Recently I was asked why people want to read sad stories. Hell, I don’t know, maybe we’re all gluttons for punishment. Maybe because life is, ultimately, a sad story and we’re getting used to the idea that whether all ends well or not it will, one way or another, end, which is kind of depressing. You know, the human condition and all that. Then, oddly, about two days later in a completely different forum, I was asked the exact opposite. “Why do people need the romantic happy ending?” Well, isn’t it nice to be optimistic once in a while? Don’t we all enjoy a good case of the warm fuzzies?
But it’s not that simple. Clearly, it’s not that simple. So what’s up? Why do we gravitate toward the depressing and miserable or the absurdly giddy?
Now, I certainly don’t have time to address all this in a blog post, but a couple of things strike me. First, you can’t write a story about not feeling anything. That’s not a story. Something must happen in order for a story to exist and that something, whatever it is, must inspire some kind of emotional reaction (joy, sadness, relief, fear, etc.) in the reader to make the experience interesting and rewarding.
Then, I suppose you can distill that further (and oversimplify it) to say that endings tend to be either happy or sad, or sometimes bittersweet as a combination of the two. (Okay, this is getting complicated and if I don’t find a point somewhere in here Phineas and Ferb is going to take over my daughter’s brain. Now that’s a sad story.)
Okay, so sad stories. Sad stories pick up the kryptonite that keeps us down and examine it, letting us take a good, hard look at who we really are. We need this. Anyone who has ever had a bad day knows how much more miserable you become when forced to try to function in “normal” society where people chit chat about how much they’re looking forward to making a turkey meatloaf for dinner. We need to indulge ourselves in the complexities of life. We constantly seek ways of finding a greater understanding of the cosmic otherness of it all, and it’s not necessarily pretty. (It’s definitely not turkey meatloaf.)
Case in point: We’ve just wrapped the Olympics. What do you remember of it? What stories leap out? Uh huh. The skater whose mother died. Even NPR questioned whether the public and the media had lapsed into voyeurism on that one.
The sad part is the easy one to understand. Sadness gives depth and contrast to life and literature. Empathy is what allows human civilization. What’s difficult is the happy.
So let’s tackle the sappy romances. Why oh why do we need to see the wedding at the end at all? Why are we compelled to turn a happy circumstance into a drippy lovefest?
Well, here’s my theory: we do it initially because it feels good. However, we need the extra step into overkill, because it allows us to deny it. It gives us the ability to say, “It’s just a (movie, book, story, etc.) not real life.” On some level, I think we all get it that the overblown romances (especially the “chick flicks”) are essentially satire. The most extreme case I can think of? Well, look at “The Bachelor.” Now, I can’t watch that stuff much, but I will admit to having been sucked into it once and I think everyone can agree that nobody, absolutely nobody, watches that show because it’s romantic. Hypothetically, it has a “happy” ending. Nevertheless, it’s a (not even thinly veiled) train wreck. It’s the saddest story out there. But it fires people up and makes them feel something, whatever that something is.
Which is the point, right?
(As a final note, if you can still stand it, check out “The Upside of Depression.” Very interesting read.)
Okay, time to go cut off Phineas and Ferb.