One of my all time favorite terms relating to writing is “saccharine.” It’s such a great metaphor. It indicates that while a naturally sweet story point is just that, one that is saccharine, as you’d expect, is artificially sweetened, meaning the author has manipulated the characters and events in a jarring way to create something uplifting when it has absolutely no reason to be so. This opinion may sound like one in contrast to my previous entry, but it’s also in response to a comment made on that article—that while a depressing ending is unwelcome, it could be worse if it tries too hard to wrap the whole thing in to nice bow at the end.
An obvious example of this was in Steven Spielberg’s recent adaptation of War of the Worlds, where the audience was rendered slack-jawed by a sudden happy ending which flew in the face of logic, rendering most of the previous film irrelevant. So I will say that even though I hate depressing downbeat endings, I dislike saccharine endings equally. This played into another narrative term I think is overly abused in fiction, “bittersweet”. That describes an ending which has its ups and its downs, the bitter and the sweet. My problem is that too many writers claim their work as bittersweet when it’s actually only bitter. Yes, this came up with Mass Effect 3, where the game designers used that very term even though it obviously didn’t apply. I could claim my Amethyst campaign ended on a conditional happy note. Sure, the romantic leads found each other and lived “content ever after”, but a major character sacrificed herself to make that happen. So even though I accept bitter endings in films like 1984, I think Terry Gilliam’s sucker punch in Brazil was more cruel and unnecessary, a storytelling technique he attempted again with more success with Twelve Monkeys. One of the best examples of bittersweet which I can recall on demand was the end of Silent Hill 2. In what is considered the “best ending” available, you don’t end up with your romantic interest. For one, your romantic interest is not actually real and is more a reflection of your unresolved demons. The good ending has you overcoming these past sins and escaping the town with a little girl you rescued along the way. You must disregard your love interest in order to gain this ending.
I think the key is the fate of the story’s main character? Does the character live? Will he or she be forced to make a sacrifice? If so, will it appear forced, meaning is there an obvious non-suicidal alternative? If there is, taking the suicidal will route will be received negatively by readers. This was a major sticking point with Mass Effect 3. Pre-extended cut, there were three endings, all resulting in the character’s death. When I forced a sacrifice on my game group several years ago, each player still had an option to not make that final step, though doing so would result in the other players facing the final challenge without them. In the end, they all willingly took that step, knowing full well what was going to occur.
I’m reminded of the words of wisdom of one Ka D’Argo from the classic show, Farscape. “Fear accompanies the possibility of death. Calm shepherds its certainty.” I will argue the failure of the noble sacrifice sell in Mass Effect 3 was in the artificial fashion it was constructed to offer no possible alternative. I’ll admit one weakness in fiction. When someone commits to a moment of self sacrifice, if sold properly by the storyteller, I dribble like a two year old over a fallen ice cream cone. But the real secret is that it’s the lead up which garners the most emotion (“commits to” the moment of self sacrifice, not the act in of itself), the look of resolve and the emotional crescendo which follows. If handled correctly in a story where it matters, such a depressing end will seem all the more appropriate. I mean who can watch the climax of The Iron Giant without leaking like a SR-71 Blackbird sitting in a hanger (I know, obscure reference)? Star Trek did it successfully with Spock’s sacrifice in Star Trek 2 and then failed miserably to replicate it with Data in Nemesis. It’s a fine line which a lot of writers can’t balance. I shed a tear to Boromir’s fall in Fellowship of the Ring and never again for the rest of the franchise.
So a bittersweet ending can work but the important trick is to not disregard the ending in the final act. Only bad writers feel they need to do a “gotcha” in the final moments. Thanks, Shyamalan, you did it properly in two films and then couldn’t replicate it after. Don’t try it unless you can do it right, less you stain every moment leading up to it. So a good ending can be as bad as a bad ending, though in my experience not as often. I’ve enjoyed endings where everybody dies except for the one character I liked and hated ending where the one I did like was the one to not survive. What I’m saying is that…well…just write stories I like, and disregard what everyone else thinks. Yeah, that’s good.