“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)


On Selling and Storytelling

What is the one of the most important elements in selling a particular commodity? Sure, usefulness/practicality matters. But what’s even more important is the story behind the product. The emotional connection that people make to stories cannot be discounted. Ty Montague reminds us of this narrative in The Harvard Business Review:

Back in the summer of 2006, New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker was mulling the question of what makes one object more valuable than another. What makes one pair of shoes more valuable than another pair if they both deliver on the functional basics of comfort, durability, and protection? Why does one piece of art cost $8,000,000 and another, $100? What makes one toasterworth $20 and another worth nearly $400 if they both make toast? As Walker turned these questions over in his mind he concluded that it is not the objects themselves, but the context, the provenance of the objects, that generates value. In other words, the value isn’t contained in the objects themselves, but in the story or the meaning that the objects represent to the owner.

Walker decided to test this conclusion in a simple and direct way. With the help of a friend, he began buying random, worthless, or low-value objects at tag sales and thrift shops. The cost of the objects ranged from one to four dollars. An old wooden mallet. A lost hotel room key. A plastic banana. These were true castoffs with little or no intrinsic worth.

Next, Walker asked some unknown writers to each write a short story that contained one of the objects. The stories weren’t about the objects, per se; but they helped to place them in a human context, to give them new meaning.

When Walker put the objects, along with their accompanying stories, up for sale on eBay, the results were astonishing. On average, the value of the objects rose 2,700%. That’s not a typo: 2,700%. A miniature jar of mayonnaise he had purchased for less than a dollar sold for $51.00. A cracked ceramic horse head purchased for $1.29 sold for $46.00. The value of these formerly abandoned or forsaken objects suddenly and mysteriously skyrocketed when they were accompanied by a story.

You can see the results of that fascinating project here. It is time that we all learn to tell better stories.

The Danger of a Single Story

This is a wonderful post from The Squeaky Robot about the danger of single narratives:

Such is the danger of the single story. A single story, as eloquently illustrated by novelist Chimamanda Adichie, pigeonholes the world to the scope of one individual. It’s a narrative that compresses a diverse group into one single stereotype, one plot with no room for subplots or alternate story lines: Africans are poor, starving, and wholly isolated from everything “Western” (Adichie mentions how her American roommate was surprised to hear that there were Britney Spears fans in Nigeria), Middle Easterners are violent Muslims, and the Swiss are wealthy pacifists.  These are the stories we repetitively hear. As such, the way we perceive the world becomes inaccurate and oversimplified. This has serious real-world implications that present physical threats to our well being, like invasive TSA screenings,Russian skinheads targeting anyone who looks foreign, and unjust racial profiling in major cities. Just as venomous is the abstract, spiritual harm. Single stories hijack possibilities of realistic images and expectations: while traveling through China, a girl asked me why all American girls are rich, beautiful, tall, and skinny. Little girls in Nepal, Argentina, Romania, Peru, Mongolia, and Spain had similar questions, all the while expressing a collective desire to be white, blonde, and blue-eyed.

These stories also present an existential danger. We become sheltered by a self-fashioned bubble of cognitive dissonance and ignorance, one that saves us from a world that is complex and difficult to understand but also endlessly diverse, forever intriguing, and unimaginably colorful. Adichie warns about the dangers of the single story: “All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” As with any kind of story, incompleteness is unsavory. And yet we live, often obediently, by unfinished yet close-ended narratives.

A wise conclusion here:

Single stories are not real. Single stories do not allow gray areas in a world where black and white do not exist, either. Where does that leave us? It leaves us in a world where little girls wish they were American for no good reason. It leaves us in a world where kids have to think twice before they wear a hoodie down any urban street, and anyone wearing a turban is considered to be nursing explosives in their shoes.

I recommend reading the whole thing. I’ve now subscribed to the blog as well.

The Rules of Storytelling (According to Pixar)

On Twitter, Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats has compiled the following 22 items of wisdom she’s received working for the animation studio over the years:

1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

What do you think of this list?


(via i09)