How Much Happily-Ever-After Is Just Right?

- 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?

8 comments

  1. “Happy” endings are so subjective it is hard to get it just right for everyone. I think Susan is right that it becomes part of your “voice”. My 29 year old daughter tells me she is disappointed when my stories end with a wedding. I think she (still?) falls into the Chick Lit genre fan catagorie. I agree that whatever makes the characters happy males the most satisfying ending, and those of us that write with the barest of outlines often let the characters decide.
    One of my proof readers, on reading the first book of a mystery/romance series I am working on, said it was “refreshing” that the couple did not make it to bed in the first book. I thought I detected a slight sigh in her voice though. Hopefully that will bring her back to the second and third books to watch the relationship progress. Like TV shows like Castle or (fill in your favourite here) where the sexual tension is really what keeps you coming back week after week, I think giving it all away in the first book would be a mistake. It’s all about the tension.
    Judy Hudson

  2. Susan,
    I can remember how disappointed I was when I read Gone With The Wind. What! After war, death and misery they still don”t get together. “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” (not sure that’s the exact wording) just didn’t do it for me. Gotta have the happy ending.

    After all these years, I remember those characters though. The writer made me feel their love and the chemistry they had when they were on the page, but… they couldn’t live together. Both were too stong willed. Oh well.

    Linda

  3. Judy, it’s interesting what you say about your daughter. I caught a snippet of something on the radio today, where they said that 20-somethings are very, very into getting married. And that would make me think they’d be looking for wedding bells in their romance novels. But there are exceptions to everything! Each reader is truly unique.

    I think you’re right about mysteries with romance – you can definitely keep more interest in the relationship if you don’t have it go too far too fast.

  4. Linda, I think the thing that bothered me most about the ending of Gone With the Wind is that Scarlett finally learned her lesson. She stopped yearning after her opposite – the languid Ashley – and realized her passion lay with the man who was, even if she might not have wanted to admit it, just like her: strong, energetic, raw around the edges. She went through her character arc and she deserved her reward! And how could Rhett, who’d been so loyal to her in his own way, finally give up on her? Yeah, I’d probably have written a different ending. Fabulous characters and story, though.

  5. This is an interesting topic that I have thought about a great deal. Although I’ve always been a reader of romances, until I started writing, I didn’t understand that HEA ending was a requirement of the genre. In a way I resent that. I know there are millions of readers who disagree. But as a writer, I need to let my characters work out their own path. I think that’s why I write women’s fiction. I don’t want to follow someone else’s rules with my creation. I do like when a hero and heroine find love, but that can be an incremental thing. I often think of love, or even a more committed relationship by the end of a book, as being a kind of prize for doing all the hard work involved in the characters’ arcs. I think, in today’s world, it’s far more believable if there is simply love plus the promise of a happy ending at some indeterminate time in the future. Anything could happen, and I trust the reader to imagine the HEA that they would like to see. But it’s not that simple. And most people, of any generation, don’t decide to get married after a week or even a month, no matter what challenges they’ve overcome. In the ms. I’ve just completed, my young protagonist finally chooses the love of a man who she misjudged through most of the story. But she has some issues with the secrets he kept, and who he really turned out to be, that aren’t that simple to resolve. She also has the higher priority goal of reconciling with her family before she moves on with her life. She’s only 22, so for me this makes sense. It doesn’t preclude a HEA at some point later on, maybe even with the same guy. Who knows? There might even be a sequel someday.

  6. Mary Anne, I’m very much with you. My stories often end with exactly what you said: love plus the promise of a happy ending some time in the future – but with still some issues to resolve. What I hope I’ve shown the reader is that both characters have the guts and motivation to keep working through their issues, individually and together. Because, after all, once you get married, it’s not like a guarantee of smooth sailing. There will still be problems, and as a romance reader, what I want to see in a novel is that this couple has what it takes to keep working through those problems for the rest of their lives.

  7. I don’t need the wedding or engagement ending. It is enough that they are beginning their relationship and developing it their own way. I’m a luck lady that met her soul mate and married him 49 days later. And we are closing in on 40 years this coming Februrary 19. We met on New Year’s Eve on a blind date. We chatted a few days before on the phone but that was it. Then we went out had a blast together and the next day I went to meet his family wow what a family lol. But no I don’t see a couple getting married and everything instantly in modern times. If they both have careers and busy lives they have to make adjustment. You know I read where some fans of Eve and Roarke in the JD Robb In Death series were asking Nora Roberts if they were going to have a baby. Kind of hard with the type of lives they have. A baby changes everything. I personally don’t have any but can sit back and see how it affects lives. You can’t just pick up and hop on a plane to Mexico or Hawaii or somewhere. Heck you can’t even hop in the car and drive to see some friends. It requires more planning less spontaniety in someways to me.

  8. Kathy, what a great romance! 49 days and now 40 years and counting. When you hit 49 years, you have to have a crazy big celebration.

    You’re so right about kids. A couple of weeks ago I got together with a friend who never had kids of his own though always wanted them, and now (through his second wife) has grandkids. He and his wife have been looking after the little ones. He said he was amazed how those kids changed everyone’s lives. I was amazed that it had never dawned on him before that kids have that effect!