just don’t buy it. Despite reading the author’s website where he claimed Tom was a mythical character and he had served his purpose in healing Grace and her family and her horse Pilgrim, I just don’t buy it. Because, IMO, he wasn’t a mythical character he was a salt of the earth character and he still had plenty of reasons to keep on living, despite his belief there was no future in his relationship with Annie (which I don’t think was the case long-term – it may have been the case in the short-term), but secondly, and more importantly given how much he understood about the pain Grace and Annie had been through over the horrific accident involving Pilgrim, there is no way he would have chosen to die like that right in front of Grace, a fragile fourteen year old girl, and subject her to such trauma and guilt for the rest of her life. Particularly if he was a wise and mythical, and oh yes, that’s right, sensitive character and that was the most striking thing about Tom – he was SENSITIVE. I just don’t see it. It made me really really angry…can you tell?

    I think what really would have happened is that the two main characters (Tom & Annie) would have had snatched holiday romances for three or four years till Grace went off to College and then her parents would have split up so Annie and Tom could have got on with their lives. It would have been completely manageable and realistic to me. What I can understand is that that ending may have been hard to write in one chapter, so an alternative was used. It was interesting to note that Robert Redford didn’t follow the book’s ending with his movie adaptation. I didn’t particularly like that ending either but it was more believable than Tom being killed by a horse.

    Did re-reading The Horse Whisperer help with my dilemna over my story ending? Not really. Even though a friend said, ‘Hey, he sold 15 million copies of this book, what does it really matter?’ But it matters to me.

    Thank you Rosina for posting on this topic. I love Lost and Grey’s too but have denied myself the pleasure of watching them for the last year but will buy them on DVD one day. Thanks for the warning :-)

  8. Diane- I understand how you felt with My Sister’s Kepper, but I absolutely loved the book. And you know what? Although I cried like a baby when I read the book(and not just at the end) I loved the book even more for its tragic and unexpected ending. In my mind, it couldn’t have been any other way. It was so moving. I think of it as a law of the universe. That’s how it had to happen. And I don’t view it as an unhappy ending. I think many happy things happened for some of the characters.

    Rosina- I know what you mean about being mad at the author. If a book (or a movie) end bad/sad, as long as it’d done right it’s ok. There has to be meaning to a loved character’s death. I hate when a writer starts killing people off for no reason (kind of like the series finale of Oz).

  9. I see I hit a nerve. Storytelling is a powerful force, isn’t it? It evokes strong emotion. If a book evokes nothing, no thought, no emotion, then in my way of looking at things, it has failed.

    Beth — I understand how you feel about the children’s fate. There are books out there that really shouldn’t be read by people who have little kids — I’ve reviewed a couple of them since I’ve been blogging — and maybe this one was just too much for you given your situation. (When is that baby due, anyway? And how is your daughter coping?) Looking at it with some distance, it did make sense to me, although I was terribly sad about it.

    As far as The Horse Whisperer goes, I haven’t actually read it but I’ll put it on my list. I can say that sometimes an author will find ending a story difficult, and sometimes an author will be unable or unwilling to work through the problem — so they’ll take a short cut that will piss off a lot of readers. Having a character suddenly do a 180 without foundation is one of those shortcuts.

    Finally, My Sister’s Keeper. It’s really interesting how people react to the end of that book. I really liked the novel, as disturbing as the twist was, but I know a lot of people couldn’t get past it. Picoult’s own son wouldn’t speak to her for a week after he read it (I read about that in an interview, but where? who knows). The Girlchild was outraged. All of that means that Picoult did an excellent job, she made us care about and think about her character and the awful dilemma they were in. Some people will see the deus-ex-machina ending as a cheat. For me it’s more complicated than that.

    Meredith — if you happen to remember where that quote came from, please let me know. It’s priceless.

  10. It is nice to get some other readers’ perspectives on My Sister’s Keeper and I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who felt that way. I wanted to clarify though that it wasn’t the younger sister’s fate that I had a problem with (though I did find that tragic of course). It was sad and unexpected, but completely within the realm of possibility within the world the author created, though I would have preferred a different outcome for her. It was the outcome for the older sister that I felt was unbelievable. Everything the author set up for us indicated that this was an impossibility and she went ahead and did it anyway. I think because the entire novel dealt with the situation in such a realistic way, it felt wrong expect us to suspend disbelief at the end. But you’re right Rosina, obviously Ms. Picoult did her job well, to exact such strong responses. Maybe a little too well in my case. :o)

  11. Loved My Sisters Keeper – dramatic plot twist and all.
    I have read a number of her books now- I like her style.
    The Russian quote is very timely for me as I am currently reading a Trilogy by Russian -born author Paullina Simons “The Bronze Horseman”,”The Bridge to Holy Cross” (almost done with that), and then there is “The Summer Garden”. It is set in WW2 in Russia, lots of passion and sadness, a not a little historical information.

  12. Sally – thanks, you sparked my memory. That quote was from Paullina Simons in an interview discussing “The Bronze Horseman” before the remaining books of the trilogy were written.

    In the context of the discussion on sad endings, and as much as I loved reading the next two books, “The Bronze Horseman” is an example where the sequels were not necessary and in fact detracted (for me) from the original novel. The tragedy of that closing paragraph in “The Bronze Horseman” is breathtaking, and it made absolute sense to me – that there could be no other ending than this utterly tragic, broken one.

  13. Meredith I agree wholeheartedly. I can count the number of times in my life I have cried reading a book and that is three: The Bone People by Keri Hulme; Beach Music by Pat Conroy; and then the Bronze Horseman. That ending is so achingly beautiful that it lives in my heart’s abode as my all time favourite book. I don’t think I have a Russian cell in my body but I like books that deal with pain, though with TBH, did Tatiana really understand the reason for her suffering?

    Separately, Rosina I have to thank you for your wonderful frank opinions which overnight have helped me immensely. Last night while I was doing the dishes I pondered on these two comments you made:

    “On the other hand, when bad things do happen to good characters, there’s got to be bedrock underneath.” and “But in the long run the story made both logical and emotional sense, and that’s what counts.”

    and it came to me – the light was so bright! – that I needed to add another key scene to my main female character, an episode that happened in her youth that illustrates her spirit and explains more about who she is and why she behaves as she does.

    Such relief I have to tell you and so imperative for the ending – strange how I never had this insight till now. So thank you – you have made my week!

  14. *** SPOILERS FOR “THE BRONZE HORSEMAN” BELOW ***

    Sherryl – TBH is also up there in my pile of all-time favourite books, due in part to the beauty of those closing paragraphs. But I do think that Tatiana discovered the reason for her suffering: she suffered for Alexander, and she suffered for their love. I think that she never managed to seperate the two – to her, loving Alexander has always meant suffering, and the cost of that suffering was something she bore in order to love him.

    Tatiana’s understanding of love in TBH, be it for Alexander or her family and friends, reminds me of a war poem with the line “Love now is christened Sacrifice”. Perhaps beforehand but certainly during the blockade, I think that Tatiana doesn’t know how to love without sacrifice or suffering, and I think one of the underpinning tragedies of the book is how knowingly Tatiana invites and understands this suffering in her attempt to protect both her family (namely Dasha) and Alexander at the same time.

    *** END OF SPOILERS FOR “THE BRONZE HORSEMAN” ***

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