Screenwriting : Do ALL Movies Need To Have Happy Endings? by Jorge J Prieto

Jorge J Prieto

Do ALL Movies Need To Have Happy Endings?

A quote from American Romance Author, Julia Quinn, "You always get more respect when you don't have a happy ending."

I must admit many of my screenplays for the most part don't have a happy ending, some just end on a hopeful sense or with a question mark. How do you all feel about unhappy endings? Have any writers here have written stories with what you would consider, unhappy endings?  Here's a personal quote. 

"When I write about my pain, is when the healing begins." 

To me this is a happy ending....partially.

Dylan Alex

Hi Jorge!

While it's not necessary to have a happy ending, having can help to drive the theme (message) of your story. For instance, if you have a protagonist walloping steam punk zombies in a post-apocalyptic Earth 2820, after her tribulations and near approach to victory, would the audience benefit from seeing her victory or her failure?

Your story would pull its trek from your arcs, midpoint, and opening well before your denouement -- but the true meme for your tale is what is "the message"? It will depend on how you craft your character's journey with enough 'worry' weaved in and out that will have your audience care (when all is inked and done, hopefully!).

Whether or not you have a happy ending may not express your vision as much as when the screenplay speaks your unique voice.

Make certain the hooks and development you give to your story always play out into a payoff for your audience.

Next, the story will have evolved into a message your audience will have related to when you've honored their time with a vibrant experience.

This is also one reason there are many a script reader, who are reading stories to mine the beats and the character development(s) emoting a story to it finest reach. Tell your story with your authenticity is a first step to achieving the dramatic (or happy - non-happy) ending audiences will remember.

I hope any or all of the above helps!

- Dylan

Lukas Flemming

Hmm... very interesing question! Having just finished a screenplay, I spent some time thinking about this... I have decided to end my storytelling at a point where the audience may decide for themselves how things pan out. I think, for my own storytelling, that the ending conveys no meaning. If you haven’t gotten the message across before, then the ending won’t change a thing, so I orefer ambiguous endings where it’s up to the reader/viewer to decide what happens with the characters...

Syed Hussain

I have written 2 screenplays and am playing around with many other ideas and something I usually do is come up with the ending first so that I know what conflicts I need to create to propel the story forward towards that conclusion and also to create excitement. I never really think about it being a happy ending as long as it is justified in a way that it does not come out of the blue and does not gel with anything that happened from the beginning.

Just thinking about the movies in general, I can name more movies that don't have happy endings instead of a happy one but that tells more about my taste than anything else.

For big budget studio movies, it is safer for them to have a movie that makes the audience happy. It leads to people rewatching such movies which in turn, helps the studio. There are of course exceptions like Titanic to that statement as well.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Well, no, it depends on specific story context, of course... and I'm not so sure about writers being given more respect just for not having a happy ending—huh? I dunno about that, because it truly depends on context and whether or not an ending is fitting, satisfying, well-constructed, and effective, no matter if it is happy or sad or whatever. Huge respect should be given to effective writing whatever the ending. Sure, a happy ending is typically expected (perhaps wanted) and can seem overly contrived or "forced." However, I do think there should be some meaning—that's the whole point, right? A story is the telling or re-telling of connected events (real or imaginary) that comes to some conclusion. So... for me, having some sense of resolution at the end that is satisfying in some way, that there is some importance to it, that leaves me as an audience member feeling like I haven't wasted my time is absolutely vital. I want an ending that engages me and "rewards" me for sticking with it until the end. I prefer somewhat open endings or endings that leave me affected and pondering about it for some time after. Sad, happy, shocking, exciting, ambiguous, or whatever endings, it doesn't matter, as long as it satisfies and entertains. ;)

Chad Stroman

No. "The Mist" and more recently "Christine" (2016, not the Stephen King based one) as well as "Black Swan".

Also "Birdman".

Bill Costantini

Chad: Regarding Birdman....that was a happy ending. Isn't that what Riggan wanted?

Some films, like Angel Heart, had to end that way. I've been watching the Director's Cut of Once Upon a Time In America for the past few days....this film is like four hours, and I'm reading the script and breaking it down scene-by-scene a can't end happy.

There are many great films like that. However, comma, I can tell you that the American version of The Descent, and the Director's Cut of The Descent, both end very differently. The ending that killed me the most was probably Million Dollar Baby. That was just beyond sad. I couldn't eat for a day when I first saw it.

The ground-breaking film The Boys in the Band had a sad ending, too. It's pretty interesting that William Friedkin directed that film, considering that his next two films were The French Connection and The Exorcist, both sad endings in their own ways, too.

Nice post, Jorge.

Doug Nelson

The simple answer is no. You can have an up ending, a down ending or an ambiguous ending (my favorite). The ambiguous is best for a tent pole film and works well in a series (aka a cliff hanger ending).

Shawn Speake

'up ending' or 'down ending'? Up endings are the better story for the box office because you leave the theatre 'up' not 'down' about what you just saw.

Sam Borowski

While I am a sucker for a Happy Ending (so sue me, I like the hero to win!) the answer is a resounding no! Did The Public Enemy have a Happy Ending with Cagney's mortified corpse being dropped off at his mother's house? How about Ehren Kruger, whose built a career out of penning movies such as The Skeleton Key and Arlington Road, neither of which I would describe as even remotely resembling a Happy Ending! Classic Horror: Does Creature From the Black Lagoon have a Happy Ending? Musicals: West Side Story? The examples are there. Happing Endings ultimately are more popular with the masses, but still they haven't cornered the market on being popular. But, as Beth pointed out above, it does depend on the script and the specific story context. My cousin got Nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for being in a movie with a very unpopular ending: Do The Right Thing. So, there are no rules stating you have to have one, nor do I think a writer is given more respect for having one. If it is a "tentpole" movie the studio may demand one for box office. But, again, studios always want to make more money and appeal to the masses, and you can't really blame them for that.

Eric Christopherson

A producer I've been working with on one of my scripts recommended changes that would allow for a happy ending instead of the bittersweet one I'd written. Certainly, happy endings are the default setting today.

Sam Borowski

Eric, I can see that. Even on Kevin Smith's Clerks, they ended it before Dante gets shot and killed (in the original version). BUT, you don't have to have one. However, as I stated above, many producers will want one to create greater mass appeal, though still there are plenty of examples to the contrary. Also, I do believe it does depend what kind of script you have and what audience you are looking to reach, as well as what your goals are.

George Edwards

No, not necessarily - The vast majority of my screenplays don't end "Happily Ever After".

Bill Costantini

Sam mentioned Danny Aiello. Once Around was a great film with a sad ending. That ending could have gone either way, too. If y'all have never seen it, you should.

And Once Were Warriors, too. Man...what a sad film. A tragic ending - and beginning and middle - but it's a hopeful ending, too.

Sam Borowski

Bill, that's true. They portray it in a Happy Way, the respect Danny shows for Richard Dreyfuss: "Once around ... for the Big Guy." But, certainly it is classified as a sad ending. Love that movie.

Lukas Flemming

Shawn Speake I’m not so sure that that’s necessarily true. For example Leaving Las Vegas left me shattered and broken and yet it’s one of my favourite film of all times! Same goes for When a man loves a Woman...

Roscoe Hinson

The 1991 Movie Straight Out of Brooklyn Directed and Produced by Matty Rich was a gritty urban narrative about poverty, struggle , domestic violence and pain. It had very sad ending. One of the most under rated movies ever produced.

Martyn John Armstrong

It would be an interesting statistic to see how many films have a 'happy ending', but I actually think they outweigh the tragic ones. There aren't that many tragedy films, so I'm not sure I agree with the notion that there are more downbeat endings than upbeat ones.

Either way, the type of ending you're discussing is a cathartic one, whether it's up or downbeat. It also has a lot to do with genre, expectations, and whether you want to challenge them.

Lezline Platt

I love it when there is a protagonist you can root for, despite the flaws.

Constance York

Out of my 15 screenplays, 2 have "bad" endings and one has an ending where things kind of continue (think Sopranos) ... so not a good ending or bad. One of my "bad" endings received awesome feedback from my film professor and many others who told me - Thank God she died in the end, I was afraid you would give some sappy Hollywood ending. But then I had one guy who was actually pissed about it. "How could you kill her?! Nobody wants a bad ending!"

Anthony Moore

One of my screenplays with a "bad" ending just won me a screenwriting contest. It's called "Code: Delete" and its a futuristic gangster film where the lead character dies, Scarface style, at the end.

Matthew H Emma

I think that sometimes bad endings work. It all depends upon the story and the circumstances faced by the protagonist. I try to write scripts that don't necessarily have bad endings, but finishes that are mixed in that the protag may have won but at a significant cost.

Oliver Swift

I love a happy or ambiguous ending when watching films, but out of the dozen scripts and stories I have, they all have unhappy endings. I personally believe the ending just has to be the correct ending for the story, no matter how divisive it is.

Bill Costantini

Even a Marvel comic book film like Logan can have a tragic ending for one...and a hopeful ending for others. Life goes on. That's how a lot of great films are.

Sam Borowski

Bill Costantini I LOVED Logan. And, I know many people who were upset that Logan died at the end, although with all that Shane foreshadowing, you knew it was coming. But, I can't see that movie ending any other way. Even the Johnny Cash song played such a vital role in the unhappy ending, that looked like it was setting up the new X-Men team in Canada - this was actually a part of the comics, as well, I forget their team name. Which leads me to my next point Constance York - whether some people liked your bad ending or others were upset that the character died, you DID YOUR JOB! You got them to react. Remember, when people hate your work, it's almost - ALMOST ;) - as good as if they love it, because they reacted to it. It's when they're indifferent - "meh" - that you didn't do your job. And, finally, Anthony Moore , that sounds like a really cool script! Keep pushing! GOD BLESS and STAY FRESH! ;)

Sam Borowski

And, GREAT DISCUSSION GUYS - AND GALS! Much THANKS to Jorge for starting this thread! This is what Stage 32 is all about! :)

Sarah Gabrielle Baron


Victor Titimas

I hate caring for a character and really wishing to see him/her succede, only to witness a cruel demise. The same goes for the guy not getting the girl movies(eg:Spiderman, Ghost Rider). But when the hero dies, it's heartbreaking for me. On the other hand, "Romeo and Juliet" just wouldn't have been the same without that ending...

Bill Costantini

Jorge: get your culo back in your thread, man! Heh-heh.

John Iannucci

Tough to sell a spec with a sad ending they are taking a chance on you. Not gonna take a chance on how its viewed

Patricia Hylton Zell

Every book Julia Quinn has written has a happy ending--I know because I've read most of her books. Commercial romance demands a happy ending. Where the problem lies is not whether there's a happy ending, but whether the ending meets the audiences' expectations.

I think the film industry needs to update their genre classifications by getting rid of the vague terms of comedy and drama. They could include an indication of what the ending is like. A simple ranking system could work: Sad ending --- Somewhat sad ending --- Ambiguous/neutral ending --- Somewhat happy ending --- Happy ending.

With ticket prices so high, viewers are becoming picky. One thing that really ticks them off is when a film is marketed a one thing and ends up being something quite different.

Constance York

When I saw Manchester by the Sea, after knowing it had won, I remember thinking- okay- this is what you want? Because I can that write that stuff all day, but that doesn't mean I'm not sorely disappointed when it happens to me. When I'm invested in a character in something I'm watching- and I want them to get what they want- or live- or whatever- and I don't get it- I'm pissed. And as my friend told me- people want the Hollywood ending. I think that's true for the most part.

But if you look at the ones that win awards- time and time again- they majority it seems have bad/sad endings. Sophie's Choice, Schindler's List, Titanic, Braveheart, Forrest Gump, The Departed, The English Patient, etc. etc.

So, there you have it. I guess if you want to win awards- make'em cry.

If you want to be loved by the audience- the average Joe- give'em the happy Hollywood ending.

Perhaps, that sums up the differences in our lives and the similarities.

The average Joe doesn't want to pay money to cry, when all we have to do is deal with our own issues sometimes, or watch the local news.

People in the film business have everything we think would make us happy- and yet many aren't, because many have had their own fucked up lives and childhoods- that's why they're good at what they do- create drama-

And so when they're voting- they're still drawn back to what they know at their core- pain.

Or maybe, I'm totally overthinking this. :)

Darjan Petrović

I hate classic happy endings when hero defeats antagonist as a clearly expected outcome throughout the story. But I love it when it's unique, uncertain, filled with tension, after real and long struggle like in Matrix, Memento, Whiplash, Shawshank, It's a Wonderful Life, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Terminal or even Avatar. Done like that, It is satisfying. El secreto de sus ojos is an extreme example of satisfying ending, truly unique and surprising.

Generally I prefer more totally unexpected, intriguing, shocking, open solutions to end a story like Nightcrawler, Inception, Usual Suspects, Son of Saul or Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

But bittersweet and sad endings are most emotional and memorable for me, from mentioned Gladiator, Green Mile and Braveheart, to Leon, Amour, A Moment to Remember, Broken Circle Breakdown, Man on Fire or Intouchables.

Just make an ending unique, truly suitable and organic for your story. If you pull that off, then it doesn't matter if it's happy or not.

Wendy Jones

I'm good with a sad ending. Love a blub at a film, but it can't leave me depressed. There has to be a glimmer of something good come out of it. Sad, but not miserable.

Bill Albert

Sometimes it works to be ambiguous about it. I loved Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing because there was a big trick to it. When I was watching it I got so into the characters it never occurred to me until the closing credits that they are all really terrible people. I got so into what was happening that I didn't think of how bad that ending is. They are really headed off to do something terrible but it's brilliant writing.

Dan Guardino

My movies all have happy ending... too bad I can't say the same about my screenplays because most of them die a slow miserable deaths and I have to bury them in my dead screenplay folder.

Lukas Flemming

Dan Guardino Now there’s a quote for the autobiography!

Gregory McGee

Tragedy or comedy? We need them both. Tragedy is good when you're sad, because you feel better by comparison. Comedy is good when you're happy, because you're ready to laugh. Both forms have a positive impact when watched at the right time.

Nina Berlin

I love unhappy endings. And ambiguous ones too. The more grim, the better. My favorite comedy is Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

Bill Costantini

Nina: that's funny.

I've written a few things about Mr. Herzog here in the past, but one of the most amazing events that illustrates the man's mind and soul is when he walked from Munich to Paris. He was called and told that his idol/friend/mentor, the legendary Lotte Eisner, had a massive stroke and was dying. He felt that if, instead of flying, he WALKED the distance - approximately 500 miles - it would somehow save her life.

So he walked it - and in the winter. And Lotte Eisner survived her massive stroke, and lived another ten years or so.

That pretty much explains Mr. Herzog, and his films. Hopefulness and determination have no bounds in Mr. Herzog's world. My apologies if you already know this story, but some others here probably don't.

Here's a short on youtube where he talks about the journey.

Shara Maude

I think bittersweet endings are quite good. Like the one at the end of the film Children of Men. Yes it's sad, but there's a glimmer of hope left. I think there has to be that glimmer of hope, but that doesn't mean it's a "happy ending."

Jax Kearney

I think you know from the moment you start writing your story whether or not the ending is going to be happy or sad, and that's the way it should be written. don't try to modify your story to create a happy ending if the story hands down calls for it to be otherwise.

Jenny Masterton

I don't think it's to do with happiness. If the character changes, there will be consequences to that. It's not happy or sad, but the consequences of the right and wrong choices.

Shawn Speake

listening to SCREENWRITING FOR HOLLYWOOD by Michael Hauge on AUDIBLE. ( luv that sh@@! ) He says DOWN ENDINGS are much harder to sell for the simple fact: the audience wants to experience victory at the end of their movie experience.

Matthew H Emma

This is a wonderful topic. I'll expand on a point I made earlier in that I like to have endings where yes the protag comes out ahead, but at the very least, lost something he or she can't get back, regardless of how big the victory was.

Bill Costantini

Matthew: great point. I love the great film This is 40 by Judge Apatow. The main characters, Pete and Debbie, lose a lot during the course of the film, and certainly can't get back to being in their 30's, but at the end, they come out united and happy.

Judge Apatow has made a lot of great films, and I think This Is 40 is his best one so far. Kudos to Mr. Apatow for this one, and for all of his other films.

Good Luck and Happy Writing!

Matthew H Emma

Thanks Bill. That is a great example of what I mean. It doesn't have to necessarily be a close personal relation. It can be time, innocence, etc.

Bill Costantini

Owen: if any screenwriter hasn't seen Angel with Dirty should be brought to the.....naw....I better not say it. Heh-heh.

Peter Roach

Oh oh. I gotta watch a movie before Bill visits me.

Diana Levin

After seeing Shelter a few weeks ago and A Quiet Place yesterday, I now believe not necessarily. I believe it’s up to the screenwriter to make the final decision on that one. Sometimes a sad or unfair ending or turn of event(s) can also have a powerful or impressionable impact on the audience.

Bill Costantini

Peter: Owen is the one you have to worry about, not me. I'm more like a combination of Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever and Tony from West Side Story....Owen is more like a combination of Bullet-Proof Tony and Tony Montana. It would probably be wise if you just give me all your money, computer stuff, and film equipment now, Peter...before I call Owen. Just sayin'.

Peter Roach

I don't think endings have to be happy, but people like definitive endings. We don't like to be left hanging; did he die, did she ever find him again, was she re-incarnated? I wanna know DAMMIT.

Patricia Hylton Zell

Bill, it's cool that you mentioned West Side Story (although I don't want you to end up like Tony) because I am updating and adapting a Shakespeare play to go along with my franchise. Long story short, I need a musical for a community theater production in the fifth romantic script. Rather than mess around with rights, I decided to write my own musical from a public domain source.

I've been thinking about West Side Story, especially with the song "Gee, Officer Krupke" because there is a comedic security person in the original Shakespeare play. I've been thinking about the lyrics for a song involving this security person and have just drafted the song's chorus. Then you mention West Side Story--maybe it's a sign. ;-)

When I think of the tone of the music in my musical, I want to hit some of the same notes/beats as the West Side Story music hits (although there is a happy ending for my musical).

Bill Costantini

Patricia: that's awesome. I'd say it's a sign, too. I believe in signs. West Side Story kills it. Best of luck with your project! i sent you a message at LI.

Patricia Hylton Zell

I got an email that a "Bill" had sent me a message at LI, but it never showed up on my LI message feed. Try again?

Jorge J Prieto

HI, EVERYONE! So sorry, an ongoing health issue has kept me away. GRATEFUL for ALL the great comments/feedback/opinions, I agree with all of them. I'll admit many of my screenplays have sad endings and in part to leave an impact on the other characters/my audience. Sad or shocking endings (for me as an audience) stay with me for a long time after I leave the Theater or finish a film or TV series, even a book. Sometimes a characters death is a victory for that character, like in my screenplay, "Shared Scars". One of my favorite film and writer is Alan Ball's "American Beauty" the film focuses and explores romantic, paternal love, sexuality, materialism, self-liberation, and redemption. Two other films I love to watch over and over are, "Love Story" and "Ordinary People." It's just who I am as an individual and as a writer. Again, thank YOU ALL so much for stopping by, sharing your thoughts and doing it all in the Spirit of this Website as our leader/CEO Richard Botto always asks of us. Talk to you ALL soon. Cheers from NYC.

Jorge J Prieto

OH, OH! One last thing, I have alternate endings (happier I mean) in a few of my Specs, just in case...However, I will do my best to defend or justify my original so call "unhappy ending." Beth Fox Heisinger, you made an excellent point, thank YOU, friend. Great movie examples as well.

Monica Mindler

I prefer happy, likely because movies are an 'escape' - downtime after the stressful day, when I don't need more stress and anguish. Prefer to sit through an interesting sci-fi or adventure that draws you in, but leaves you feeling satisfied emotionally and sharper mentally. But that's just me...

Victor Titimas

Monica, I saw a few days ago a World War II documentary and even as bombs fell on Berlin, even when the Allies were this close, the theaters were still running, movies were still made. It was done as "escapism". The Germans only stopped making films when the Soviets captured their main studio.

Another documentary showed how, much eariler during the war, when the Germans were smashing through the USSR, the Soviets, to provide escapsim, organized a concert at a great music hall.

It was to show they haven't lost hope, and probably to make people think about other things than the bombs who were constantly shelling them or the millions of troops that were clashing across the land.

During the Great Depresion, cinema was popular in USA. Life was so harsh, that people needed to escape somewhere. Look, life can sometimes suck big time. That's why we need entertainment.

And a movie where the hero is slashed and the villain wins just isn't that entertaining. Even if today, life isn't as harsh as back then, it's still far from perfect, so we need to escape through various means.

That's why movies in some genres are more popular than others. I don't think someone comes home after a bad day where everything that could go wrong went wrong and thinks:"I'm so down right now, I could cry. There is a Drama on TV about a guy who dies of an overdose and his girlfriend turns to prostitution. It'll make me feel so much better!".

I already wrote how a comedy series made me forget a soul crushingly sad day for a while and improved my state of mind. I laughed like crazy then, even though hours before I was depressed.

So can you write sad movies where heroes tend to die? Yes, it might just not be for everyone. But I think there are lots of people who can appreciate them. Me, I'm more of an Action/Sci-Fi, Fantasy and sometimes Horror/Supernatural type...:)

Philip B. Grindle III

HELL NO!! Personally some of my favorite endings are usually bittersweet. Like the main character lives but looses almost everyone he/she loves.

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