Why do we care about stories?

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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.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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24 Comments

  1. Was your neighbor reading Breaking Dawn? LOL
    You know you have to tell us the book, right?

    • Haha. No, it was a Ted Dekker book, Boneman’s Daughters. The hero is a father chasing after the serial killer who abducted his daughter. Throughout the book, he struggles over whether or not he could/should kill the serial killer if he meets him. When he finally finds his daughter in a cabin in the woods, they tie up the killer and set the cabin on fire with him inside. Not only did this go against the moral point Dekker had been setting up from the beginning, it was stupid: the police already suspected the father of being the killer. Now he’s gone and destroyed all evidence that would prove otherwise.
      I don’t know why she keeps reading Dekker. She seems to hate everything he writes.

  2. Awesome post! I’ve been considering if my book should have a ‘right’ end. I’m not sure.

  3. I’m a book flinger myself but admit to tossing a few in the garbage. Sometimes a book is so bad that I don’t want the responsibility of passing it on, if that makes sense. A friend of mine once destroyed a copy of “Perfect Victim” about the girl imprisoned by a couple as a slave for seven years, though that was not fiction.

    You’re so right, we really care about the stories. I don’t like sad endings but it’s better than stupid ones. I want the killer caught, but I don’t want the loner hero to get happily married. That would be stupid.

    • Yes, if he’s a loner, he probably shouldn’t get married – because that’s one of the guidelines the author has built into the story. It’s a classic case of the author disregarding who the character has become.

  4. PS–for some unknown reason your posts are coming through on my e-mail subscription as “No Title” instead of BeKindRewrite. This just happened recently. I just resubscribed, but it still isn’t showing the name. Just wanted to know if this has happened to anyone else.

    • I think I figured out why. I had removed “bekindrewrite” from the blog title in my settings, because I wanted to replace it with yonder header graphic. I didn’t realize there were negative ramifications! I fixed it now.

  5. First,Deb is not the only one with no title. This post actually came through as if it were from WordPress Daily Post! Must be something screwy on WP end?

    Second, I have flung a few books in my day. Tearing out pages does seem sacrilegious but tossing out a window to land on a wet lawn doesn’t! I had a professor once who said there is no such thing as a ‘wrong’ ending claiming that the emotional outburst invested by the reader was the proof. When I’m flinging the book and grunting in annoyance I completely disagree. There are not only ‘wrong’ endings but completely stupid, story wrecking endings that are so wrong that you become annoyed that you invested that much time in the book. Perhaps that is the type of ending your neighbor experienced.

    Thanks for the post, it gives me something to keep in mind when working on those endings for stories.

    • It was something I did accidentally. I fixed it now. : )

      Some professors are idiots, to put it bluntly. That’s just the kind of relativistic, “anything can be art” attitude that has taken over so much of our society. Just because it’s hanging in an art museum, doesn’t mean a canvas with a single black stripe across it is “art.” The same applies to books.

  6. This is so true! I haven’t ripped one up before(it probably wasn’t mine to tear anyway) but I’ve definitely felt bitter about the ends before.

    One book in particular gave me a non-ending. I promptly ran to the computer to see if there was a sequel-no such luck. I’m still mad about that one!

  7. This post is making me aware of things I never have thought about.
    You wrote …”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.”….
    I am going to have to watch myself because I tend to write ‘dark’ and didn’t stop to think about letting my own prejudices get in the way…hmmm, hmmm.

    But at the same time…life does not always have a happy ending. It can be cruel and unjust. I guess that doesn’t mean the reader doesn’t necessarily want an ending to reflect that.

    I need to keep this post to help me at least think about endings. Thank you!

    • I’m not saying it should be all sunshine and roses. A bittersweet ending can be powerful, too. But I think there should at least be some kind of victory for the protagonist. Whether he defeats an actual villain, or simply overcomes himself. Otherwise, what is the point? As writers, we have more than the power to reflect reality, but the power to improve it.

      Thanks for reading!

  8. This is awesome. How can I subscribe to you?

  9. I never thought of it that way, well put!

  10. Right on!

  11. I agree 100%

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