Books, Stories, Legends: Happily Ever After is great. Bittersweet can sometimes be better.

1394074_pink_roseYesterday, I wrote about the reasons we love “Happily Ever After” in stories, and why we are drawn to fairy tale endings.

While I do love and need the occasional fairy tale ending, most of my favorite novels–including Les Miserables and Don Quixote–have endings that are bittersweet, if not downright tragic. Sometimes, a writer just can’t write Happily Ever After.

I’ve always preferred Shakespeare’s tragedies to his comedies. I like stories with weight and substance, stories that make me think and reassess things. As a general rule, and in my personal case, stories that are bittersweet in tone do that to a greater extent than lighthearted comedies.

But why?


I connect with bittersweet endings because they ring true to me. After all, real life tends to be bittersweet most of the time.

We all have to deal with illness and with grief, some of us at a tragically young age. No major accomplishment comes without its price and its sacrifice; it’s because of the cost that we value our accomplishments.

If Happily Ever After can teach us how to hope, bittersweet endings can teach us how to cope. They can help us to persevere through and make some sense of our own suffering.

Reading tragic events in literature, and their bittersweet resolutions, as young adults helps to prepare us to face the unfortunate truths of the world: that not everyone is trustworthy, that hatred and evil most certainly exist, and that bad things sometimes happen to good people.

Realistic, bittersweet literature helps us to come to terms with these difficult lessons. Perhaps most importantly, bittersweet endings reveal that life is beautiful and something to be cherished, even though bad things sometimes happen to good people.

A story that ignored the losses, failures, and struggles that come with being human would be no story at all. Stories are always about what it means to be human; that’s why we’ve told them for as long as we’ve existed.


Even classic fairy tales, Disney style, that you can be sure will end up happy involve their share of struggles on the part of the heroes. Who didn’t cry when Simba lost his father in The Lion King? Who can forget the abuse Cinderella suffered thanks to her step-family? Heck, Belle was taken prisoner and held against her will; I’ve read articles analyzing the presence of Stockholm Syndrome in Beauty and the Beast.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Happily Ever After, and it has its place in stories. But as an author, don’t feel as though you have to have a fairy tale ending for people to like, appreciate, and learn from your story. Don’t feel as though you have to force a “happy ending” on your characters if that isn’t what you’re called to do.

38 responses to “Books, Stories, Legends: Happily Ever After is great. Bittersweet can sometimes be better.

  1. Ah ah! Now we’re heading towards ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Madame Bovary’ – I like it. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Discussion: Happy Endings | The Mad Reviewer

  3. Reblogged this on Julian Froment's Blog and commented:
    Who doesn’t want a happily after?

  4. angel7090695001

    You could also team the bittersweet ending with a cliffhanger. Duh, Duh, Duh!!!!!!

    • For a series novel, people can definitely do that. Great point! Personally, I don’t like cliffhanger endings and don’t use them in my books, but many successful authors do.

  5. Odd thing I always found about the ‘fairy tale ending’ is that original fairy tales (Grimm stuff at least) are rather dark.

  6. I prefer tragic heroes/endings over happy endings any day. I wonder if that implies something, personality-wise?

    • I’m the same way. I think it’s that tragic endings are deeper, more thought-provoking, and more connected with real life. It’s not that we LIKE tragedy; it’s that we know we all have to deal with it in the real world, and reading about it helps us to accept and deal with that. (At least, that’s the case for me.)

  7. I could not agree more! I was criticized by a reader for not having the happily ever after ending to my medieval drama. It ended favorably, but I wound it down after the big crescendo and showed the aftermath that tragedy brings. I feel that readers are exposed to so many works, that they expect a cookie cutter ending each time. My writing is not that way. Although I write in my own place in medieval times, it is full of real issues that we all deal with on a daily basis. No, life is not fair and it isn’t in my writing either. If a reader wants the same old love story, they can go read a Harlequin. Mine are deep and thought provoking dramas that take you on an adventure! If you don’t want to take the trip, don’t read. lol I enjoyed your post a lot! Thank you! Perhaps I can reblog this, if you don’t mind…

    • I don’t mind at all! Feel free to reblog if you’d like, and thanks for your comment. I love profoundness to a book.

      I too have a more realistic ending to my first published novel that breaks the cookie cutter mold. I love that about the book and other books that do the same thing!

  8. Great lesson. If everything were wrapped up with a neat little bow then, to me, it cheapens the characters’ struggle.

  9. I agree! I get kind of tired of happily ever after. Who can relate with that? It just isn’t how life in structured. Even when the Disney princesses get their prince, it doesn’t say anything of other life struggles! I love a bit of reality. Anything less is too hard for me to believe, and I end up rolling my eyes.

    Although, I will admit, it’s very nice every now and then to get swept away!

  10. I thoroughly enjoy a great bittersweet ending or even a tragic ending. The Great Gatsby comes to mind. Endings like that leave me breathless and closer to the bittersweet undercurrent beneath everything. It’s heartbreaking but overwhelmingly beautiful.

  11. I disagree with you here because I see this from the opposite angle. Instead of forcing the happy ending, I see too much forcing the bittersweet. They think it’s more ‘mature’ or something but their plot suffers because they derail things to make it happen. Too often when I see a tragedy and I don’t see ‘character doomed by hubris’ and instead I see ‘character doomed by author’.

    You make it sound as if comedies can’t have ‘weight’ or ‘substance’ and that a story needs to be bitter to be more than fluff. It’s reminds me of a book that piled on angst after angst and thought itself brilliant.

    Happy endings are made from a cookie cutter? Yes, and so are tragedies. . ‘Deeper’? ‘Though provoking’? Depending on the writer’s skill, a tragedy can be as bland and formualic as the ‘light hearted comedies’ they despise and a comedy can inspire more discussion and human reflection then the most dark and edgy tragedy.

    Struggle, yes; conflict, of course. Despair and hardship, absolutely! However, having any of or all of these does not preclude a happy ending.

    While you prefer Shakespeare’s tragedies, I’ll stick with his comedies. “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is my favorite; “Macbeth” and Hamlet are further down the list.

    There is enough tragedy and misery etc in real life. We don’t need to create more of it in fictional realities.

    • You make some fabulous points here! Tragedy for the sake of tragedy is just as bad as forcing a happy ending where one doesn’t make sense. It’s not about forcing bad things to happen: it’s about recognizing when that’s where your plot is going, if that makes sense.

  12. For me, the story just simply needs to ring true whether its a happy ending or a bittersweet one. Victoria, you making compelling arguments for either type of ending. Neither ending should be forced, as you point out. And readers have their preferences. As a writer, you do what you can to entertain and satisfy the reader, but you must also be true to the story.

  13. You’re welcome ;). But thank you for your blog and the great discussions your posts generate!

  14. I love a happy ending and a bittersweet one – just give me some kind of resolution! A little part of me dies when characters are left hanging and no sequel ever appears.

  15. Bittersweet endings are my favourite. There’s just something so realistic and satisfying about them… even more so than the happily ever afters!

  16. As long as there is a definitive ending and it isn’t forced (either to happiness or to sadness) then I’m okay with it. A tragedy is poigant if it follows as a result of a character’s hubris, but tacky if it’s caused by an idiot ball or contrived coincidence.

  17. I agree wholeheartedly. There have been times when I had planned for a happy ending to the novel I was writing, and the characters just wouldn’t allow it to happen. There have also been times when I knew from the beginning that the novel could not have a happy ending, which is not to say that it wouldn’t have a satisfying ending. They aren’t the same at all.

  18. Reblogged this on Authors Helping Authors Resource Site and commented:
    Happy Reblog Friday!

  19. Great article!
    Personally, I think happy endings have been rammed down our throats so much that I’ll get diabetes if they get any sweeter. *Cough* Hollywood *cough*

    It’s basically why I love George R.R. Martin’s storytelling the most–he uses happy details to amplify the horrifyingly terrible things that the world spring on us at any moment. In turn, wouldn’t that help us appreciate the good in the world even better? What better lesson for appreciating something is when we lose what made us happy in the first place?

    • This is a great point. I haven’t read Martin yet but I know he’s not shy about bringing on the tragedy. I love your point that the bad things help us to appreciate the good. That is SO true, especially in fiction 🙂 I really do need to read Martin. I’m glad you used him as an example, Payam!

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