Friday, October 21, 2011

No Joy: The Worst That Can Happen Isn’t Always Best for the Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while you’ll know that I love to be mean to my characters. Trouble makes for good plots, and the more trouble the better. “What’s the worst that can happen?” is a motto I live by. But despite my love of torturing fictional people, it is possible to do too much to them and lose the joy of the story.

The now-canceled HBO series, Deadwood, is a good example of this. (For those unfamiliar with the series, it was a western set in the Dakota Territory in the rough and tumble town of Deadwood, where there was no law) In the first season I was enthralled (once I got past the constant swearing). Life was hard for these characters, but there was a sense that there was hope, and that things could work out for them.

Season two all that changed. Bad guys didn’t get their comeuppance. Good people died and nothing was done about it. The joy was gone because the hope was gone. It wasn’t a story about people struggling in a tough situation; it was about people suffering with no hope of easement.

I recognize that the series was based on real people and real events, and they couldn’t exactly change historical fact in any significant way. I think this hurt the series, as it forced them into corners I suspect they couldn’t get out of. It was probably far more realistic to what life was like then, but it didn’t leave me feeling satisfied.

No matter how terrible I am to my characters, I try to maintain a sense of hope, even when it’s all hopeless. They might have to go through hell and back, but I’ll reward them if they make it. There’s light at the end of that dark tunnel, and it’s not a train.

Like many folks, I enjoy an underdog. It’s the struggle to overcome that hooks me, makes me root for a character, and makes me want to see what they do next. I don’t like watching someone suffer.

And that’s the subtle difference in a dark story.

If you’re working on a story where things don’t work out so well for your characters, you might consider looking closely at what the point of the trials are. Is your character learning from their experiences, or are they just there to be a fictional whipping boy? If the only point of a scene is to just show how bad things are, it might be worth rethinking the scene. Ask yourself, are you teaching your characters something or just making them suffer?

Stories don’t have to have happy endings. Sad endings can be quite powerful. But if the reader reaches the end and wonders why the heck they just spent hours reading the book, you have a problem. Even something as dark as The Road ends with a glimmer of hope. Humanity does still exist in the world, bad as it is.

We have the news to read about bad things happening to good people. Stories are meant to take us away from all that.

How do you feel about dark stories and character suffering? Do you enjoy a story more or less if there’s a glimmer of hope at the end? Do hopeless endings leave you satisfied?


  1. I didn't love Delirium because it touched on a lot of the keystones of dystopians without adding anything terribly unique (but it does have a great first line). I loved the ending though: even after the MC suffers a loss it hit the perfect hopeful note.

  2. I really need by glimmer at the end. :) In fact, I really like bittersweet endings - where the protagonist doesn't completely reach their goal, or they do reach their goal but the losses were more than expected, etc. But there must always be that glimmer of hope.

    Still, my favorite books all seem to have happy endings where the bad guys are duly punished and the hard works pays off satisfyingly (except Ender's Game, which has an overlying dark tone the entire book, but does end on a brighter tone than the rest of the story).

    There is a level where you've pulled a reader to far into the lives of a character to not give a satisfying ending without crashing hopes. That hope isn't just for the character; it's for the story.

  3. I definitely prefer stories that have even the faintest glimmer of hope, even if that hope is not for the MC or even the supporting characters, but characters to come, or people we'll never meet. As Frodo says in FOTR, “I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.”

    Frodo completed his task, but the benefits were not for him to enjoy (not for long, anyhow). I find this type of story the most enjoyable and gratifying, even more so than a straight up happy-ever-after, because it shows more strength (and perhaps believability) than when everyone gets what they want. Or no one, which to me, if there's no hope, there's no point! I actually wrote my entire dissertation on this very topic, so I better stop here :-D

    Thanks for the interesting read :)

  4. That was the teeniest glimmer of hope at the end of The Road...

  5. I can't read dark stories at all. In my case I need the total happily ever after. Even a glimmer of hope is not enough for me.

  6. I'm with you, Janice. I've actually spoken about something similar on my own blog today; the things heroes have to do to overcome the villain and how that can change who they are.

    I love the tension of heroes struggling through hardship. But only so far as hope is still there. The belief that, some day, things will get better. The hero gets their reward. The villain is punished. I think if the reader is denied these things, it really can leave them feeling cheated.

  7. I definitely need hope in a story, even if it's dark. A hopeless ending just makes me cranky.

    I'm a sucker for happy endings, but they have to be believable. I think my favourite endings are "happy-for-now". Kind of like life...

  8. Can I just say A-M-E-N? I've seen many movies and read many books that I think try to be "realistic" or "different" by wrapping up with a depressing end -- usually with no point. They're never, ever satisfying for me. The hero doesn't have to get what he wants, but there has to be a reason that he didn't. And one he's grown from and the audience can relate to that offers hope for the future. Two thumbs up for this post, J!

  9. I think, even further, there has to be some glimmers in the middle just to keep people reading. Even if it's a character making gallows humor jokes. One of my favorite books of all time is Les Miserables. There are several times Jean Valjean gets a break, like when he becomes mayor, and the years where he and Cosette are hiding out in the convent, so his life wasn't just an endless chase scene with no breaks (despite what the musical would have you believe.) Even in the end where he dies, he does so in the presence of his beloved daughter, and he's finally cleared of the stain of his criminal past. (Which, honestly, wasn't all that criminal to begin with.)

  10. I loved Deadwood, start to bummed it got cancelled. I also need hope. But what kept me going with Deadwood was the humor. Humor can stand in for hope because to me, there is no humor without hope. You can't laugh at something that's hopeless. So if your character can laugh, especially at himself, then his situation has that glimmer even if it seems there is no hope.

  11. Love what Cheyenne said. LotR is one of my favorite ending, particularly because it does bitter-sweet so well. The Harry Potter epilogue fell flat for me because everything's peachy. If nothing's changed, old Voldie wasn't such a big deal, eh?

    On a completely different note, I don't think "worse" always means dark. Earlier this year I hit a mid-point on a novel, but something wasn't working. There was lots of conflict -- protag's being hunted while trying to track someone else -- but it wasn't exciting. I asked myself what the worst thing for my protag would be, and it clicked. That person who drives him insane? Yup. Rewrote the beginning so she's crucial to meeting his goals. Has to bring her along. It probably made for a lighter novel, because I got to include more banter/bickering. :)

  12. MKHuchins, that is hilarious! I shall have to remember it: sometimes the worst is having to put up with someone who just drives you crazy!

  13. I don't mind sad endings in trilogies. For example, in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the ending was sad and nothing good happened to the characters but I knew there was another movie to watch the next night and things could be resolved. The same goes for Delirium and Catching Fire. A sad ending is okay if I know it's not truly the end.
    I liked the ending of Mockingjay and how it was bittersweet.
    The Road was a little sad for my tastes since things might have just kept getting worse after it ended. (I really would have liked it to end on a little bit of a higher note, like a little more light came through the clouds or something showing things would get better.)
    The best endings I've seen were in Dark Life and Rip Tide by Kat Falls. The characters still have some problems but normally, the biggest problem is over by the end, and sometimes in ways that aren't expected. There are still a few problems but the endings turn out to be pretty realistic but still happy.

  14. I see that most of the comments here are about endings, but what I took out of the post was more about the middle. (Not that that is bad, it just shows where we are in our writing/reading) And I thought of a couple of scenes I wrote and wondered, "Was there a point behind them being chased by a wolf monster? Or was it just to add more tension?" These are good things to bring up to keep us writers thinking! :)

  15. Great points! I def use "what's the worst that could happen" in my storytelling, but mostly to dream up ideas. They only stick if they work for the forward momentum of the story overall.

  16. Thanks so much for this. I couldn't agree more. (Especially about Deadwood. What was it with the swearing? Even the school teachers and church ladies swore--totally unrealistic--it was like they took an old Gunsmoke script and put the "f" word in every sentence.)

    Sorry about the rant. But a book that has no hope leaves me feeling hopeless as well. Any two-year-old can whine. It takes an artist (and a grown-up) to find the good in a situation.

  17. Great examples all.

    Danielle, it's interesting that so many went right to endings, when I wasn't thinking specifically those (thought I guess it came across that way). But you're right, it covers the entire story.

    Birgitte, humor does goes a long way to easing the dark or suffering moments. That's probably why so many dark scenes have laughter in or near them. And why I love dark humor so much :)

    MK, you're totally right! We do tend to think "worst" is dark or bad, but it covers a lot of territory.

    Anne, I read an interesting article about Deadwood's swearing. Apparently they did swear that much, but the words were more of the basic lesser four-letter variety. But when they wrote it that way, it sounded silly. Those "bad" words are no longer so bad in our culture now. So they used the really raunchy words from our time to get the same idea across.

  18. I was angsting over this with my current work in progress literally yesterday.

    I always prefer stories with hope, even more so if they end bitter-sweet. And the ending of this book was supposed to have that element of "Crap-has-happened-but-it's-not-over-yet", with the villain vanquished for now and the lovers parted. (First book of a ...trilogy? Maybe?)

    But the problem is that by premise I have stuck my characters in such a terrible situation that even I don't know how it's going to end happily for them. It's a bridge I'm going to have to build eventually, but I it always makes me worried that my story is nothing but a conga of terrible hope-sucking events. Which hopefully it's not actually.

  19. I've felt the same way when reading, and in my own work I had to file away the final third of a novel 'cause while it was full of dramatic action, it didn't offer any way ahead. What made me change it was reading this:

    I feel very strongly my responsibility to write books that are honest and that present a way to find hope. My characters have to journey from darkness to light. I would never write a book that would leave a teen reader in a vulnerable place.
    - Laurie Halse Anderson

  20. I love that quote, Maine. I think it' very easy to forget the responsibility in storytelling. Many readers, especially younger ones, will read a book and take it as a guideline on "how things should be."

  21. This post totally explains how I am feeling with a book I am currently reading. Things are just getting so bad all around that there is no hope. It is making me depressed to read it and that is not a feeling that makes me want to turn the pages. Instead, it made me put the book down and do something that would make me happy. I'm all for bad things happening when it leads to tension and wanting to know what will happen next, but when it gets too bad I end up not caring. Then, I just want it to be over, whether I finish the book or not. Thanks for making me feel ok about this.

  22. Interesting timing in finding this on twitter. I was just reading a passage to my sister from my WIP and she said it was good but harsh. The character has just learned her mother with whom she doesn't get along, has breast cancer. The mom says it's the worst cancer to have while she insists it's the most treatable. Were this to be the only time this comes up I'd agree that people might be offended by her lack of concern, but it won't be. Like you, I agree there has to be hope and I'm still hoping these two characters will come to accept each other.

  23. My wife and I used to watch that HBO show "Six Feet Under." We came to the show late, and watched it via Netflix. It's a pretty dark show, no doubt, but characters did (on the whole), exist on an upward trajectory. Many setbacks, but all in all, they made things improve for themselves. It was dark, but it was a great show and we really enjoyed it.

    Then there was the episode, several seasons into it, where the younger brother gets carjacked and the carjacker proceeds to humiliate, terrorize, and psychologically torture him for the entire episode. It was simply awful.

    When the episode ended, I turned to my wife and said "I don't think I want to watch any more of this show." And she nodded her head and said "me either."

    We sent the disc back and took the remaining discs out of our queue.

    As a writer, that lesson has never left me. One bad episode--in which horrible things happen simply for the sake of being horrible--destroyed the entire stock of goodwill my wife and I had built up for the show and ruined our trust that the show was worth watching.

    Great post.

  24. Kathie, that's a tough spot. You might try thinking about what constitutes a win for those characters. Look at what they hope for one day, and see if that meshes in some way with the story.

    Maine C, that's an awesome quote. LHA writes some very dark book about terrible subjects but doesn't leave you in that dark place by the end. She's a great example of dark with hope.

    Emma, it's totally okay. Life's too short to read bad books :) I used to finish a book no matter what, but as I've gotten older I've gotten less forgiving. There are so many great books out there, so if one's not clicking with me I move on.

    Bridget, it sounds like it's the perfect conflict for your story, and mirrors the relationship between mother and daughter. One is fatalistic, the other hopeful.

    Jason, that's a perfect example. Who wants to deal with all that? It proves it doesn't take much to lose your reader/viewer.