How to Write a Tragedy

Mix equal parts objective failure with subjective angst.

Nobody likes a sad movie. When audiences go to see a movie they want to be uplifted, right?

They want to escape and forget about their daily problems. They want to laugh and they want to feel good. Therefore, if you want to make a movie that everyone loves, it makes sense that you would want to avoid a sad ending at all costs..or so you would think.

Check out the collection of Debbie-Downers below.

Sad movies, indeed. But also extremely popular, and in some cases, critically lauded.

Using our definition from the previous article on how to end a movie, a sad ending would be one where the good guys lose and the Main Character goes home sad. The clips above satisfy both requirements, thus earning the label of Tragedy.


In King Kong, we watch the lovable ape fall to his death, thus experiencing a tragic ending to some awesome CG animation. However, one should be careful not to automatically assume that the death of a beloved character signals a tragedy. It's not so much Kong's death that is tragic to the story's structure, as it is what his death represents -- namely, the failed attempt by producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) to bring about the "Story of the Century." It's a subtle difference, but one that is important. Death does not always equal tragedy. Carl is the Protagonist, and therefore by extension, the "good guy" that the audience is rooting for. His failure is one half of the story structure tragic equation.

The other half lies in the despondent Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). Her heart is torn in half as she finally realizes her true feelings for the big hairy one; torn in two because her realization has come too late. Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) ascends to comfort her, but it is clear that she is headed home unhappy.

In the terrifying Se7en, the good guys don't lose so much as the bad guy wins...and in a big way. Serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) constructs an elaborate scheme to commit murders based on the seven most deadly sins. The heroes of the story track him down and catch him; apprehending him after only five murders. Unfortunately, the game is not over as the box reveals John Doe's fulfillment of the sixth sin. Tormented by a truly great dilemma (really, I wish I could write one as strong as this), Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) finishes Doe's dirty work by carrying out the last sin: Revenge. The bad guy wins.

At the start of this thriller, Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is looking forward to retirement (Get it? The "Somer" of his life is "setting"...) but finds that task impossible to carry out in the end. His captain asks him where he'll be and Somerset answers, "Oh, I'll be around." Clearly, Morgan's detective has no intention of hanging it up just yet. The fact that he isn't happy about his decision is made obvious in his closing line.

And we conclude our look at depressing flicks with the Oscar-celebrated Amadeus. Here, mediocrity advocate Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) fails in his attempts to be remembered as one of the great composers of all time. Although he schemes to bring about Mozart's death, he is still considered by the story to be the "good guy." Reprehensible as some of his actions may be, he is still the guy driving the plot forward, and therefore the one audiences instinctively assign the term "good guy" to. His failure is what is ultimately tragic.

But Salieri is also the Main Character of this story, as we're in fact, seeing the story through his memories. As he is wheeled down the asylum, we can clearly see that although he appears to have overcome his anger towards God, he is still tortured inside by it. That angst still rides deep within his heart.

Salieri is not going home happy.

Sad Flicks Generate Tix

As the above examples show, a sad ending does not guarantee box office disappointment. As always, the burden of success lies on the writer's ability to portray a story that resonates in the lives of the audience members. The three movies shown above are all successful in their own way; each found an audience that didn't mind leaving the theatre with something more than the saccharine after-taste of an engineered feel-good film. Combining this idea of the good guys losing and the Main Character going home sad will insure that the sad ending actually has some deeper meaning to it beyond just making an audience cry.

Up next, the Bittersweet twins of movie endings.

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