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?