Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Rejection of Bittersweet Endings

While I've always been a bit of a fan of a well-done bittersweet ending, I've found that much newer media receives a lot of pushback for doing that. I'm curious to explore a little bit of why they're largely unpopular, and yet creatives keep choosing them.

I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that one reason I think bittersweet endings are often rejected is simply because of what they are. They're bittersweet. Not completely happy. I'm not going to lie . . . I was kind of in shock the first time I watched Roman Holiday because of how it ends. And yet, it's still oddly satisfying because it feels so right.

When I look at why people see such endings as a bad thing, two things come to mind.

First, bittersweet endings create a sense of dissatisfaction. Why? Because we all know there could be more! (The excess of happy endings has spoiled us.) People already suspended belief to a certain extent when reading or watching something, so they're often content to have anything happen in order to reach a satisfying conclusion. That's part of what they're trusting the creator behind the story to do.

Second . . . our brains might actually be geared toward happy endings. Jeff Gerke mentioned readers being predisposed to prefer happy endings in his book The Irresistible Novel. If a reader or moviegoer is properly attached to the main character, it's natural to want things to work out well!

The only other reason I can think that this might be the case is that perhaps a happy ending is built into us. Even people without belief in God hope they go somewhere good when they die (or else nowhere at all). Most people can still admit that this world has problems, but they want to believe it will get better, not worse. And the Bible tells us it will! Sometimes it just has to get worse first. That right there is the pattern of most stories. Conflict before resolution.

And of course there's the simple fact that many expect entertainment and an escape from the real world. They'll take a happier than might be realistic ending than not. Because happy endings instill hope.

Having said all of that, I don't hate bittersweet endings as a general rule. Off  the top of my head, here's a few reasons I can like them:

  • They're unusual! Happy endings are typical even if more widely accepted.
  • They're often more realistic. Sorry. Just because all of creation will end up OK at the end of time doesn't mean a specific person's life has a happy ending.
  • They're impactful. Even though bittersweet is what it is, it's often the result of something lovely that's faded, or gives birth to something that couldn't have otherwise existed. (Take the controversial ending of La La Land.)
I mean, no one likes an ending that's bittersweet just because it feels like a happy ending couldn't be made plausible and so you're stuck with what should have been the scene before the actual ending. So what makes a bittersweet ending good enough for me? Well, it has to strike a chord on those points above. But most of all, it has to have meaning; it must be sweet because of the bitter. That, too, is the way of the world. Sometimes things are better in small doses even if that means coming to an end.

Jeff Gerke described the balance like this, "A main character can suffer harm and even die and it will still feel like a happy ending to the reader if that's the 'right' and satisfying resolution for that character." There are some key ingredients there, including making it feel happy. Quite thought-provoking!

I guess my only real conclusion is bittersweet endings should be given more of a chance.
I feel like that turned into one big tug-of-war with myself. What are your thoughts on happy versus bittersweet endings? Any bittersweet stories to recommend?


  1. Great post! I relate to the whole "tug-of-war with myself" thing. I can't decide how I feel about bittersweet endings, either! Sometimes I like them and find them appropriate and fully satisfying (Lord of the Rings, The Book of Sorrows, Broken Trail, even -- sort of -- The Light Between Oceans); other times I'm Decidedly Displeased (La La Land, Rogue One) . . . it really depends.

    Fun topic for a post, by the way! :)

    1. Thanks :) Ohhh I want to watch/read Light Between the Oceans!! I figured it had a bittersweet ending ;P I'm quite content with the ending to LotR, La La Land, and Rogue One so ... yeah. I guess I'm mostly OK with bittersweet. But I think it depends on how high I get my hopes. (I mean, La La Land's ending was initially quite disappointing like with Roman Holiday. But in hindsight I appreciated it.) I knew it was coming for Rogue One because of Star Wars familiarity so I liked that they didn't change the original story to give a more "satisfactory" ending.

      Anywho ... yeah, definitely a tug-of-war thing!

  2. this was so interesting!
    i strongly disliked a roman holiday's ending lol

    1. Glad you thought so! Haha, I'm not sure anyone LOVES the ending. But I've at least come to appreciate it. I wanna say I was like 10 when my mom showed it to me and I was ... surprised. But a little discontent. :P


Comments are how I know you've been here! I try hard to reply to all the comments in a timely fashion, but regardless, know that if you leave a comment, I will read it and it will make me smile. :) Please no profanity or soliciting.