I'm looking for a word that describes the ending our outcome of a story that is positive for the protagonist but not the most positive outcome that could have happened.

For example: The protagonist gets into university but his girlfriend doesn't. He's achieving part of his dreams but not with his dream partner.

  • Better than usual.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 19, 2015 at 0:51
  • black humour, black comedy, black satire, black tradegy
    – JMP
    Mar 19, 2015 at 7:12
  • For anybody coming by this thread I finally found the actual word I was thinking of (though remembered the definition incorrectly) was a Phyrric Victory
    – JonRB
    Aug 10, 2017 at 23:28

5 Answers 5


Not entirely a storybook ending.


(adjective) typical of romantic tales in storybooks: storybook ending

From International Stereotypers' and Electrotypers' Union Journal, Volume 14 (1919):

They have our best wishes and all of us hope for a real storybook ending - that they will marry and live happily ever after.

Not entirely can mean "in part" or "not fully".

  • While this isn't the single-word answer I was looking for, it's the most apt. Thanks!
    – JonRB
    Mar 22, 2015 at 1:45

It's a mystery why people keep asking for mathematical (and chemistry) terminology in ELU.

This is a question correlated to Game Theory.

You need to define "optimum".

  • Nash equilibrium: Parties in an open contention have reached a state of contention, whereby neither party would gain any further thro each changing their respective strategy. The most optimum situation attained where everyone has made their best efforts in contention. Open contention = parties are aware of each other's strategies and alternatives.

  • The optimum performance that a party would have attained if not for the blockade due to being in a Nash equilibrium. An individual's non-attaining their optimum, due to being locked in Nash Equilibrium from the freedom of further individual improvement.

  • Pareto optimum. For one party to reach optimum state, opposite contending parties must lose ground. Non-pareto optimum = failure for a party to reach its individual/selfish optimum, due to not having/willing to cause the loss of other contending parties.

  • Strategic Pareto optimum. A multidimensional objective, that reached optimum performance for one of its dimension by sacrificing the performance of another dimension. Non-attaining strategic Pareto optimum - failure or inability to make choices to achieve strategic Pareto optimum.

As less than precise example: The protagonist gets into university but his girlfriend doesn't. He's achieving part of his personal optimum but not with his dream partner. He has to make choices to sacrifice one dimension of his macro-objective to achieve optimum performance of another. To be with his girlfriend vs getting a place in university of his choice.

  • 1
    I wasn't aware that 'optimum' was a mathematical/chemical term. I suppose I meant 'best' or at least 'What the protagonist wanted'. I was reasonably certain that there is a word for it, even if it only describes works in which the best outcome was not attained but the story did not end on a negative note because of other positive objectives being completed. How should I update the question to reflect that?
    – JonRB
    Mar 19, 2015 at 5:37
  • 2
    @JonRB - I suggest replacing 'non-optimum' with 'less-than-optimal'.
    – Erik Kowal
    Mar 19, 2015 at 5:48

A Pyrrhic victory might be a bit too negative for what the OP asked, but certainly is in the same bailiwick. It refers to the ancient Greek King Pyrrhus who won a military victory against the Romans but lost so many of his troops that he was reported to have said that "one other such victory would utterly undo him".

Other adjectives that are associated with victory might be more appropriate depending on the details that are being described.

A moral victory is actually a defeat with the consolation of 'knowing' you fought for the 'right' side.

A hollow victory is some sort of victory where the rewards for the victory turn out not to be what was expected, in fact to be not worth the effort of achieving the victory.

Another, perhaps more desirable flavour is a bittersweet victory where some unforeseen negative consequence of victory slightly lessens the still largely positive outcome.

  • 2
    Having a cake you can't eat isn't a Pyrrhic victory. Crashing your car but saving the cake is a Pyrrhic victory.
    – Phil Sweet
    May 22, 2016 at 1:27
  • Thanks @Phil - I'm sorry to everyone - I had rushed out a poorly written answer that was bound to be misunderstood. I have fleshed it out a bit and removed the Cake reference. However crashing a car in order to save a cake seems a bit extreme perhaps that would be better described as a Cadmean victory.
    – flurbius
    May 23, 2016 at 19:37

Compromise noun:

  1. something intermediate between different things: "The split-level is a compromise between a ranch house and a multistoried house." See, Dictionary.com compromise


not as good as possible, not quite optimal

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