The Power of Poignancy

Old Yeller movie poster, public domain

By Debbie Burke


Recently I read an article by Daniel Pink in the Saturday Evening Post extracted from his bestselling book WHEN—The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. According to various studies he cited, people like happy endings in books and films. No surprise there, especially in the current troubling times. Happily Ever After (HEA) in fiction fulfills a deep human longing because most of us wish for that in our real lives.

But the main point of Dan’s article was, while happy endings are good, the most resonant, memorable endings have sadness connected to them. The addition of bittersweet adds an important layer of emotional complexity beyond mere joy. He writes:

“The most powerful endings deliver poignancy because poignancy delivers significance. Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it.”

The power of poignancy is why the endings of some stories stick with us for years, while other HEAs disappear from mind as soon as we close the book.

Dan’s article started me thinking about which books and movies still resonate in my memory years later.

Warning: spoiler alerts ahead.

I saw Old Yeller when the movie came out in 1957. A couple of times since then, I watched it but stopped before the climax (warning: grab a box of tissues before clicking this link). That scene remained seared in my mind. I didn’t want to start weeping again.

A boy, Travis, and his dog share an unbreakable bond until Old Yeller is bitten by a rabid wolf while saving the boy’s life. When Old Yeller is infected, Travis must shoot his dearest friend to keep him from suffering. It’s the hardest thing he’s ever done and may well be the hardest thing he’ll ever face in his entire life.

To soften the blow, the movie wraps up when Travis bonds with a new puppy from a litter sired by Old Yeller.

Consider this alternate ending: What if Old Yeller still saved Travis from the rabid wolf but walked away unscathed? Travis and Old Yeller trot off into the sunset, trailed by Yeller’s adorable puppies? Pure HEA, right?

Would the story still evoke the strong feelings it does more than six decades after I first saw it and bawled my eyes out? Probably not.

Charlotte’s Web had the same emotional power. Additionally, the first line is one of the greats in literature:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Fern said.

Charlotte the spider dies after saving Wilbur the pig’s life and making him famous. The blow of her death is tempered because she left behind generations of children and grandchildren to keep Wilbur company for the rest of his days.

Alternate ending: What if Charlotte didn’t die but continued her friendship with Wilbur until, one peaceful night, they both passed away from old age? Would the ending be as memorable? Nah.

Witness (1985) with Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis is not only a cracking good thriller but also a love story. Philadelphia detective John Book must protect Samuel, a young Amish boy who witnesses a cop’s murder.  In the process, Book falls in love with the boy’s mother, Rachel. In the climax, the villains are thwarted and Samuel is safe. Mission accomplished. But Book must leave Rachel because, despite their love, he could never fit in her world and she could never fit in his.

Alternate ending: Book stays with Rachel in the idyllic Amish community and they share a blissful, if improbable, life together.

If screenwriter Earl Wallace had opted for the HEA above, would he have won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay? I doubt it.

Photo Credit: Edgar Brau, Creative Commons

Perhaps the most famous bittersweet ending in film is Casablanca. Rick gives up the woman he loves and watches Ilsa walk away with her husband, not because Rick wants to, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Alternate ending: Ilsa tells Victor Laszlo to go back his resistance work without her and she and Rick share a passionate kiss in his saloon while Dooley Wilson reprises “As Time Goes By.” 

With that HEA, would Casablanca have become an icon in movie history? Unlikely.

The examples cited above are all legendary. As authors, we can aspire to that status but most of us are happy if readers enjoy our stories, remember them, and want to buy more.

Mickey Spillane, who sold 225 million books in his career, famously said,

“Your first line sells the book. Your last line sells the next book.”

How does an author make endings satisfying and memorable enough to convert a reader into an avid fan who wants more? One way is to inject poignancy.

Here are several tools to help you add the bittersweet component.

The Wound: The hero ends up damaged. The wound doesn’t have to be physical; it can also be emotional, psychological, or spiritual.

During the journey, the hero suffers greatly. By the end, she is triumphant in achieving her goal, vanquishing the foe, solving the mystery, or righting the wrong. That’s the HEA part.

But her success comes with a cost.

She may have lasting effects from a bullet wound, PTSD from emotional and psychological wounds, or undergo a spiritual crisis when the belief or value system she’s always depended on collapses.

The wound can happen to another character, someone she cares deeply for. That loved one’s pain or death causes her to question if her success was worth it.

Disappointment: The hero may have worked his butt off to attain his desire but, once reached, he learns it’s not what he really wanted after all. Wiser after his journey, he must let go of his dream. The HEA can spring from his epiphany that there is a different, sometimes better, reward than the one he originally sought.

Sacrifice: The hero prevails but must give up someone she cherishes. She does the right thing at great personal loss to herself. The HEA stems from her satisfaction that her loved one is happy or safe.

Can you think of other tools to achieve poignancy? Please share them in the comments.

When an author successfully balances bitter and sweet, the reader feels the resonance to their core. In fiction and in life, there is no sweet without the bitter. 

By tempering a happy ending with sorrow, joy may emerge as the dominant emotion but the complex feelings you evoke in a reader make the story more memorable and lasting than one that only taps into happiness.

Dan Pink concludes by saying:

“Endings can help us elevate—not through the simple pursuit of happiness but through the more complex power of poignancy. Closings, conclusions, and culminations reveal something essential about the human condition: In the end, we seek meaning.”


TKZers: Please share examples of your favorite endings in books or films and why they stuck with you.

What techniques do you use to inject poignancy into your work?




A high-stakes gamble. The winner lives. The loser dies.

Please check out Dead Man’s Bluff, Debbie Burke’s new thriller here. 

40 thoughts on “The Power of Poignancy

  1. I saw Old Yeller as a preview at the Disney Studios all those years ago. Thanks for the memory. As a kid, wandering the ‘streets’ and seeing familiar sets was almost as fun as going to the show.
    I agree, too much “happy” at the end isn’t as strong as making the character earn their happy, even if it isn’t exactly the happy they were looking for. Deb Dixon always said characters need choices between ‘it sucks’ and ‘it’s suckier.’
    I also think that romance readers want that HEA to be the reward for all the sucky stuff that goes on BEFORE the end of the book. That “love conquers all” is important to readers of the genre.

    • Terry, thanks for bringing up the romance genre where HEA is required. The poignancy lies in the sucky trials the characters must undergo to earn the reward.

  2. Excellent Post!

    I love noir crime fiction, and I realized rather recently that I enjoy the sense of justice in the stories. Yes, it’s always a spiral of self-destruction and a bad outcome for the characters, but the reader (me) leaves knowing that people don’t get away with crimes.

    I think that’s the key of this poignant yet sad endings. The audience gets to feel validated in other emotional areas. For example, we’re sad about the dog dying but deep down we’re happy the boy has grown to a point where he can make the tough decisions love demands.

    • Thanks, Philip. There’s precious little justice in real life. That’s why I write the crime genre, where at least I can inject a little fictional justice.

  3. Two movies that involved Asian boys have continue to push me toward the happily-ever-after, I guess, because I cannot stand to see children suffer.


    In John Wayne’s Vietnam movie, The Green Berets, Hamchunk is presumably an orphan who keeps losing his loved ones. Probably he lost his family to Viet Cong murderous brutality. He loses his puppy to Viet Cong fire. Eventually, he loses his friend, Peterson, to a Viet Cong booby trap. In the last scene, the detail that went on a mission to kidnap a North Vietnamese general returns after Peterson’s death. Hamchunk is waiting for them on the tarmac of a helo base. When he goes search for Peterson and can’t find him, he breaks. It is a heartbreak that is difficult to watch. Finally, Col. Mike Kirby (John Wayne) says to him, “This is what this war is all about.” I see no way for Hamchunk, in the universe of the movie, to ever be happy again. It’s a realization that I have a difficult time dealing with. I’m not certain that the devastating ending adds to poignancy or simply to heartbreak that has no further function.

    On the other hand, Short Round, in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, is a lovable, take-charge kid who charges head first into danger to rescue Indy and the continually- shrieking Willie Scott (played by Mrs. Steven Spielberg, Kate Capshaw), is both hilarious and joyous in a way that Hamchunk can never be–will never be. Short Round is eventually rescued by both Indy and Willie and lives to see the kidnapped children returned and the village from whom they were taken burst alive again into happiness.

    So I guess I can’t always put up with poignancy vs. a happy ending.

    One last thing: I have always thought that The Witness should get a sequel–that John Book should return to the wind-swept fields of wheat and jury rigged water systems and baths taken without shower or tub, and had another romance with Rachel–perhaps at the mysterious death of Eli Lapp in an Amish community. Then we’ll see whether Book or Daniel Hockleitner is Rachel’s true love. (I think we already know the answer to that.)

    A story snatched back from poignancy to again be played out.

    • Jim, I too remember Hamchunk in The Green Berets. I’d classify that story as pure tragedy that vividly showed the human cost of war. No HEA.

      Intriguing idea for a sequel to Witness. Have you started writing it yet?

      • LOL. Every time I have a good sequel idea, someone always reminds of the legalities involved in using someone else’s characters and settings.

        I had–have–a great motion picture script for a sequel to Northern Exposure. It’ll never see the lens of a camera.

  4. Old Yeller and Charlotte’s Web still kill me. You’re 100% right. If they didn’t end that way, they wouldn’t have stayed with us for decades.

    Your post gave me a fabulous idea for my WIP, Debbie. Thank you!

  5. Good post, Debbie. Tucked it away in my TKZ file.

    I just can’t help it…I love The Godfather franchise. I know, full of dastardly characters, murder, and mayhem. But I will view it again just to watch Michael make that mirror moment decision to avenge the attack on the Don, then live to regret it in his old age. The last scene, where he relives his past victories, then his utter failures (murdering Fredo) rips my heart out every time. Then he dies, right there in his chair in Sicily. It always makes me wonder how I will meet my end: no regrets, a few, or drowning in them.

    I’ve never really thought about the sadness mixed with joy principle in my stories. I’m learning all the time. I’ll probably go back to my WIPs and mix it up a little with my characters…at the risk of making them mad, I suspect. They might be just a little too comfortable. 🙂

  6. Hi, Debbie

    Love this post. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with another “tool” to create that bitter sweet, poignant feeling in the reader or the viewer, but I haven’t been able to, not yet. Wound is one I use because it’s so effective and can result from so many things.

    One of my favorite movie endings is The Great Escape. The few survivors of the breakout have been brought back to the Luftwaffe prison. James Garner’s Hendley asked Group Captain Ramsey if it had been worth it. Ramsey replies, “it depends upon your point of view.” Terribly bittersweet.

    But, then, Steve McQueen’s Hilts is brought back to camp. He meets the departing camp commandant, Von Luger, and comments, “job doesn’t didn’t work out?” Hilts is marched to the cooler. One of his friends tosses him his baseball and glove, the guards put him in his cell, lock the door. A moment later, we hear the sound of him bouncing his baseball off the cell wall.

    He and the few survivors persisted, despite everything, and continue to persist. Perhaps persistence against all odds is another way to create poignancy. I’m not sure, but I do know that ending playing out between multiple characters: “Depends upon your point of view,” “job just didn’t work out” (delivered in a jaunty tone), and finally, the baseball bouncing as Hilts perseveres and no doubt plots his next escape attempt.

    • Dale, don’t tell anyone but the reason I asked commenters for their favorite tools is b/c I couldn’t think of any more myself!

      The Great Escape is a classic. Persistence against all odds. When Hilts is bouncing that ball, we’re heartened b/c we know that nothing beats him and he’ll be back.

      • Poignancy seasons happy endings as hope seasons sad endings. Hate to admit I haven’t seen The Great Escape–I don’t watch many movies. But it sounds like the ending says they lost the battle but the war isn’t over. Hope seasoning sad ending.

  7. OLD YELLER and BAMBI, the biggest fictional traumas of my childhood. Thanks, Walt. Years ago, I was in a big box store looking for something near the entertainment section. The tape of BAMBI was playing on their TV. As I walked to the cashier, Bambi’s mom died, and the adult cashier and I began to weep just by hearing it. The trauma never went away. Thanks, Walt.

    Victorian poet and scholar Walter Pater wrote about the difference between the beautiful and the sublime. The sublime is something that is beautiful but with death or darkness attached. Spring is beautiful because it is a beginning. Fall is sublime because it begins the end. That’s also a dang good way to explain the emotional difference between a HEA and an ending where the characters move toward the good but haven’t achieved it, yet.

    The biggest warning I can give, however, is that, if you are writing a romance, it dang well better end with a HEA. CASABLANCA may have had a romance, but it wasn’t a romance.

    Oh, and if I can find the time, I’ll come back and tell a horrifyingly funny story about Pater, Victorian a**hole.

    • Bambi, of course! So many of Walt’s movies specialized in poignancy.

      HEAs rule in romance. And fans devour them like M&Ms.

      Thanks for the Pater contribution about sublime and beautiful, spring and fall. Proves that even a**holes can have insight.

  8. The repair guy is delayed so here’s an infamous Walter Pater story. He was notorious for his foul temper. One day, his butler displeased him, and he threw the poor man out of his second story window. With a gasp of horror, he looked down and said, “Oh, my God, the pansies!”

    • Marilynn, that is so terrible. There must be a term for laughter combined with a simultaneous kick in the gut. Reminds me of that scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation about the dog tied to the trailer hitch. Horrifying yet laughable at the same time.

  9. Great post, Debbie! I’ve bookmarked this one for future reference.

    I tend to want everybody to be happy and to tie everything up with a big, pink ribbon at the end of the story. But I love the idea that mixing tears with joy results in a much stronger emotion. I’m going to keep this in mind.

    As far as an example, I remember watching the movie version of “Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day-Lewis and feeling that sense of loss at the last scene. Very similar to the ending of “Dances With Wolves.”

    • And let’s add Braveheart to the list. Talk about bittersweet endings, the extreme price William Wallace paid for his country’s freedom…at least in the book and movie version. I’ve heard that the real William Wallace was a bit more edgy than Hollywood made him.

  10. Another “tool” might be foreshadowing future struggles. Dick and Jane walk into the sunset hand in hand but Tom and Sally, whom we know from the story, are having a bitter fight in the background. Or is this too heavy to be poignancy?

    • I was just thinking this – I’m using this in a story / romance for my writers group anthology. The couple puts themselves into a situation that may be risky – a possible future danger/ death coupled with “losing” their family. But doing so lets them be true to themselves right up to the end.

  11. CHARLOTTE’S WEB traumatized me at several levels. First, there was the bittersweet-ness of the ending itself, and then there was the fact that I read it in 6th grade. In class. At a time when boys didn’t cry. And I sobbed. I’m not sure a book has ever affected me like that since.

    Now, for movies and TV shows . . .

    “Brian’s Song,” the tale of Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. The scene where Sayers is breaking the news to the teammates is a gut-wrencher. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry, which did nothing to tamp down my own emotions. It also is a lesson for us writers: The real drama is not in breaking down; it’s in working not to.

    “Lassie Come Home.” Oh, Lord, I was a mess.

    “Saving Private Ryan.” As an overall film, I give it a B+ (after an A++ for the first 25 minutes). But the ending–where the aged Ryan says, “Tell me I’ve been a good man,” tore me apart. I had to sit through the whole credit roll to get myself together enough to leave. (Yeah, some of that boys-don’t-cry shame lives on in me.)

    And, back in the day, when my Big Boy Job kept me on the road a LOT, Harry Chapin’s song “Cats in the Cradle” was very hard to listen to.

    • Oh, you had to bring up school, John, which brought up the memory of senior English in high school, where Mr. Holtby read us the last chapter of “The House at Pooh Corner.” Still makes me cry.

  12. I remember my teacher reading Charlotte’s Web to us in class (in third grade, I think). Not a dry eye in the house.

    In the YA adventure/romance novel I just finished, I inject poignancy in a variety of ways. One of my favorites is barely mentioning tragic events in different characters’ pasts. But trope-busting has its merits, too. Just before the happy ending of the novel, after surviving several attempts to murder them, the Young Lady asks her cheerful and optimistic Young Man, “Will we live happily ever after?” and he replied that he could promise the “happily” part, but as for the rest, “until death do us part” was the best he could do. She shrugs this off completely before we reach The End, but I hope the reader doesn’t.

  13. Thanks Debbie. To this day I can’t watch Old Yeller. Or Bambi. Or The Lion King. WTH was it/ is it with Disney? Anyway, I’m bookmarking this one.

    • Thanks, Bob.

      Checked with Mr. Google where there are a number of different versions of Mickey’s quote. Some say “sentence,” others say “page,”
      still others say “chapter,” but most sources say “line.”

      The message is still rock-solid no matter which version you choose.

  14. Debbie, what a great post! So many of the books I read aren’t memorable, because HEA endings are like quickies. Sure, there’s an immediate thrill, but the afterglow soon fades. A character who experiences growth through pain and loss gives a story more “staying power.” To a writer, characters are like children, and we often want to give our children everything they want in the end. Sadly, this doesn’t make a good story.

    Consider the book Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. In this book, the reader is rooting for the protagonist, Louisa Clark, to find love with a wealthy quadriplegic (Will Traynor) who wants to go to an assisted suicide clinic to end his pain and suffering. Readers want Louisa to persuade Will not to end his life. They cheer for her valiant attempts to prove to him that life is worth living. I won’t reveal the ending to the story, except to say that it is unexpected. Some argue the message of the film is that disability is tragedy and that disabled people are better off dead. No matter what your views are on assisted suicide, the book is unforgettable. Whether you love or hate the ending, you’ll never forget the book.

    As writers, it’s our job to make readers feel something. We don’t read books because we want to think. We read books because we want to feel. True love is often about some selfless act or sacrifice. These are the stories that we remember. In my youth, I went through romance novels like chocolate bars. Sadly, today I don’t remember the plots to most of them. Nor do I remember the names of the characters. However, a story like Me Before You is one that will stick with me for a lifetime. Sugar-coated endings are for sissies.

    Have a great day, and think of lots of ways to torture your characters!

    • Thanks, Joanne.

      “…characters are like children, and we often want to give our children everything they want in the end.” So true.

      I’ve heard a lot about Me Before You and, from your description, it sounds like a great, memorable book. Adding it to my towering TBR pile.

  15. Gran Torino, with Clint Eastwood. One of the best film endings I’ve seen in years.

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