Writing a Good Tragic Ending

By Connor Salter, a professional writing student at Taylor University. 

Alyssa Roat has noted that not all stories have to end with redemptionthey can end with the protagonist realizing his or her own brokenness.

A story doesn’t need to end with good winning. It simply needs to show that good should have won or will eventually win.

This probably sounds confusing and abstract, so let me give an example.

Two movies came out in the late 1960’s about someone trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. Both movies show the hero being killed by other human beings rather than zombies.

However, they send very different messages about the hero’s death.

In The Last Man on Earth (1967), Robert Morgan thinks he’s the only person in his city who’s survived a zombie plague.

Morgan spends his days hunting any zombies he finds, but eventually learns there’s an underground society of people who have the plague but also medicine that removes most of its effects. Morgan’s killed some of these people without realizing they weren’t fully zombies, so the underground society wants him dead.

The final scene shows them chasing Morgan into a church. He backs away against the pulpit and someone throws a spear at him. One of the underground society’s women, who Morgan saved earlier, comforts him as he dies.

The camera changes to show part of the pulpit as Morgan breathes his last and the woman stands up. The camera changes again to show the entire pulpit as the woman walks away, then changes one more time (showing the entire sanctuary) as the credits roll.

Although this movie makes it clear Morgan’s death was unjust (he realized his mistake, but the underground society didn’t care), it gives a strong sense something better follows.

For one thing, the woman feels sorry for Morgan’s death and she survives, so there’s repentance and the possibility she’ll help others see the mistake they made. More than that, where and how Morgan dies implies something good will follow his death.

Morgan’s clearly set up as a Christ figure (he dies with a spear thrust into him like Christ at the crucifixion, next to a church pulpit with a cross symbol) and just because Christ dies doesn’t mean evil has ultimately won.

The fact that the camera keeps pulling back to focus on the church Morgan dies in instead of his body makes the point even clearer. Church buildings represent the larger Church (the body of Christ), which goes on even after Christ’s death. So, The Last Man on Earth leaves viewers with a sense that Morgan’s death means evil has temporarily won, but good will rise again.

In contrast to that, we have the Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which a man named Ben tries to escape attacking zombies by hiding in a house with several other people.

When morning arrives, Ben is the only person who hasn’t been turned into a zombie. Outside a posse of men with guns guided by the local sheriff are walking around, sweeping the area and killing any zombies they find. Ben cautiously moves toward a window. One of the posse’s men sees him, automatically assumes Ben’s a zombie, and shoots him.

As the end credits roll, the movie shows still photographs of the posse entering the house and Ben’s body with a bullet hole in his forehead. Then the photographs show the men poking Ben’s body with hooks to make sure he’s really dead and carrying it outside to burn it.

These images put all the focus on Ben’s body and on the people who unjustly killed him. It’s all about the violence and injusticeno attempt to suggest a bigger narrative where good ultimately wins.

Then there’s the obvious fact these men don’t seem in any way worried they may have killed an innocent man. So, there’s no repentance. Night of the Living Dead leaves viewers with the sense that evil won, and there’s no chance for anything good beyond it.

Two stories, similar endings, but very different conclusions.

This shows how you can end a story with a tragic ending but that doesn’t mean your story makes evil seem acceptable or ultimately triumphant.

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