Real Author: The Art of Happy Endings
I love happy endings. (No, get your mind out of the gutter I'm not talking about that). I'm talking about books, movies, songs, music videos, cartoons and comic books that give me that one crucial aspect of the story that I'm looking for the whole way through: a happy ending.
What is a happy ending? I think "happy" is subjective on the best of days, but I can tell you what I perceive to be a happy ending. The characters come to a fruitful, satisfying conclusion to their current story with some hope that any further life they may have to lead off the page, screen, etc might not be as crappy as whatever they just went through in the story. That seems pretty simple, doesn't it? But, it's not. Frankly- the two main characters who have experienced a romantic connection with some discussion of a 'relationship' to follow, should be together or in the preparatory stages of solidifying said relationship by the time I close the book. Does this mean they need to be hitched with 3.5 kids and a white picket fence? Nope. However, it does mean that the last 300 pages, 2 hours of my life, or three minutes of music video had better not have been for nothing! (Yeah- I'm one of those readers who gets mad when I'm led on!)
Now-- hold your horses before you go getting all BUT AMY! on me. I know as well as anyone that there are certain types of stories that are not relationship based. There are all kinds of genres where the relationship between Hero 1 and Heroine 2 is not the point. Thrillers, spy novels, mysteries, hard SF, and horror are a few genres I can think of right off that the author might not have to worry about something like a happily ever after. I mean, how many horror novels do you read that have a happy anything let alone ending?
But, folks, romance is NOT this genre. I don't read exclusively romance. I'd go so far as to say that I like a pretty broad range of books. However, if you're going to bill a book to me as a romance you'd better gosh darn give me the warm n' fuzzies! Don't get me wrong-- I'm a writer who would love to write you the absolute best, most heartwarming romance and then have the whole world burn around them at the end while they hold hands and smile (have seriously considered it!)-- BUT, I would never, ever, ever tell you that this book is a romance novel. I'd tell you it's "ugly cry" and "romantic" but not a full fledged romance.
When readers come to the romance aisle they have a few concrete expectations, and the HEA is one of them. Now-- can you play around with the HEA? Yup! Mix it up. Put 'em through hell! Make the characters fight for every precious moment. That's the best thing about romance. It's hard! Very few romance novels are boy-meets-girl, girl-likes-boy, they date, have no issues and live a long, uncomplicated life together. Usually, you're reading the romance to get the experience of falling in love again. All the ugly, beautiful truth of it as best as the author can tell it.
When I sat down to write the story of Rand and Muriel in Redshift, I had a vision of a novel that told a complicated and beautiful love story. Lovers torn apart by circumstance, who had to fight the very universe to find each other again. In the end, I wanted them to stand on the edge of the last day of the world and know that all that mattered is that they were together. But I couldn't. I just couldn't. Sure, crappy stuff like that happens in real life every day. But it wasn't real life--it's my ROMANCE novel! As much as I felt the emotion in that moment, I couldn't bring myself to make so much heartache mean so little. I won't spoil it, but the end is pretty good even without all the fire.
What about novels where the characters sort of get together but it's not a real relationship? Oh, you mean the ones where they tease about it but don't get there after 9 or 10 books? Those aren't romances, either! Nope. They're usually Urban Fantasy, Romantic SF, or some other genre with romantic elements. I love books like this-- but it's not what I go looking for when I want to read a romance. It doesn't answer the fundamental question-- the need-- of the romance reader. Did they get a HEA?
So- there are infinite ways to write HEAs. There are infinite ways to write books that have them, and books that don't. I think what's important is knowing what you want to write. If you're hoping for a romance- find a way. If you're looking at something else with romantic elements, romance your heart out and don't worry about the HEA. (I still prefer a hint at HEA but we don't always get what we want!) Writing the HEA in a way that satisfies the romance reader is a tough thing to do, but it's necessary. Just saying "A and B will be together" doesn't really do it for us readers anymore. I know I try to one-up the last book with every new book's ending. Can I pack a bigger punch? Can I take your breath away more quietly and unexpectedly? Can I leave the reader more emotionally touched (happy, sad, furious, crushed etc) than I have before? Challenging myself to bring the epic emotional feels is the way I strive to keep my HEAs fresh and exciting.
Have you read any amazing HEAs? What's your favorite? I'd love to hear from you in the comments. Let me know how you feel as a reader, or an author, about the HEA.
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