Shoot the Shaggy Dog
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
—Macbeth, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5, William Shakespeare
Once upon a time, a man decided to climb a mountain. He took a nasty fall, badly bruising himself, and landed in the woods next to a very shaggy dog. Despite his injuries, he limped back to his house, where he left the dog, then to the nearest hospital, where he got some x-rays. When he got home, the dog looked hungry, so he made a steak just for the dog, and turned on the television. He was just about to call the pound when he heard that a wealthy couple, on vacation in the vicinity, had lost a very shaggy dog, and were offering a very large sum for his return. He bought a plane ticket, but fell short on funds. Being a thrifty man, never wanting to live in debt, he sold a chair from his house to pay for the ticket. When he got on the plane, he found that he couldn't take the dog without preparations; the airline, however, was willing to transfer his ticket for a nominal fee. He was forced to pay this fee, and the veterinarian's bills, with a credit card, which irked him even though he knew the reward would offset it. Then he flew to the city in question, but since he was only twenty-four, had to walk ten miles through the woods, going in the general direction of the manor. When he arrived, he found he had missed the front gate entirely. He walked directly up to the door with the dog and rang the bell... when he and the dog were shot dead by a guard.
Did you feel like that story was pointless? It was. Sometimes an author will go one step beyond a Shaggy Dog Story, and Shoot The Shaggy Dog. They won't just Kill'Em All; they'll make the characters' accomplishments a moot point and their deaths completely senseless. They won't just have the protagonist die an agonizing death; they'll trap him in a grim cycle of reincarnation, and make him a failure in every incarnation. Sometimes they won't even Kill'Em All; the protagonists won't even get to bring the Villains down with them. All in all, the only thing that's changed in the last 400 pages is that a few ineffectual people have died...some of whom were the protagonists.
Occasionally part of An Aesop, to show just how crappy the world becomes when you violate the lesson; frequently used to try and show a 'gritty', cynical world. Sometimes, it's an attempt at tragedy that makes the mistake of nullifying itself by making it impossible to care. Depending on the particulars, it can overlap with Diabolus Ex Machina, and is a frequent cause of Angst Aversion. In short, this is a story where at its conclusion you have to ask "What the hell was the point?"
NOTE: An ending in which the heroes die or are implied to die does not, on its own, a Shoot the Shaggy Dog make. This trope should refer to stories where the protagonists are ineffectual, accomplish nothing, fail to bring villains to justice, and they die.
The ultimate Downer Ending. See also Crapsack World. Compare Reset Button Ending, which may lead to or be the cause of one of these. If the writer's a cynical bastard it might be a Black Comedy. Tends to result in a form of Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy if the writer isn't really good at it. Not to be confused with Shoot the Dog, which is a regrettable act that may or may not involve an actual dog.
Has nothing to do with Shooting Shaggy's Dog (or for that matter, his other dog). See also Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies for a roleplaying equivalent.
As a Death Trope, Spoilers ahead may be unmarked. Beware.
As an Ending Trope, Spoilers ahead may be unmarked. Beware.
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Oh, and the lost dog? It wasn't that shaggy.