- by Susan Lyons
Recently, a reader wrote to tell me she really enjoyed one of my books, an anthology of three interconnected romances. But, she said, she wouldn’t mind endings that were less wedding-oriented. It’s interesting that she saw the book that way, because in fact none of the three couples even got engaged – though they all made serious commitments.
I sometimes get the opposite comment from romance readers – that they don’t feel truly satisfied unless the heroine and hero at least get engaged, and they’re really prefer to see a wedding.
It makes me think about the conventions in various genres. In romance, the HEA (happily ever after) is a necessity for died in the wool readers. They’re the people who refuse to classify Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, and most of Nicholas Sparks’s books as romance because the heroine and hero don’t end up together.
Many of us read romance when we want a story that’s uplifting and hopeful, one that will leave us smiling – and if there are tears in our eyes, they are the poignant ones of joy. If we invest our time and emotion reading 200 or 300 pages of two characters’ journeys, their struggle to overcome obstacles and win love, we feel really disappointed, frustrated, and often downright angry if they don’t end up together.
Labels are handy. They create expectations, and we really want our expectations to be fulfilled. If the spine of a novel says “romance,” I understand that most readers will be really ticked off if the heroine and hero don’t find a HEA in some form. But what form will satisfy them?
Well, of course that depends entirely on the reader. It’s a product of so many factors. For those who grew up reading the romances of the 1950s and 60s, marriage was pretty much the only true happy ending, and I imagine a lot of those readers still feel the same way. For others, in the uncertainty of the world today, I’m guessing they love to see the security of wedding vows at the end of a book. But for others – and I’m one of them – the wedding vows may not always seem realistic.
For me, it’s all about what rings true for the characters. If a book takes place in a short time frame, and if the heroine and hero didn’t previously know each other, I just don’t buy that they’ll be engaged at the end of that week. Or, if they are, it’s going to take a lot to convince me as a reader that they know each other well enough, and have done the necessary hard work, to ensure their love will last. Or that it’s even love, not just lust, hormones, pheromones, or whatever you want to call an initial passionate attraction that may very well fizzle before long.
For whatever reason (I guess it’s part of my writer’s “voice”), a lot of my stories take place in a week to two weeks. And of course my heroines and heroes have some personal issues to deal with, some growing to do. So, as they speak to me through my fingers on the keyboard, they don’t tell me they’re ready to leap into marriage by the end of the book. What they say – and what I believe – is that they’re coming to care deeply for their new love, deeply enough to make a major commitment and to begin talking about a possible future together.
Yes, for many of my heroines and heroes, that future will likely ultimately mean marriage. But not for all of them. For example, in my February Brava, His, Unexpectedly (written under my Susan Fox pen name), the heroine Jenna is a free spirit with non-traditional values. Hero Mark is definitely not a free spirit – he’s a committed marine biologist who works all over the world – but he’s just as averse to conventional values. I don’t see those two ever getting married or settling down behind a white picket fence. But I do see them leading rich, exciting, lives all over the globe, as equal, loving partners.
I believe that it’s all about being true to the characters. And of course the characters come out of our writers’ minds and hearts and souls, so while they’re not us, in some ways they almost always reflect our own beliefs and values. Personally, I believe that it’s up to each couple to create their own way of loving and being together, and that’s what you’ll see in my stories.
How about you? As a reader or as a writer, do you have expectations about how stories should end? If you read romance, what’s your ideal ending for a book? Or if you read another genre like mystery or science fiction, what will make you feel completely satisfied when you finish a book?