Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Writing the Bittersweet Ending

By M.K. Hutchins, @mkhutchins

Part of the How They Do It Series

While many novels end in sunshine and rainbows, not every story has to have a happily ever after. It's often more realistic to incur a loss with the win. Please help me welcome M.K. Hutchins, who's here today to chat with us about endings that aren't always perfect, and how to write one that offers the bitter as well as the sweet.

M.K. Hutchins has had short fiction appear in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and Daily Science Fiction. She studied archaeology at BYU, which gave her the opportunity to compile histories from Maya glyphs, excavate in Belize, and work as a faunal analyst. She blogs about books, board games, and fiction-inspired recipes at mkhutchins.com. Drift, her debut novel, releases May 15th.

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Take it away M.K...

I love bittersweet endings. When a story wraps up in a tidy bow, it can feel saccharine and fake. When everything ends in doom and gloom, it can be depressing. But the perfect bittersweet ending feels round, real, and as satisfying as dark chocolate.

Why are bittersweet endings so appealing? I think some kind of loss or sorrow shows the reader that something significant happened in the story. Victory -- whether that's saving the world or finding true love -- was not easy. It came with a cost.

And, when crafting a bittersweet ending, cost is exactly the thing you want to pay attention to. Let's look at two examples (spoilers ahead!).

The movie How to Train Your Dragon focuses on the relationship between Hiccup and his injured dragon, Toothless. With part of his tail crippled, Toothless can't fly by himself. He and Hiccup learn to trust each other and, due to Hiccup's mechanical ingenuity, learn to fly together. Learning to do new, hard things and dealing with a battered limb are central to this story.

When the smoke clears from the final battle, Toothless and Hiccup have survived -- but Hiccup's foot hasn't. This is a punch-in-the-gut moment that transformed the movie from charming to unforgettable for me. Because the story had focused on it, in a single heartbeat I know how hard it will be for Hiccup to adjust to life without a limb. But I also know he'll be okay, because he has Toothless. This bittersweet note shows us how dire the final battle was, recalls all the struggles that Toothless and Hiccup went through together, and gives us one last glimpse at their powerful friendship. Perfect.

In the book, The Lord of the Rings, we see how numerous characters interact with the presence of the One Ring -- Gollum, Gandalf, Galadriel, Saruman, Bilbo, Boromir, Faramir...the list goes on. It's arguably the main idea explored by the novel: how does this kind of power affect people? In the end, we get one final reflection on how impossible it is to carry the ring and not be changed by it -- even if the ring is destroyed. Frodo has saved the world but, because of the One Ring, he cannot find peace at home. Frodo heads to the Gray Havens, leaving the Shire behind. This bit of bitter echoes all the other losses that the ring caused throughout the previous thousand pages -- at once highlighting how triumphant it is that the ring is destroyed, and reminding us how hard-won that victory was.

Imagine opposite endings for these stories. Hiccup comes home listless, unable to engage with his friends and decides to sail away and abandon this new, happier village he's created. This ending would feel tacked-on, sorrow for sorrow's sake. Imagine a Frodo who comes home without a leg. Unless The Lord of the Rings spent a good deal more time on how war can affect people, this too would feel tacked on.

If your ending needs a little bitter to make the sweet stand out, don't grab for any random sadness (unless, y'know, your story is about exploring how random bad stuff happens to people -- then it might work). Look at what's come before. When you know what kind of bitterness will pull weight from the story you've already told, you're ready to craft the perfect bittersweet ending.

About Drift

Tenjat lives on the shores of Hell, an ocean filled with ravenous naga monsters. His island, a massive Turtle, is slowed by the people living on its back. Tenjat is poor as poor gets: poor enough, even, to condescend to the shame of marriage, so his children can help support him one day.

But Tenjat has a plan to avoid this fate. He will join the Handlers, those who defend and rule the island. Handlers never marry, and they can even provide for an additional family member. Against his sister’s wishes, Tenjat joins the Handlers. And just in time: the Handlers are ramping up for a dangerous battle against the naga monsters, and they need every fighter they can get.

As the naga battle approaches, Tenjat’s training intensifies, but a long-hidden family secret—not to mention his own growing feelings for Avi—put his plans in jeopardy, and might threaten the very survival of his island.


  1. This is a great post! I'm all for the bittersweet ending over roses and sunshine.

  2. Excellent post, M.K.! Thank you!

    "The Dark Knight" was another bittersweet ending: they defeat the villain and Gotham's citizens chose the moral choice over the evil one...but their hero is fallen and Batman must assume the hero's guilt to protect his legacy.

    It worked partly because one of the movie's themes is beliefs. Batman believes in the greater good. The Joker believes in chaos. Gotham believed in Dent--and that belief gave them hope. The other core theme of the Batman series is that Wayne protects his city and his people...and their hope.

    Also, your book description hooked me completely with "the shame of marriage." The HECK is he talking about?!

  3. Thanks for fixing two months of writers block. lol. Just what I needed.

    1. I'm glad you found MK's post when you needed it :)

  4. Love bittersweet endings. Sometimes I just have a "gut instinct" about what should happen before I start, and that helps me extract my theme for the story as I write toward the ending.