Riding into the Sunset. Or Not.

There’s something about the ending to a story.

I remember an undergrad journalism course in which the professor advised us to not irritate our readers. If we do, they tend to not come back. While that is well-intentioned and effective advice for a factual article written in the inverted pyramid, it becomes problematic in fiction. Problematic, but no less true. I’ve read similar advice to writers about the endings of scripts and stories. How the loose ends tie together is key, they say. Upset your audience with the ending, and they tell their friends to not bother seeing or reading your work. Should there be a sequel, they won’t be interested. The ending is critical, and, if Hollywood and much genre fiction are to be believed, must be done in relatively routine ways that border on formulaic (in the case of Hollywood, remove the “border on” from that sentence).

My issue with this is that, if the story is to be true to life, there will be messy and unresolved issues at the end. Because that’s the way life ends. Messy. With unresolved complications.

This is culture informing art, I think, because Western culture just doesn’t grieve well. We don’t accept that death is a part of life, and so we run from it, minimize it, and pretend it doesn’t exist. I can almost see producers around a table in a smoke-filled room saying things like, “Happiness is key, and we all must live happily ever after. Except we don’t. But let’s not tell them about that.”

I recently read this flash fiction piece and thought it appropriate here, because it portrays (rather poignantly, I think) what happens when we don’t permit ourselves to grieve. I’ve talked before about how obscene I’ve witnessed the death process to be in our culture…an emotional barbarity I’ve experienced firsthand. I think that the reason grief is such an alien process to us is because we’ve been taught to avoid it.

Karen commented recently that those mourning a loss are surrounded by well-wishers and supporters initially, for several days or a month or so. Then the supporters phase out and go on with their lives, and the grieving are left in an emotional abyss. That is when they truly need support…I think that is when real friends are proven. There are other causes of grieving, though, than just the loss of a loved one. The loss of a career, the ramifications of poor choices, the ending of a relationship; all leave us entrenched in the grief process. Psychologists will say that this process takes longer for some than others, and that is certainly true. What is clear, though, is that there is no cultural custom built in to assist us in walking through grief, such as other cultures (I think specifically of ancient Israel) have in place. As much as tradition finds itself wanting for me, I can see its value on occasion, and this would be one of those occasions.

The all-too-neat endings of our stories speak to the desire we have for life to end the same way. We like things to resolve the way a chord resolves in music. Yet, true life is closer to the unresolved chords of some jazz musicians, the ugly endings of some indie films, the “artsy abstractness” of literary fiction. I think that there must be a negative before there is a positive in mortal life, that we cannot truly appreciate the positive unless we’ve experienced the negative…the tragedy before the comedy, as Buechner phrased it (and, following his phraseology, I certainly don’t mean to imply that I don’t believe in the fairy tale). Yet, our culture’s stories grasp at an eternal desire for the positive without living nearly long enough in the negative, or else exist solely in the negative and eschew the positive in an attempt to glamorize the negative. This tendency makes for a very unbalanced story.

And that is a symptom of a very unbalanced culture.

Photo Attribution: bensisto 


  1. I have heard that often there are two endings filmed for movies marketed in the US and Europe. Europeans are much more accepting of sad endings. Americans want happy ones.
    I myself hate most sad movies, Pan’s Labyrinth being the only exception I can recall, but then that depends on how you interpret it. The ending to Romeo and Juliet actually makes me angry due to their stupidity and poor communication skills.

  2. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were two endings filmed. Perhaps I should order my next DVD from the Amazon UK store and see what’s in the special features?

    At least you think critically of Romeo and Juliet’s plight, however. Were it a happy Hollywood ending, you likely wouldn’t.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.