Some years ago, my wife and I were sitting through our umpteenth viewing of Lady and the Tramp with our young daughter. It was the scene where the Trusty, the bloodhound who lost his sense of smell, tracked down the wagon carrying Tramp to the dog pound, causing an accident. Cut to a scene of Trusty lying motionless under the wagon’s wreckage.
In the next scene, the neighborhood dogs all come to visit Lady’s litter of pups, and Trusty shows up with a cast on one leg. My daughter was enrapt at this, but my wife leaned over and quietly whispered, “You know, this would have been a better story if Trusty had died.”
And I realized instantly that she was right. How much better the ending of Lady and the Tramp would have been if Trusty had died saving Tramp from the dog catcher – only to have life reaffirmed at the end by Lady’s litter of pups. I understand why Disney ended it the way they did, but in my book, a bittersweet ending is more powerful than a straight happy ending.
It’s because the bitter and the sweet compliment each other. A cup of coffee is good. So is a doughnut. But if you eat them together, it’s a whole different experience.
They’re just something about dealing in tragedy that complements a positive ending in ways that keeping things level and happy just can’t compete with.
Looking back on it, I see that my writer’s instinct told me this even before my wife mentioned it on that night long ago. I had just kept it internalized until she said it aloud, at which point it surfaced and showed me the truth in what she had said.
Most of my work ends in the bittersweet. A Death of Honor, where Payne and Trinina are on a boat, having escaped with their son, Nathan – but what about all the people left behind who couldn’t escape?. Angel’s Luck, wherein James May shows his rebuilt ship, now registered with a new serial number – and when he unveils the new name, we see that its namesake is the man who died saving them when things looked the worst.
I learned – and internalized – this lesson with my first big literary success, the production of my first play, Old Loves Die Hard. In the end, husband Tony Madison, who is now a ghost, talks to his wife. She tells him that in death he is seeing the kind of literary success that he couldn’t quite grasp when he was alive. He tells her to take the money and have a good life, and they share a ghostly kiss. Then she leaves, and he gets all bluff and macho, starting a game of poker with other ghosts in the house.
I had no inkling how powerful that ending was until after one performance, when two teenaged girls came up to me. “We really liked your play,” one said, “but there was a problem with the ending.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
Their eyes started to mist over. “We think,” one said, “that Jill should have gotten killed so she could have been with her husband.” And then they started to wipe tears out of their eyes.
At first I was floored that they’d invite more tragedy to get what they thought was a happy ending. Eventually I realized that the issue went deeper than that. Here you had a dark comedy about people being killed under peculiar circumstances, and once the fun is over, it works out as well as possible for everyone involved, considering what has gone on before. Except for that one bittersweet thing… Tony and Jill have to part company, being now on two different planes of existence.
All this comes to mind now, because J.K. Rowling has talking about the ending of the final Harry Potter book – hinting here, and flat out discussing here – that the boy wizard might just die at the end of the final installment.
Now, I haven’t read any of these books, but I’ll defer to my now-teenaged daughter, who has read them all. For the last couple of books, she has advocated that Harry Potter would have to die at the end of the seventh book in order to bring the story to a logical conclusion. According to her, Harry and Voldemort are inextricably linked, and if one is to be done away with – in this case, the bad guy – then it will mean the end of the umbilically attached Harry.
What’s more… doing that would make it a better story.
Before you Harry Potter fans start filling my comment section with protest, think about it. Which kind of character makes a better hero? One who overcomes tremendous odds and emerges victorious – even though it might take a potentially flaky bit of trickery to get around a long-established precedent – or the person who gains a complete and utter victory, probably even saving the world in the process, but only at the cost of his own life? Or to put it another way, would you rather have a run-of-the-mill hero, or one who is elevated into a Christ figure?
That’s what I thought.
Now that I think about that whole Christ figure thing, I suppose that in the world of fantasy and magic, it would be well within Rowling’s abilities to kill Harry off, let you fester and think he’s dead for a couple of chapters, and then bring him back from the dead at the very end.
Nope. If she’s going to kill Harry Potter, he has to stay dead. Bringing him back would sink him into the depths of being a comic book Christ figure like, well, Superman.
Now I’m not saying that you have to kill off the lead character in order to have a great story. If you’re a regular reader here, you know that I revere Elmore Leonard, and I have yet to read a book of his where he kills of his protagonist (although there’s probably a couple out there). In Leonard’s world, it’s about how big of a jam he can put them in, and how unexpectedly – but plausibly – they can be extricated from their situation.
There is also hazard in killing off a protagonist, and not just from financial returns in the event of a sequel (although that hadn’t ever stopped Hollywood). Lawrence Block tells the story of writing a novel where his protagonist died, and he had the following conversation with a friend. “I knew you were going to kill off your main character from the time I started the book.” “Really? How?” “You wrote it in third person. You usually write your books in first person.”
(Although I once read a really bad novel where the author did kill off the narrator – at least, I think he did. I quit reading in disgust because he was describing being led to his execution, and then he wrote, “I can’t believe they’ve let me keep this journal in my hands so I can write in it…” Suspension of disbelief: annihilated.
Nor do you want to kill off characters gratuitously. I shouldn’t have finished reading Stephen King’s The Stand when half the cast was shot to death in a Las Vegas jail cell just so, I suspect, King wouldn’t have to deal with any of them in the book’s epilogue. Come to think of it, I should have quit at that point. It would have spared me the insult of the Deus-Ex-King ending where the Hand of God comes out of the sky to detonate a conveniently placed atomic bomb.
But I digess.
So to sum it all up, there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending. Paraphrasing Mickey Spillane, the ending of your book sells the next book. But why settle for just a happy ending when, with just a dash of tragedy, you can elevate the ending from good to great?
Ms. Rowling, I hope you’re listening.
Don’t ask me
I’m an ignorant, I’m afraid
On my life I believe we’re tailor made
I should worry if the weather spoils the trade
I’m a crumb and I’m in your lemonade
(via iPod Shuffle)