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Bittersweet Ending

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"This was a happy story. But... it could still be a whole lot happier..."

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:

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.

Prone to Meaningful Funerals, Wartime Weddings, and To Absent Friends, and having Babies Ever After and Someone to Remember Him By result in Dead Guy Junior.

Compare with Pyrrhic Victory, where the day is carried, but the cost of winning is crippling to the victors.

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.

Please be careful in adding any real life examples.

Note that as an ending trope, the following entries are riddled with unmarked spoilers.


    Pro Wrestling 
  • 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.