Digression Girl

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Bad endings may show anything from a cautionary tale, a story of a villainous protagonist getting their just desserts, or an expression of a cynical writer/director’s vision of nihilism they are trying to express through their story.

Nightmare Alley
Requiem for a Dream

I’m not really a fan of ‘bad endings’, to be honest. By bad, I mean endings to stories where the bad guy seems to win, the good guys fail, or everything we see as a struggle ends up looking pointless. But some can be well done and entertaining, and sometimes you can even take home a good lesson about pride, hubris, envy, or any number of human pitfalls.

In the three types I mentioned at the start, usually the writer is trying to convey a personal stance through the fiction:

  1. The Morality Tale – “Don’t do this/Doing this will be bad for you in the end!” – (Requiem for a Dream)
  2. The Villain Gets Their Comeuppance – “You can only be evil and stay one step ahead for so long, but eventually, everyone trips up and gets their just desserts.” (Nightmare Alley)
  3. The Cautionary Tale – “Evil succeeds when good men do nothing”/ ”Evil succeeds if good men don’t do enough.” (Fallen)
  4. And to a lesser extent, Nihilism – “Everything is pointless”.

Typically, the Morality Tale is a way for the author to warn the audience: cheaters never prosper, liars eventually get caught, that sort of thing. The bad ending here usually helps demonstrate why noble virtues like honesty, trust, friendship, loyalty, and forgiveness would have likely saved the day or redeemed a character; but by being selfish or evil, the ending became a bad one.

For the Villain getting their comeuppance, I see this the most when the protagonist of the story is actually evil, or the villain of the tale. Nightmare Alley is a good example of a film where you’re following a murderer who learns to be become a con artist and escalates their crimes. The ‘bad’ ending for the film is actually the character’s negative acts bringing them down to a terrible low. It’s not presented in a way for us to revel in it, but it certainly plucks a chord that maybe this character made this bed and now has to lie in it.

For the Cautionary Tale, like “Fallen”, we actually follow a hero who is doing the right thing and almost stops the villain. The problem in the film that in warns us about is that he has to fight this villain virtually alone. Very few believe the central character, and even though he comes up with a daring, gutsy plan to bring down the bad guy, (and it almost works!), the ending serves to remind us that the real strength of the villain is that most of the ‘good’ people in the world were on the sidelines disbelieving and doing nothing. It’s a bad ending, and a stark reminder to keep an open mind, examine the evidence, and maybe believe in things we can’t necessarily see or understand; one good man sometimes isn’t enough to stop evil in its tracks.

Nihilism is, (for me), the most frustrating. This one also can be just a long, dark ride to a dark place that the writer wants to write about, like addiction, cheating, murder, etc. In those cases, the author might be exorcising some of their own demons and negative experiences. Or, they might be writing a dark tale because they wanted to write a tale where the ending was ultimately futile, pointless, or empty to make their personal point about why struggling gets you nowhere, or even just makes things worse.

The Butterfly Effect

Like I said, I’m not wild about movies with bad endings. Some people might find them cathartic or interesting, and sometimes, (if they’re well done), they can be. Ultimately, it comes down to what the writer is trying to say, and why. It might be a message for you, (the audience), or a way for them to shout out their own struggles or demons and get paid for it. All I can really say is, if you don’t like movies with bad endings, you’re not alone, and sometimes, it’s worth reading the reviews and skipping the movie if you think it’s going to bring you down. On the other hand, some movies have terrific “bad” endings; but usually, (for me), the bad ending is about learning a lesson over expressing nihilism.

Using a bad ending has to be a specific choice, and I find that it’s best used with a positive spin. However, as writers, every tool is at your disposal, and that means every ending is, too. It’s up to you as a writer to determine what you think is best for your story and for your audience. Word to the wise: if you go for a bad ending, be sure to do it well: all your basics with plot, characters, setting, and the story arc have to be iron clad. If people aren’t going to finish your story on an upbeat note, then you at least need to have them so impressed with how the tale was written that they still feel satisfied for having gone on the ride.  


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