The End of the Story

Thank goodness for the lovely Brain Pickings essays by Maria Popova. In an essay titled “Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers” Sontag is quoted as saying:

Endings in a novel confer a kind of liberty that life stubbornly denies us: to come to a full stop that is not death and discover exactly where we are in relation to the events leading to a conclusion.


There is an essential … distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have, as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.

Like many, I have been sequentially enjoying the storylines of several TV series recently. But according to Sontag’s definitions, these are not stories at all because they are designed NOT to come to a conclusion. And yet, the elaborate worlds, the plots, the suspense, hardly fall into a common understanding of the word “information” either.

The rhythm of the current series – and that includes book series that have a financial disincentive to conclusion as well – is to weave a continuous rope of several storylines so that as one storyline resolves, another propels you into the next episode, the next volume. To take advantage of the attention economy, some marketers even propose a similar serialized strategy for email marketing.

It’s hard not to admire the mastery of such, in the absence of a better word, storytellers. Compelling characters. The intricate dance of the story – weaving different plots and sub-plots together into a graceful and coherent whole, both believable within the framework of the world and also different than anything that has already been addressed in the narrative that just keeps going, and going.

And that continuous going – maybe that’s what stops us from asking the question – have we lost something essential when we lose the endings of stories?