I’ve talked about how dark stories can produce an uplifting feeling in the reader and how darkness and light can be balanced proportionally rather than equally. I want to end this series with my most important argument. Why can some readers leave a dark story feeling good or even hopeful? Why do these stories work? It’s because positive endings don’t have to be happy endings.
Tragedy’s Silver Lining
I wager that most of you have held a tragedy in your mind as an example of a dark story for this whole series. The reason why people enjoy tragedies has baffled scholars for centuries. The video “We Love Tragedy” on the YouTube channel The Symposium presents a nice overview of the debate, though the featured scholars focus more on audience reaction than story structure.
The conclusion the host comes to it that our enjoyment of tragedy isn’t because we’re all secretly sadists. It’s likely a mixture of a few things. First is the emotional impact. For some readers, it’s a chance to experience extraordinary emotions, like despair and grief, through a safe method that doesn’t interfere with real life. Others turn to tragedies for catharsis. Adrian von Ziegler, one of my favorite YouTube composers, recently wrote a post that beautifully describes what catharsis is and why he makes dark music.
Making dark music helped alleviate the dark feelings I had inside, like releasing steam from a pressure cooker… I need music that mirrors my depression when I feel depressed to help me feel better again.
Second is an abstract reassurance of our moral decency. Our feelings of sadness and shock in the moment prove that we can sympathize with and feel compassion for our fellow man. A possible third component is that tragedies reinforce a worldview that humans are doomed to suffer. How true and universal this belief is, however, is a discussion for another time.
Another video talks about tragedies can be found on the YouTube channel Like Stories of Old. I think you’ll find this video more relevant since the narrator spends a significant amount of time discussing the structure of tragedies.
A point from the video that I want to emphasize is that tragedies, like all stories, are built around a core meaning. The meaning that the narrator refers to is what I call the story’s message. The characters’ lives and struggles weren’t in vain. All they accomplished and all they endured was in service of some grander purpose. This is why tragedy works. It’s depressing to think that the ultimate meaning of a tragic protagonist’s life was to bring about their own destruction, but at least their lives meant something.
The narrator explains that we all search for meaning in our lives – an impact and legacy as proof that we didn’t waste our lives on meaningless pursuits. The sobering conclusion that tragedies present us with is that negative meaning is better than no meaning at all.
Much has been written about tragedies, but they’re an obfuscated example of this post’s thesis (that positive endings don’t have to be happy) because the positivity isn’t visible in the moment. A clearer, more direct example is a story with a bittersweet ending. Such stories end on a sad note – with suffering, loss, or death – but the context frames it in a positive light: as a noble sacrifice, as mercy, as a fair price for victory, or simply a fitting end.
NPCs rarely meet happy ends in the 2015 video game Bloodborne. Yet the character Eileen, often called “Eileen the Crow” by fans, can meet one of the most positive ends. If you want to hear her full story and learn how she fits into the larger world and lore of the game, I highly recommend watching VaatiVidya’s video on her. What follows is a bare-basics TL;DW.
Eileen is a talented assassin whose targets posed a threat to the city of Yharnam and the Hunters who protected it. Hence her title “Hunter of Hunters.” After many years of service, her age caught up with her, and she went into retirement. Yet the night of Bloodborne is long, and the hunt is far worse than before. So Eileen dons her crow-feather garb once more, though this time without the magical safety net that sustained her throughout her career. One last night. One last hunt. One last hurrah. Without the player’s aid, she will die by the blade – the work too much for her now. Yet if the player does help her (ultimately going against her wishes to do so), they will earn Eileen’s favor and her equipment. It’s ambiguous whether she dies or not, but even among fans who believe she does die, they acknowledge that she likely died peacefully after finding a worthy successor.
In part 2, I described uplifting as a little cousin to happiness and joy. That’s not entirely true. It’s actually a precursor to them. You don’t need to see the protagonist fully washed in light, success, and joy in order to feel uplifted. That’s not where the emotion hits you. It hits you when you see the light at the end of their tunnel. That first burst of relief and hope. That’s what makes uplifting such a positive word and emotion. A story can stop short of morning with a positive yet bittersweet ending. All you need is to show them on the road to dawn.
I didn’t anticipate taking four months to respond to a Discord discussion. I hope you enjoyed the series and that it gave you plenty of food for thought. I have a sequel post in the works – an extended example that I couldn’t find a good way to integrate into this series, but I feel it’s worth analyzing now that I’ve laid this groundwork. Don’t expect it immediately, though. I’ve got a good chunk of research left to do. Besides, I think you and I could use a break and palette cleanser.
For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts down in the comments. Can you think of tragic stories with meaningful silver linings? Have you read a story with a bittersweet ending that’s stuck with you? Has this series changed your perspective on dark stories in general?