I walked in the door to find my neighbor tearing pages out of a paperback and throwing them on the floor.
Naturally, I was curious.
She was angry about the ending, about the decision the hero had made, which went against the moral framework that the author had been building throughout the story. Although I don’t think I could ever tear pages out of a book (it seems almost sacrilegious), I could relate with her rage.
And it got me thinking recently – why do fictional works draw such powerful emotions from us? Sad endings make us weep, happy endings make us walk around with grins on our faces, and wrong endings make us furious.
So why do we care so much about stories that never really happened, and people who never actually existed? Do we forget for a moment that they’re not real, or is it something else, something deeper?
I think it is. We are born with an innate sense of justice, both moral and poetic. Even small children know when a story ends the wrong way. The hero is supposed to defeat the villain and live happily ever after. (Those who prefer unhappy endings usually do so only because tragedy seems more realistic, not because they think tragedy is right.)
There’s a saying that “all stories are true – and some of them actually happened.” I believe this, but I would add a disclaimer: not all storytellers get it right. All stories are true because they are a reflection of an ultimate truth – the same truth we are born knowing. Right and Wrong. The anger readers have toward writers who get it Wrong is the same anger we humans have toward God when bad things happen to good people: If you’re in control, why can’t you get it right?
There are a couple of funny things about this. First, the author (often without even realizing it) determines the Right way to end a story in the way he writes the beginning and middle. He sets up the context that makes one decision Right and another Wrong. The difference between good stories and bad ones lies in whether or not the author follows those Right guidelines within the context he has created. Sometimes he doesn’t – he lets his own prejudices get in the way, while his readers, who have an outside perspective, recoil from the flaw as if it hurt them personally.
Second, the ending determines it all. The best stories have the worst injustices in the beginning and middle. But when, in the end, all is made Right – villains get their comeuppance or make amends, heroes overcome all obstacles and so on – it’s all worth it. Because we need to see how something as dark, or darker than, our own lives can turn out good in the end. It gives us hope for reality.
As to reality, well. It wouldn’t be fair to judge the author before we knew the ending.