A Defense of Unsatisfying Stories

What makes a story “satisfying?”

To answer that, it might help to think about the kind of stories that *are* satisfying. Consider the Western where the cowboys win against the corrupt marshal and cattle barons, the ne’er do well gives up his ne’er do well ways, the old cowpoke finds peace and quiet, and the hero gets the girl.

*That* is a satisfying story, and it still makes for a good Western after all these years. Like all satisfying stories, it gives the audience a cathartic ending:

Catharsis, n. – the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.

An ending without catharsis would feel unsatisfying, or even just weird.

Imagine if the cowboys ride off into the sunset before dealing with the corrupt cattle barons, the old cowpoke continues herding cows, and the ne’er-do-well falls back into a life of drinking. Unsatisfying right?

Increasingly this sort of story decision is becoming the norm (look at shows like Game of Thrones). And while sometimes – especially with writers in the “avant-garde” spirit – withholding catharsis is just a meaningless cry for attention, at other times it may be artistically justifiable.

The justification is this: when a movie leaves us without full catharsis, it creates in us the duty and desire to create our own catharsis.

If a character has not dealt with his dishonesty, violence, or greed, *we* have to sit with that tension – and, therefore, with our own dishonesty, violence, or greed. We leave the movie theatre and find ourselves responsible for taking the actions the protagonist should have. We don’t get the easy satisfaction of having a fictional character fix a fictional problem for us.

So maybe in creating somewhat unsatisfying (if otherwise beautiful and true) stories, we can make the message of our work impact viewers far more. Maybe we should make our audiences work sometimes for their catharsis.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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