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.