Would it surprise you to discover that I just finished a Nicholas Sparks book with a tragic ending?
If you’re shaking your head, then chances are you might have read a book or two by the international best-seller. He successfully alternates between happy and sad endings and you never quite know which one you are going to get until you’re well and truly immersed in the novel…by which time it’s too late to put the book down.
Why? Because by that time you damn well care about the characters and you have to find out what happens to them, for better or worse.
If you’re sensing a hint of frustration, then you’d be right. Because this is the danger an author takes when delivering a conclusion that isn’t happily ever after. You risk annoying your reader. Big time.
I was most amused to read the reviews for the Nicholas Sparks book I just finished, because they were very mixed. One reader even claimed she almost threw the book across the room in disgust! Perhaps not the response an author is aiming for from his or her readers…
How to make tragedy right, even when it’s wrong
For the record, I particularly enjoyed said Nicholas Sparks book (and no, I’m not going to tell you which one it is, or else I’d ruin it for you).
Despite the pang of dissatisfaction at the not too happy ending, I was left in awe of his ability as a storyteller. Yes, I was annoyed one of the main characters didn’t fare so well, but I still really enjoyed the book. It was the journey that mattered, and that journey had me smiling, hurting and even crying.
So what learnings can other writers take from the art of weaving tragic endings so the book is not thrown across the room?
- Accept defeat and be brave: if you choose tragic, you need to accept that your book will potentially be thrown across the room! Some people just don’t like sad endings, period. They are the happily ever after types who feel deeply that ending on a tragic note is wrong. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to convert them, so don’t lose a lot of sleep over it. Accept your decision as a writer and stand by it.
- Get your readers to care: if your readers fall in love with your characters, they’ll feel their hurts and their setbacks all the more. This means that should tragedy befall them, your readers will feel it deeply. It all sounds a bit sadistic, doesn’t it? But if a reader only has a distant sympathy for the characters, then they are unlikely to comprehend the tragedy and its full meaning.
- Balance the dark with the light: Nicholas Sparks does this well. He gets us to look at the big picture and shows us that while bad things, even horrible things, can occur, there is good in the world as well. So when you bravely choose the route of tragedy, give some thought to how it fits into the balance of your story. Is there a greater good the tragedy has served? Are you telling the readers that tragedy can be endured with the hope of better days ahead? It’s a brave (or truly dark) writer who ends with tragedy so desperate that there is no light anywhere else!
- Give the reader a journey they’ll never forget: in other words, make the tragedy worth it! That might sound odd, however if the plot, the characters, the writing is so good that the reader doesn’t want to put your book down, you’re on the right track. Once they get to the end and it doesn’t all pan out quite so happily or neatly, it’s going to hurt, but it will hopefully be an unforgettable hurt because the reader has been so enchanted by your story.
Tragic writers – do they deserve our criticism or to be recognised as the brave few?
Authors who choose tragedy over happily ever after deserve their own hall of fame, I think. They are the few, the courageous ones who dare to take readers where they may not be prepared to go, but they choose to do so anyway.
I’ll admit, I’ve not yet had the courage to conclude one of my novels on a truly tragic note. Should I decide to go there one day, I’ll definitely be keeping Nicholas Sparks’ examples in mind. At the very least, it might mean my book doesn’t become ammunition for venting a reader’s frustration!
What do you think? Do you find tragic endings frustrating or do you believe they can be done well? And are you brave enough as a writer to go there?
10 Replies to “The tragic ending. Are you brave enough?”
You mention that Sparks is skilled at drawing the reader into the story and making them care about the characters. I’d be most interested in a post that explains how he accomplishes it. I can never seem to produce as much emotion from a scene as I would like.
That’s a great idea, Brian, and you’re right, Sparks is very skilled at drawing the reader in by making you care for his characters. Thanks for the suggestion.
Great advice. Tragic endings are always a challenge and risk, but sometimes the end product can make the book better than it would ever be with a happy ending.
Thanks for reading and commenting. I think you’re right – in the case of the Nicholas Sparks book I just finished, if the tragic ending wasn’t part of the story, it would have changed the entire theme of the novel. If he’d chosen the ‘happily ever after’ ending I don’t think it would have been so poignant or had such an impact.
I’ve got a book out right now that has a not so perfect ending. Okay, it’s very very sad. But I think it ends with hope. The characters may not have what we wanted them to have, but they all have what they need to carry on.
Hi there. You make a really good point: sometimes an ending doesn’t have to be happy so long as there’s an element of hope or perhaps the seed of a new beginning. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Thanks for the encouraging article. I completed a book recently that ended with a tragic loss, and now I’m anxious what my readers will think as I contemplate entering the market. The sequel is about coming back from that loss (and ends with even more tragic loss, so I’m not sure I’m getting the message across), but I’m hoping that I can find the niche market who really likes this sort of thing.
This article really stands out from those which I stumbled upon.But my real question is:
How do you actual start framing the story in a way that is can end in tragedy? and When do you actual start shaping your story line towards it,from the beginning of the story or slowly as the story moves forward?
Oooh, that’s a real tricky question! At the moment I write romance so we always have a HEA (Happily Ever After), but I think as the writer, you’d have to start framing the story towards a tragic ending right from the beginning. The real trick would be not making the reader aware of this though. If you read Nicholas Sparks, some of his tragic endings could have gone either way, so I think it’s important to give the reader hope (and that applies to the tragic ending, too! I think there needs to be a glimmer of hope in all that tragedy). Or perhaps that’s the romance author in my coming out! 😉 Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog.
Thank you so much for answering my doubts, it means a lot.