Victory, at last! The Big Bad has finally been vanquished, the day has been saved, all the damsels in distress and innocent bystanders have been rescued and the heroes are ready to reap their reward, kiss their Love Interests and walk away toward the setting sun...
...victory, really? Then why does no one feel like cheering? Why is the atmosphere so heavy with melancholy? Why do you find yourself counting your losses as well as your gains?
Somewhere between the Happily Ever After and the Downer Ending, the Bittersweet Ending happens when victory came at a harsh price, when, for whatever reason, the heroes cannot fully enjoy the reward of their actions, when some irrevocable loss has happened during the course of the events, and nothing will ever be the same again. A Bittersweet Ending is still ending on a high note, but one that is mixed with sadness and nostalgia. Often, such endings are the result of the plot making a completely happy ending impossible. (Looked at objectively, some Happy Endings have more things lost or irrevocably broken than some Bittersweet Endings. This trope relies more on the mood than on such objective weighing of matters.)
Some specific cases of Bittersweet Endings are:
- Did Not Get the Girl: When the Official Couple is broken for the right cause.
- When the hero fades into obscurity, gaining nothing in exchange for everything they sacrificed.
- End of an Age: When an irrevocable loss happens, which removes the innocence of the hero or of the world forever.
- Bittersweet 17: An ending of childhood, but a developing of selfhood at age seventeen.
- When the victory is only achieved at the sacrifice of people dear to the heroes (if not the heroes themselves) — or perhaps was attempted to be won at this cost, and the heroes had to soldier on to victory without any benefit from it.
- When Only the Leads Get a Happy Ending, and everyone else is still in a state of despair.
- The bad guys get away now, but their current plans have fallen through. The heroes will have to face them again, and they know it.
- The good guys feel unsatisfied and uneasy because they feel that they put on a poor showing and won by accident or dumb luck.
- Often the case in detective dramas where the mystery ends not with the detective busting anyone. Instead, the crime has to be brought to them.
- The good guys accomplish what they set out to do, but at the price of compromising their integrity to win.
- Some endings include the heroes lamenting to the effect that they had no choice but to use violence or take life in order to get the job done.
- The protagonist or protagonists are the only ones left alive at the end. Even the likeable guest or supporting characters get mercilessly killed.
- And occasionally, you will get a straight up Happily Ever After, but then the story will keep going, which leads to the inevitable conclusion of all the characters dying.
Bittersweet Endings can fall on either end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism. They come up frequently in High Fantasy, for obvious reasons — an epic that ends with the hero triumphing over the ultimate Big Bad and bringing peace and prosperity to the land, but at the same time defeating the ultimate Big Bad does not always come without sacrifices, whether be most or all of the characters dying in the end or the characters are at a loss about what to do now. Sometimes these are worlds and stories where you can Earn Your Happy Ending, though it won't be Exactly What It Says on the Tin. Also shows where too many romantic interests are introduced for one hero are doomed to end in this way or with No Romantic Resolution, since painless resolution is mostly impossible.
Sometimes the story's Aesop requires a bittersweet ending in order to be effective. For certain issues, this is the only way to get the point across without the effect being undermined by other tropes such as the Everybody Laughs Ending.
In short, if the characters are worse off than when they started, it's a Downer Ending. If they're better off (or at least status quo is preserved), but the work still ends on a melancholy note, it's a Bittersweet Ending. Another way to think of it is that if the story's main conflict is resolved in favor of the protagonists, but at great sacrifice, it's a Bittersweet Ending. A Downer Ending requires the heroes to fail, and the conflict resolving with nothing good happening in the end, if it's even resolved at all.
Compare with Pyrrhic Victory, where the day is carried, but the cost of winning is crippling to the victors.
Compare and contrast with Ray of Hope Ending, where the villain prevails but not all is lost. Also with Esoteric Happy Ending, where the author clearly meant it to be joyful, beautiful and uplifting... but the readers don't see it that way.
Note that as an ending trope, the following entries are riddled with unmarked spoilers.
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- A match seven years in the making (pretty much unheard of in wrestling) was "wrestled" at WWC Aniversario 2011, with the Universal Champion Carlito Caribbean Cool taking on the main he'd been teased as too scared to fight, Abyss, in a monster's ball. Carlito won, but was left lying prone after Abyss put him through a steel chair with a choke slam.