Story Endings

drawing of "the end"
Listen to “Story Endings”

What is this drive we seem to have, this built-in, seemingly innate desire to end stories on an up-note? The proverbial “happy ending.” Neat. Tidy. And, most importantly, positive and hopeful.

The internet abounds with theories about why we yearn for “happy endings.” I’ll pile on (though, I’m sure I’m not the first to think this).

In short, I think it has to do with not knowing what the future brings. Here we are, stuck in the drama of the present where we face daily struggles and anything can happen at any time. Since the future is unpredictable, who wants to believe that the difficulties we regularly find ourselves in won’t end positively? That’s a dismaying and depressing thought. “Happy endings” in stories, then, offer a way for us to believe that our own story will end positively. In other words, if it worked out for the characters in a story, then things may work out for me.

So, given the prevalence and what I perceive as an innate need for optimistic, affirming story endings, I was surprised when I heard a recent story about the drug crisis by Rachel Martin that ended not on an uptick but, rather, on a bleak note. In fact, the narrative arc of the story feels like Rachel took us down into a basement and then turned the light off.

Rachel is a host for NPR’s Morning Edition. And, she says she often hunts for hopeful endings while reporting. “We can only live in the dark for so long,” she told me.

But, she says she found little hope reporting on the impact of addiction on students and schools in Ohio. To put a bow on the end of the story would have been contrived and untrue.

Rachel talks about the dark ending of this story and she offers a few other thoughts on story endings for this episode of HowSound.


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  • Phill Brown



    Dear Rob and colleagues,

    I’m wondering whether on a forthcoming episode of How Sound you could discuss on-air the editorial decision to include the disturbingly vivid account of child sexual assault on the recent “Story Endings” episode of How Sound.

    As a Radio Journalism Lecturer in the UK with vast experience working for the BBC and the commercial sector, I feel it was entirely inappropriate to include this extract from the original report by Rachel Martin.

    Your podcast was focussing on how to end an audio story. In my judgement you could have summarised the darkness of her story without playing this extract. It was horrible and we did not need to hear it in order to illustrate how to end a story.

    To turn this observation into a constructive one, i’m wondering if you could share with the How Sound listeners the jist of the conversation which led you to deciding to include this clip.

    Thank you.

  • Rob Rosenthal



    Hi Phil,

    Thanks for listening and for your note. I’m sorry the inclusion of that portion of Rachel’s story was upsetting to you.

    I think you’re right. I could have excluded that part of the story and probably been able to make the same point.

    I don’t know why NPR included it in the story. I didn’t ask. Though, I’m going to guess they included it for the same reason I included it: the situation at that school is devastating. A first-hand account of the destruction wrought by this country’s drug crisis is more powerful than my summary. Indeed, throughout, I left in the more impactful moments of the story and summarized the less impactful moments. Doing so, I believed, would be the best way to set up the final moment of the story — when Rachel “turns out the light,” as I wrote — and the children in the school go home for the summer unsupported and protected by the school. Even now, as I write this, I’m shaking my head at that scenario.

    There is a warning in the piece right before that section. I left that in. But, prompted by your note, I went back to the original story and listened to the host intro. The host says the following: “A word of warning. Some details in this story are disturbing.” I probably should have followed suit in my HowSound episode.

    Thanks again for taking the time to write. Much obliged.


  • J



    Classy response, Rob. Always a fan, even when I disagree (I haven’t listened to this episode yet, though!).

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