“Endings that Hover”: On Stories and Resolutions

I really, really enjoyed reading Nelly Reifler’s essay “Endings That Hover.” It’s about our (human) need to tell stories, create narratives, and come to terms with endings in short stories/books/movies.

The need to tell stories, to create narratives, grows from the weird essence of the human condition: we are conscious, and inextricable from consciousness is the awareness that we are going to die. This knowledge makes simply living kind of a crazy act. Plus, life is chaotic, and most of what happens during our short time alive just happens to us. Most of what happens occurs by chance or through the will of some outside entity; occasionally we are able to exert power, but usually with compromise and adjustment. So we narrate our lives as we live them, making sense of the chaos by organizing our experiences. Forming our lives into plot, we can pick out certain patterns and see some cause and effect. We learn to navigate the chaos, sometimes, little by little. We believe we are moving forward.

On our need for resolutions:

Within every story with a moral was a story with resolution. The role of literature has changed over the centuries, and it no longer carries the burden of reinforcing our social structure and codes of behavior. But even now — after modernism, after postmodernism — we’re still looking to narratives to provide us with a sense of resolution.

Like the author, I appreciate stories with ambiguous endings, where we’re forced to rattle our brain to come up with interpretations:

I’ve noticed that stories that appear to have resolutions don’t give me the satisfaction I want them to, and I imagine that’s true for some of you as well. Even if we crave resolution, it only satisfies us briefly. I’d say that the popularity of sequels and serials speaks to the fact that as humans we know that nothing resolves.

We writers have the urge to wrap up our stories, to provide our characters, ourselves and our readers with a sense of completion. For a while I had trouble ending my stories because I thought that I needed to somehow contain or recap everything that had unfolded in the preceding pages; I thought an ending had to be the end. It was befuddling for me. I hoped that in my fiction I was talking about the awkward, ineffable, eerie, and unresolvable aspects of life, and coming to a conclusion felt contradictory to what I understood as fiction’s purpose. It felt like lying.

This is wonderful:

To my mind, a story’s ending ought to acknowledge the ever-moving quality of life; that is, I want it to engage change rather than finality. Your final word and the void following it on the page are as close as you’ll get to conclusion. The best endings to stories have a sense of hovering in space and time; even a dark ending can be uplifting, exhilarating, as long as it seems to hover in space and time — because then it reflects life to us as it is: unresolved, eternally unresolvable.

Worth reading in entirety. I also endorse Nelly Reifler’s claim that Chekhov’s story “The Lady with the Dog” will take your breath away. It’s one of my all-time favourite short stories.


(Thanks to Jodi Ettenberg for the recommendation)