Notes On The Sacrificial Ending

by James Scott Bell

Casablanca ending

What is the most famous ending of all time?

I’ll cast my vote for Casablanca. It is certainly the most popular. The first time you see it you can’t help but be moved. Some people weep. Others feel an uplifted respect for things like duty and honor.

And then it hits us with the famous last line: Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 

Why does this work so well?

Let’s start at the beginning. Rick Blaine is an American running a night club in French occupied Morocco during World War II. He sticks his neck out for nobody. He’s trying to forget being betrayed by the woman he loved, Ilsa Lund.

And then she and her husband, Victor Laszlo, turn up at the club.

You know the story.

If you don’t, shame on you. Go watch the movie before you write another word.

Intrigue follows, until at the end Rick is at the airport with Ilsa, who looks remarkably like Ingrid Bergman, and she’s ready to leave her husband and go away with him.

But then Rick stops and tells her no, this is wrong. If we go through with it we’ll regret it, maybe not now but soon and for the rest of our lives.

And yet: “We’ll always have Paris. Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Rick has sacrificed the thing he wants most in this world. He has done it for a higher good (no longer will he say, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”).

He’s also put his very life on the line, for he has killed the Nazi major in front of the French police captain, Louis.

But in a stunning reversal, Louis does not arrest Rick. Instead, moved by Rick’s moral courage, he himself sacrifices his position of power to go off and fight the Nazis with Rick.

What’s happened?

Rick, who has been living as an isolated dead man walking, has offered to sacrifice his life … and has been resurrected.

Hm, why am I thinking about that on this particular Sunday?

Because the central Christian message of sacrifice and resurrection is the shaping force of our civilization. Even if one does not celebrate Easter, or is not religious at all, it must be acknowledged that there is something in us that vitally responds to a sacrifice for the greater good.

Which is why Casablanca resonates.

And why sacrifice in fiction moves us.

It can happen in genre fiction, such as Dashiell Hammet’s classic, The Maltese Falcon. At the end Sam Spade has within his reach the woman he’s fallen for, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. He loves her even though he knows she’s a liar and manipulator. But he’s a sneaky PI who had an affair with his partner’s wife, so maybe they actually belong together!

But Spade gives it up, because there’s a principle involved:

“I don’t care who loves who I’m not going to play the sap for you. . . . When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

After Spade goes through his reasons, he says to Brigid:

“Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”

“You know,” she whispered, “whether or not you do.”

“I don’t. It’s easy enough to be nuts about you.” He looked hungrily from her hair to her feet and up to her eyes again. “But I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever?”

 Finally, Brigid plays her big card.

She put her face up to his face. Her mouth was slightly open with lips a little thrust out. She whispered: “If you loved me you’d need nothing more on that side.”

Spade set the edges of his teeth together and said through them: “I won’t play the sap for you.”

She put her mouth to his, slowly, her arms around him, and came into his arms. She was in his arms when the door-bell rang.

Spade, left arm around Brigid O’Shaughnessy, opened the corridor-door. Lieutenant Dundy, Detective-sergeant Tom Polhaus, and two other detectives were there.

Spade said: “Hello, Tom. Get them?”

Polhaus said: “Got them.”

“Swell. Come in. Here’s another one for you.” Spade pressed the girl forward. “She killed Miles.”

So Spade lets the police cart Brigid off to her inevitable appointment with the noose. With this sacrifice, Spade “wins” because he has upheld the moral order of his particular universe.

Even before Christ, the resonance of sacrifice and resurrection was inside us––almost as if we’d been wired for it. Around 438 BC the Athenian playwright Euripides presented Alcestis. In this play a king named Admetus is due to kick the bucket. But he is given a gift by the gods––he does not have to die if he can find someone to take his place.

No one is anxious to step in for that particular service, except his wife, Queen Alcestis. She does this so her children will not be left fatherless and she a grieving widow. Plus, she knows he is a good king and the people need him.


Off she goes with Death, toward her eternal destiny.

Meanwhile, Heracles (the Greek name for Hercules, which is the Roman name for Steve Reeves), hears this sad tale and vows to battle Death and bring Alcestis back from the Alcestisdead.

Which he does. He returns to the palace with a veiled Alcestis. King Admetus doesn’t know her at first. But then he lefts her veil and there she is. Interestingly, she cannot speak for three days, and then is fully restored.

Sacrifice is powerful. Perhaps the reason is this: we know life is tough, and that to stand up for the good usually comes at a cost. Fictional characters who fight for what’s right are going to be wounded. Otherwise, the thing they’re standing up for isn’t all that important.

When they offer their lives, it is the ultimate sacrifice. If they survive, it is like a resurrection.

But even if they do not survive, there is still a resurrection. Their spirit will live on. Their sacrifice inspires others to change for the better and carry on the fight. Think of William Wallace in Braveheart. He can end his torture simply by confessing to treason. Instead he shouts, “Freedom!” just before the ax falls. His death inspires his followers, most notably Robert the Bruce, so they may all go on to fight like free men.

Or even the comedy Mister Roberts. The book, play and movie (starring Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon and James Cagney) were huge successes, in large part because the ending hits us with a somber jolt that is followed by the rebirth of one Ensign Pulver.

In other words, the sacrificial ending works all over the place, in any type of fiction.

But even if you don’t end with a sacrifice, at least have the conflict of the novel cost the Lead something essential. He will then emerge as a different or stronger person at the end. That’s the essence of story in a nutshell.

Happy Easter. May this day bring you blessings, joy, creativity … and some very good words for your WIP!

36 thoughts on “Notes On The Sacrificial Ending

  1. When I started to plot my second novel, I realized I believed that true love involves a large element of self-sacrifice, and that my second plot was too much like the first, not because of the sacrifice, but because the sacrifice being made by the protagonist was too much like the sacrifice made by the protag in the first novel.

    So I changed my path completely.

    But now, having read this post, I realize I can’t get away from the idea of sacrifice– it’s too ingrained in my psyche. However, in the second novel, the sacrifice is completely different, and much more for the greater good. It’s the latter that will make the second novel stronger than the first, I believe.

    Which doesn’t mean that I live my life making sacrifices… I fight those all the way. My characters (other than my villains) are much better people than I am.

    Maybe there’s a lesson there, too, i.e., that writers may write, from time to time, about the people they want to be or the people they admire.

    Thanks for this post. I’m feeling more comfortable about my story now.

    • Maybe there’s a lesson there, too, i.e., that writers may write, from time to time, about the people they want to be or the people they admire.

      I believe that, Sheryl. I sometimes tell writers, “Don’t just write what you know. Write what you need to discover.”

  2. Sacrifice is one of the reasons that Zane Grey’s “Forlorn River” is my favorite novel of all time. “Nevada” is a wounded gunslinger who ended up in Ben Ide’s camp one day. Ben just helped him get back to health and didn’t ask any questions about his health, just took him in and they became friends and ranch partners.

    In the end, in order to save Ben from hanging, Nevada has to revert to his old ways to save Ben’s life and has to yet again go on the run, sacrificing the new life he’d built for his friend.


  3. Great examples that are easily related to the subject. Love your posts! Have a blessed Easter!

  4. Wonderful post, Jim. The Greek history is very interesting.

    Your post reminded me of the book, CHANGE THE WORLD, by Robert Quinn. Quinn, an expert on change theory, discusses how sacrificial leadership creates more impact on behavior and transformation than does domination. He uses the life and teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr to exemplify his basic theories.

    Isn’t it interesting that the ultimate sacrifice creates the most impact in fiction as well? Especially when we expect our protagonist to conquer the antagonist. Victory through death. Our protagonist better survive, though, if we’re planning a series.

    Thanks for a great post. Have a Happy Easter!

  5. “Heracles (the Greek name for Hercules, which is the Roman name for Steve Reeves)”

    Ha! Love the way you sneak in these little Easter eggs of comedy for us to find!

  6. Interesting post…good reading, for sure!

    I hadn’t thought about this (enough) until you brought it up. But now I realize I have this dynamic at the end of my own book “She’s Not There.” For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out how to end one character’s arc (he, like Rick, is a dead man walking). But finally, he does the right thing and sacrifices his freedom for the woman he has already lost in order to save her.

    He was redeemed. And the story had the ending it needed.

    Happy Easter all!

  7. English major, here. I’m surprised no one has mentioned Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES where Sydney Carton trades places with his noble look-alike Charles Darnay for a trip to the guillotine during the French Revolution.

    “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

    The Christian symbolism is quite obvious. (Check the Wikipedia article for more.)

  8. Gran Torino: Clint Eastwood sacrificed himself to protect his community.

    Billy Bud the Sailor was sacrificed for the good of the crew.

    In Do the Right Thing, property was sacrificed to make peace in the neighborhood.

  9. A fun post today. I agree Casablanca rocks. There’s a reason why McKee has stuck with that as it go-to story model all these years.

    My fav ending… The Shawshank Redemption. Very emotionally resonant, really pays off the reader/viewer empathy that was so brilliantly built through that story. Have you seen it (betting you have). It’s a real writer’s film, very literate in its characterizations. I got to meet the writer director (Frank Darabont) and hear him speak about the story development, which was a thrill.

    • I took McKee in 92 and gave the correct answer to one of his Casablanca questions, and thus didn’t get yelled at.

      Love Shawshank, novella and movie both.

      Inside baseball question for you Larry. I always thought the novella’s ending would have resonated more had the last line been cut. A little thing, but the stuff we care about. What do you think?

  10. Very appropriate post for the day, Jim. Happy Easter!

    I immediately thought of A TALE OF TWO CITIES as well. “It s a far, far better thing that I do…” That’s powerful no matter how many times one reads it.

  11. Jim,

    Such a fitting post for today. Sacrifice is such a powerful thing, in fiction and in life, we writers need to keep it in mind. “Casablanca” is the perfect film to use an example. A few years ago I took an all-day workshop from science fiction author Walter Jon Williams, and we spent our lunch hour (it was more like a lunch two and half hours) watching and deconstructing “Casablanca.” Such a great film. Little wonder that so many books on screenwriting use it as an example of great story and structure.

    Hope you had a Happy Easter!

    • Hi Dale. Casablanca is so good…so much you can get out of it when you study it and dig deep. Everything, from the minor characters to the brilliant dialogue, not to mention the acting, is top notch.

  12. “Even before Christ, the resonance of sacrifice and resurrection was inside us––almost as if we’d been wired for it.”

    I think you have hit on something there. In ancient literature, the typical epic hero’s journey is remarkably similar to the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the hero of “the Greatest Story Ever Told.” I’ve frequently written about this on my literature blog, which I invite interested readers to visit: In fact, I think “Notes on the Sacrificial Ending” has just inspired a new blog post!

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