Fairy-tale happily-ever-afters are fun. Contrary to popular belief, they can even be deep, meaningful, and effective. But they aren’t the only kind of ending you should have in your toolbox.

Depending on the story you’re writing, a fairy-tale ending might seem contrived, inauthentic, or cheap. If your novel tackles complex themes and foreshadows some cruel twist of fate, you’ll need to incorporate that into your ending. If your ending doesn’t carry the same tension, foreshadowing, and voice as the rest of your novel, it will feel incongruous.

Just because your ending can’t be cheerful doesn’t mean it must be all doom and gloom though. In fact, it probably shouldn’t. When was the last time you read a book that ended miserably and you still liked it? Probably never, because most people don’t enjoy being depressed.

What your story needs is a bittersweet ending—a tactful conclusion which draws on the anguish of the plot while showing that good ultimately wins. Creating a sad ending that is also uplifting requires writing prowess, and you must be aware of your words, but it can be done if you keep five factors in mind.

The Bitterness Can’t Be Random

You shouldn’t kill off a character without reason. (Sorry, Nike.) Many writers (including me) like to annihilate characters in the last few chapters and fabricate crazy endings simply because we relish it.

But that doesn’t work.

If an unexpected catastrophe happens at the end of your book and distorts a happy ending into a sad one, readers won’t think, “Well, they got lucky in chapter three, so the pendulum was bound to swing.” They’ll shout, “WHAT? NO!” followed shortly by, “Stupid book.”

To avoid this reaction, awful events should be foreshadowed. The scenarios should either have long been developing (the villain leading the protagonists into a trap) or come as a direct consequence of previous poor decisions (Primrose’s death).

If a casualty occurs at the end of your book, it should accentuate your theme and the story’s meaning. An arrow shooting out of nowhere won’t accomplish that.

The Bitterness Shouldn’t Be the End

Your book’s final line largely determines how readers will remember it for the rest of their lives. If that sentence is more bitter than sweet, they’ll recall being ripped off, hurt, and/or embittered by your story instead of the riveting escapades that happened earlier.

Notice that even the word bittersweet ends with sweet. Everything doesn’t have to fall into place for your hero, but his world must have hope, or the story will be unbearable.

The Positive Ideal Must Prevail

Whether your hero dies or not, your novel’s message—the virtuous approach to your theme—must endure. If the theme is love, the positive ideal could be that love perseveres. If your theme is grief, the positive ideal could be that grief is a step, not the end of the journey.

At the end of your story, you must show good triumphing over evil, or the opposite will be assumed true.

For example, Patrick Ness’s book, A Monster Calls, is about a boy named Connor whose mother is dying of cancer. (Spoilers ahead.) Throughout the book, Connor struggles with grief that isolates him from those around him, and loneliness sinks in. The book ends shortly after his mother dies. It’s heartbreaking. But at the very end, when you (and Connor) are crying over his loss, someone reaches out and assures him that he isn’t alone. The positive ideal prevails.

The Story Goal Must Be Achieved

Whether tragedy strikes or not, the story’s true goal must be achieved. Note that the hero’s goal may not coincide. Lightning McQueen believed he needed to win the Piston Cup, but that wasn’t the case.

Your real story goal is what readers want to see happen. If Lightning had ditched his Radiator Stinks friends and went on to become the greatest Piston Cup racer, we would have been disappointed. Our story goal wasn’t fulfilled.

How do you achieve the story goal in a bittersweet ending? With a little creativity. Think of Rogue One’s ending. (Spoilers again.) Everybody dies. After we walked out of the theater, my brother stopped by a poster for the movie and commented, “Everyone on this poster besides Darth Vader is dead.” But the movie wasn’t depressing. The Rebels won. Through the sacrifice of many, they found their new hope. People died. The cause survived.

Bittersweet.

Maintaining a Good Ending

No matter what type of ending you choose, it must enhance your story, or it will just leave a bitter taste in readers’ mouths. A bitter flavor won’t sell sequels. You need to make sure your novel’s ending has certain attributes.

  • Satisfying. Readers should feel that they received what they bargained for from the story. Don’t deceive them with false promises of literary greatness or bypass difficult decisions you set the characters up for.
  • Provides closure. One way or another, you need to wrap things up. Subplots can’t be left dangling (unless they are intended to carry over into a sequel). Even if you plan to write a sequel, the story arc needs to have a sense of completeness.
  • Encouraging. Even if your ending tears readers’ hearts apart, the story’s emotional trajectory must indicate that the positive ideal is victorious. Your readers can only feign hating you for killing a character; you can’t actually let them despise you. Inwardly, they must love your novel.

Bittersweet endings can hit your story home to a needy reader. When I read A Monster Calls last spring, my family was losing my dear grandma to cancer. If the book had depicted a miraculous healing of Connor’s mother and reuniting of Connor with his friends and family, I would have shrugged it off, labeled it as a “nice story,” and probably forgotten that it ever existed. Because I was in the middle of my own trial, a perfect ending would have distanced me from the book. I didn’t expect a miraculous recovery for my grandma, so if Connor’s mom had gotten one, I would have felt that the story didn’t apply to my situation.

But Mr. Ness didn’t ignore the heartache of losing a loved one to cancer, and because his ending reflected true-to-life pain that I was experiencing, the book had a powerful impact on me when I needed it most.

What about your book? Does it involve hard-to-stomach themes that can’t be addressed in a simple fairy-tale ending? Does its plot revolve around the promise of a catastrophe at the end? A bittersweet ending might be what your story needs to pull it together and deliver a final punch to readers, leaving them touched, healed, and ready for a sequel.