Writing Tragedies

© 2010 Daniel Arenson

Lately, writers fear tragedies.

This was not always the case. Many Ancient Greek plays were tragedies. Many of Shakespeare's plays were tragedies. For millennia, tragedies were as common as comedies... but in the past generation, they have fallen from favor.

Broadly, and arguably, there are two kinds of tragedies.

In the first kind, the main character descends into evil, becomes power hungry, makes immoral choices, and finally loses all. Many tragedies, from Macbeth to Scarface, tell this story. The audience is satisfied; the greedy character got his due.

In the second kind, the good guys lose. Evil triumphs. The villain wins. Once common, this tragedy is now especially rare, as if writers fear it.

This is most evident in Hollywood.

Consider the movie Little Shop of Horrors. A tragic ending was originally filmed. Audrey II, the man-eating plant, ate the characters and conquered the world. The film was a cautionary tale. But the studio balked at the tragic ending, and the filmmakers had to film an alternate, happy ending.

Consider the films Enemy at the Gates and Avatar. The films are about WW2 and colonialism, respectively. These are tragic topics; they warrant tragic endings, haunting endings to make powerful statements about war and imperialism. Instead, both films ended with a false, saccharine feel. Their happy endings felt forced. Because these stories shied away from their natural, tragic endings, they are less meaningful than they could have been.

The Godfather (both the novel and movie) is an example of tragedy done right. Michael gradually decays into corruption and violence, until the idealistic Michael is gone, replaced with a bitter crime lord. If The Godfather had shied away from tragedy, and instead offered a happy ending where Michael finds redemption, would it still haunt audiences?

Dickens ended A Tale of Two Cities with a beheading. What better way to end a novel about the French Revolution than at the guillotine? Dickens was writing an epic tale about the horrors of the times. A happy ending would have been untrue to his topic, cheated his readers, and left the novel toothless.

Perhaps the most powerful (and trickiest) ending is what I call the “tragic victory”.

The Lord of the Rings ends in triumph--Middle Earth is saved. But it's a tragic victory, for Frodo will remain forever wounded, both physically and emotionally. Ender's Game ends on a similar note--Ender defeats his enemies, but only at a terrible cost to himself and humankind. In The Kite Runner, Amir finds redemption, but so much tragedy has occurred, that the characters will remain traumatized. My own novel, Firefly Island, also ends with tragic victory--the heroes win their war, but will forever be scarred. Such stories can haunt readers.

Whether you're writing a novel, play, short story, script, comic book, or any other story... if your tale warrants it, don't fear the tragic ending. If your topic is tragic--a story about war, colonialism, crime--a tragic ending can make a powerful statement. Done right, it will drive home your theme. Saccharine endings are often wrong for dark topics, and should not be forced upon these stories. Forced endings will leave audiences feeling cheated.

When I paint, I often look not at the shape of my subject, but its background: the shape between an arm and hip, or the shape of the floor between table legs. I can capture my subject by drawing the space around and behind it. Tragedies work similarly. They are not truly about violence and death; they are about beauty and life. They portray beauty by illuminating horror, and speak of happiness by showing its loss.

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