Storybook endings

I recently saw a movie about two people chasing their dreams. The main theme of the movie was pragmatism vs idealism, and the main conflict in their relationship was when the two people drifted apart from each other on that scale. (Yes, the movie in question was La La Land, but this isn’t about that particular movie.)

The thing about this kind of story is that the interpretation depends a lot on the ending. Do the people in fact achieve their dreams? Or does it turn out that their dreams were unrealistic, and that they were better off pursuing more realistic goals? In effect, the ending of the story is an expressed opinion about whether it is better to be pragmatic or idealistic.

As critical viewers, we might disagree with the story’s opinion. For example, if the ending were too idealistic, we might consider it implausible, because we believe most people with such pipe dreams are never able to achieve them. Or if the ending were too pragmatic, we might criticize it as too dark or cynical. Generally, we wouldn’t accuse an unhappy ending of being implausible. We take for granted some optimism in our story endings, and a cynical ending tends to defy our expectations long before it defies belief.

Writers want to use the same story to please all sorts, from the pragmatists to the idealists. They may even want to please the sort of sophisticated people who realize that neither pragmatism nor idealism is fully correct. So the usual way to end such a story is with some sort of compromise. For instance, one character achieves their dream, and the other character does not. Or the characters achieve some of their dreams, but fail to achieve others. Alternatively, the story abruptly ends before we find out.

Among these three possible endings, I think the one with most narrative value is the one where characters achieve some of their goals and not others. However, the ending that is truest to life is arguably the one where one character achieves their goals, and the other has to settle for less. Life’s unfair like that. If ten people audition to be the star of a film, only one of them gets the idealistic ending.

But it probably wouldn’t make for a better story, because unfairness is simply too real. If the story shows the protagonist successfully auditioning to be a film star, best not to even show anyone else who auditioned. Best not to remind viewers that life is unfair. Even in romances, it’s common to meticulously pair up all the minor characters at the end, lest anyone be reminded that romance, too, is unfair.

In case you didn’t think the “unfair” ending was bad enough, we could imagine a story that goes even further. Rather than showing a small number of characters whose outcomes “represent” real life outcomes, each character could have outcomes that are determined by rolling dice, with odds estimated from best available research. So if you had two characters, it might turn out that both of them are lucky, or both are unlucky. I think the former outcome would be interpreted as a statement of idealism, and the latter outcome a statement of realism, even if the author intended neither statement. Or if the characters had different outcomes, it would be interpreted as a statement of the unfairness of life. And, well, that’s strange to me. The story might appear to have coherence, but entirely lacks it.

But the funny thing is, that’s essentially what our lives are like. Our lives may sometimes appear to have coherence, but really there’s no clear moral lesson at all.

If you want your life to have a message, I believe the standard method to achieve that is to tell a story.


  1. secondtofirstworld says

    As a writer, I gained the experience that unfairness or fairness come from 3 perceived external sources: non-human actions beyond our control, followups to the actions we took directed by other people, and our own actions influencing our decisions.

    Now, there’s a reason why I find the Japanese tradition of cherry blossom viewing as both romantic and reassuring. They have 400 different types of trees, depending on climate they bloom in different times, and none of them produces fruit. In a country that is smack dab on the Pacific Rim, many external factors influence their lives, essentially putting out the light in an instant. If there ever was a country where Carpe Diem should be the national motto, it’s Japan. The blossom tradition is both a symbol of fleeting beauty and looming mortality at every corner. It would be depressing, but it actually isn’t if you only focus on the flowers.

    How fair or unfair it is, depends on our maturity and ego, and life is no different. Master Pangloss said, this world is the best out of all, but today’s existentialist characters (and by extension readers, watchers and listeners) don’t accept such a lack of challenge. The question is, can you, or are you willing to sacrifice in order for someone else to write your book, or not, or even wait for a chance that changes everything.

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