Do happy endings really make you as happy if you see them coming a mile away? When we watch a trashy action flick or a fluffy romantic comedy, aren’t the conflicts less interesting because we know it’ll all end happily ever after? Someone has to bite the bullet and write a sad ending to give plausibility to the threat of unhappiness. It’s disincentivized because sad endings are more challenging and risk upsetting the audience, but someone has to do it.
Steven E. Landsburg muses about this in The Armchair Economist:
I am intrigued by the market for movie endings. Movie-goers want two things in an ending: They want it to be happy and they want it to be unpredictable. There is some optimal frequency of sad endings that maintains the right level of suspense. Yet the market might fail to provide enough sad endings.
An individual director who films a sad ending risks short-term losses, as word gets around that the movie is “unsatisfying.” It is true that there are long-term gains, as viewers are kept off their guard for future movies. Unfortunately, most of those gains may be captured by other directors, because movie-goers remember only that the murderer does sometimes catch up with the heroine in the basement, and do not remember that it happens only in movies with particular directors. Under these circumstances, no individual director may be willing to incur costs for his rivals’ benefit.
A solution is for directors to display their names prominently, so that viewers know when a movie was made by someone unpredictable. Viewers, however, may find it in their interests to retaliate by covering their eyes when the director’s name is shown.
If you can be associated more strongly with unpredictability, you reap more benefits. You’re also more strongly associated with the unhappy ending, which might turn audiences away.
One way to ease the blow of an unexpected sad ending is to make deaths triumphant, defiant, or heroic. Think of how Spock died in The Wrath of Khan (No, I’m not going to give a spoiler alert for a 30 year old movie). Sure, people die in Star Trek all the time – when Kirk, Spock, and fresh-faced, red-shirted Ensign Jimmy beam down to explore a planet for life, we all know one of them isn’t going to make it back. But to kill a main character is more significant. And it was done in a touching way. They got the unpredictability without upsetting their audience.
I genuinely respect Joss Whedon for his willingness to throw curve balls like this in his story lines. He’s developed a reputation for having sympathetic characters die, leave, or change sides – often without warning. Rather than watching Buffy, Firefly and Serenity thinking “So, how is it all going to work out this time?” we’re forced to think “Is it going to work out this time?”
TV Tropes has a name for all this – Anyone Can Die:
This is where no one is exempt from being killed, including the main characters (maybe even the hero). The Sacrificial Lamb is often used to establish the writer’s Anyone Can Die cred early on. However, if the Lamb’s death is a one-off with no follow-up, it’s just Killed Off for Real. To really be Anyone Can Die, the work must include multiple deaths, happening at different points in the story. Bonus points if the death is unnecessary and devoid of Heroic Sacrifice.
In game theory situations, reputation plays a large role. TV Tropes mentions building a ‘Anyone Can Die’ cred, which can be achieved through repeated interactions. In a TV series or multiple films by the same director, you get a feel for whether the good guys always prevail. But even within a single story, early and repeated signaling can make the remainder of the plot more intense. When a major character is killed off without it being a Heroic Sacrifice, that’s a powerful signal that anything can happen. The musical Into the Woods will always have a special place in my heart for mastering this dynamic.
But there’s another route. Historical dramas can increase society’s perception of “sadness plausibility” without anyone taking a hit for being a downer. Nobody’s going to feel unsatisfied that Titanic, The Great Escape, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have sad endings. (Or if they do, they can take it up with reality for writing a depressing script. It’s not easy to keep those separate in our brains; we just get the overall sense that sometimes stories have sad endings. And that perception helps us enjoy all the other movies we watch.