Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Must a Romance have a Happy Ending?


Fashions in literature change over time. In the 70s and 80s, romances were filled with rape fantasies, which women shudder at now. I've been involved in a discussion over at GoodReads for the last couple weeks that has me wondering if another distinctive of the romance genre may be on its way out.

Does a romance have to have an HEA ending?

Purists contend that it does. A "happily ever after" is part of the romance novelist's contract with her readers. No matter how awful things get, somehow it will all end well.

Still others say "happy for now" is sufficient or even just a "satisfying" ending, will do. Insisting on a HEA means even classics like GONE WITH THE WIND, which is primarily about a love/hate relationship cannot be technically termed a romance.

Where is the balance between "formula" and realism? Do you feel cheated if the H/h don't fully commit to each other by the end of the book?

What do you think?

PS. After you leave a comment here, please pop over to my STROKE OF GENIUS Name a Character Contest and cast your vote for your favorite name if you haven't done so already. Voting continues till August 1st and then the drawing will be held and one lucky voter will receive a WHOLE BOX OF BOOKS (all of them with a guaranteed HEA)!

25 comments:

J.K. Coi said...

Hi Emily! I think that romance readers are becoming more and more open to different scenarios/settings/characters and more in what they're reading these days. While a happy ending is still the norm in a romance, I think that--especially in a series--the happy ending can be "delayed" or "anticipated" without actually occurring by the end of the book.

Alaine - Queen of Happy Endings said...

Yes yes yes!!!! I need my romance to have a HEA, I do. I read a lot of historical and other genres and they don't have HEA so when I pick up a romance I have to have a guaranteed HEA. My favourite romance sub genre is historical romance and I do like them to contain some accurate historical facts in them, but I need the ahhh at the end.

Now in my 'real' world HEA doesn't mean that they'll never fight or argue, it means that they'll always love each other enough to fight and argue. I guess that's how I think my beloved characters will end up.

That would also describe my marriage, it's always been HEA, but you know what? It really is because I know that when we are old we'll ride off into the sunset forever together.

Now I think of romance as: ends HEA, the book is mainly about the H/h and their 'issues' and they only get one book. Their brother's and sister's or other relatives can have books in a series but the couple get one book only.

And no, Gone with the Wind was not a romance IMO!

Great discussion!

Ella Drake said...

Unqualified yes. "Romance" has to have HEA. Otherwise, it's a "Love Story".

Nynke said...

Oh, I definitely want my romance novels to have happy endings! I'm fine with the fact that other genres and possibly even romance sub-genres don't always have a HEA, but like Alaine, I like the ones I read to end happily.

I once read an online read novella on Harlequin's website, and really did feel cheated when there was no HEA. The heroine did come out of the story better than she had gone in (a bit like Titanic was a boost for Rose's personality), but it didn't feel like a romance to me.

I think, if romance novels don't offer HEA, it should be clear to the readers before they buy them - don't know how a publisher would advertise that, though ;)

Anita Davison said...

My first novel was deemed Historical Mainstream rather than Historical Romance because my heroine married Mr Secure-Devoted-Respectable rather than Mr Devastatingly Handsome-Reckless-Womaniser.
She started the story as a romantic and ended it a pragmatist. A more satisfying ending for the modern woman maybe, but not the world of the romance publisher

EmilyBryan said...

JK--A series represents a unique situation. If the story is to be extended over several books, I can understand how the HEA must be delayed in order for conflict to continue. However, aren't most series really just 'related titles'--sharing a few characters but swapping out H/h for each new book?

No, wait a minute. Now that I think on it, my good buddy CL Wilson's LORD OF THE FADING LANDS follows the same couple from book to book, but she manages to give me a sense of HEA at the end of each.

Alaine--You make a valid point about reader expectations. HEA is part of the deal for most romance readers.

Ella--Ah! A purist! Just to play devil's advocate with you, what do you say to readers of erotica who argue that "happy for now" is a valid romance conclusion?

EmilyBryan said...

Nynke--I never have seen the TITANIC. I know how it ends, you see. The boat always sinks.

Like you, I can't imagine how a publisher would telegraph that HEA is missing from a book. WARNING: BOOK MAY BECOME A PROJECTILE!

Anita--I personally don't see a sane choice of mate as a disqualifier for HEA. Perhaps a comparison of the respective merits of Alpha and Beta heroes is an issue for another day.

Barbara Monajem said...

Fun meeting you at National, Emily.

Yes, I want a HEA, but how it plays out depends on the genre. In a historical, it pretty much has to end in marriage, because any alternative spelled disgrace for most women (although I'm sure someone has or will turn that on its end). In a contemporary, especially a paranormal, I'm fine with more of an anticipated HEA. I want to feel that the h&h will stay together, but it doesn't have to be spelled out.

Jane L said...

Emily, Good Morning! Hmmm, well I think a "romance" has to or should have a HEA, but I agree a love story does not. I was going to argue the point of GWTW not being a romance, but in reality it is not, even though it is my ultimate favorite of all, it really is a love story! Since I rarely read outside of the historical genre which seem to have HEA, I guess I have not come across the stories that don't, if anyone has a recomendation, I would love to read one and compare the difference!

Penelope said...

YES!!!! One of the wonderful things about romance novels is that they're a "sure thing"--no matter what is happening with depressing current events, stressful jobs, or whining children (not that I have any of those things, mind you), readers can count on the HEA in their romance novels. If I don't get that glowing sense of satisfaction at the end of the novel, then it hasn't done its job. I could read The History Of Bosnia, for goodness sake. But I don't. Viva HEA forever!!!

Donna Marie Rogers said...

Great subject, Emily! I definitely need an HEA, but sometimes a happily-for-now is satisfying. I don't need every romance I read to end with a marriage proposal, though sometimes it's just what the story calls for.

Hmm, love story versus HEA, that's interesting. Never really thought about the difference before.

Miss Mae said...

It should definitely be a happy ending with the h/h getting together. But that might mean something like, "I know you're the one, but let's explore that discovery for right now," instead of so much as receiving the ring and declaring things a done deal. That cliff hanger just might entice the reader to salivate for a sequel! :)

Michelle Picard said...

I don't need a HEA at the end of each book, but then I'm a series reader by heart, including many series that do follow the same h/h throughout the series arc. In a way, I guess, I love the complexity of a slow growing romantic relationship so much that I don't mind it drawn out, as long as there's a satisfying HEA at the end of the whole series. This leaves tons of room for character development and if I love a character I want more,more,more of him or her. Does this mean I'm good at delayed gratification? Maybe it just means that I love the tease.

Genella deGrey said...

GWTW was a sweeping historical epic with romantic elements. Same with Titanic.

I believe all "Romance" novels or even movies should have a HEA.

:)
G.

Anna C. Bowling said...

In a word, yes. This does not mean that the hero and heroine hop onto their trusty winged unicorn and fly into a future of cotton candy clouds and eternal sparklies where nothing ever goes wrong. Life has rough stuff, and it will happen to our happy couple, but because they are better together than not, they will handle it. Together.

If one party leaves or perishes, we do not have a romance novel but we can still call it a love story.

A series with the same couple can work - Jennifer Roberson's fantasy series (though it really does read as romance, with Tiger and Del's relationship front and center) follows the same h/h through six books, always with a resolution and a new trial.

EmilyBryan said...

Barbara--I'm glad I got to meet you at Nationals too!

Jane L--You don't want to know what my DH thinks of GWTW. Scarlet infuriates him. He didn't give a damn long before Rhett.

Penelope--There is something to be said for "sure thing!"

Donna--I think we need a Venn diagram because a romance by definition is a love story, but not all love stories are romances. (My math major DH will be so proud of me for pulling a little math into the discussion!)

Miss Mae--I don't think anyone is being a stickler for a ring, but we want commitment. Congrats on your Covey award!

Michelle--I agree on letting the relationship develop naturally. I'm always skeptical of one-nighters turning into a grand passion that lasts.

Genella--"With romantic elements" is a useful catch-all. But most books on the shelves today would qualify. Even guy fiction has romance elements (Ludlum, Clancy, Wilbur Smith)

Anna--I'm sure authors can keep the tension going with the same couple, but it requires tons of skill. I keep remembering the old TV show MOONLIGHTING. It was grand until Bruce Willis actually 'boinked' Sybil Shepherd. Then the sizzle fizzled.

EmilyBryan said...

Ok, here's what I think. You're free to disagree. Words mean things. So I went to Websters and here's the definitions of romance I found salient to our discussion:

1): a medieval tale based on legend, chivalric love and adventure, or the supernatural

2): a prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious

3): a love story especially in the form of a novel b: a class of such literature

Websters doesn't mention Happily Ever After. Not once.

That said, romance readers have chosen to make HEA the definitive feature of the genre. If it doesn't end with HEA, it's not a romance according to the majority of romance readers. And I think it's HEA that gets our genre in more trouble with its critics than the frank lovescenes.

Reading tastes change. Just as we no longer accept the rape fantasies of the 80's, we may eventually accept that not all relationships end well and still elect to call the story a romance.

But I don't plan to write that story. There is enough reality in reality. I don't need heartbreak in my fiction to know it exists. I'd rather give people hope. Love isn't always pretty. Sometimes, it hurts. But if two people commit to each other unreservedly, that's HEA.

mammakim said...

I am a HEA sucker, I love books with a HEA, probably because there is so much yucky stuff going on in the world that I want to escape to my warm fuzzy happy place

Patricia Barraclough said...

That is a really hard question. I think the H&H need a commitment and devotion that will last. I love HEA endings. However, I can see a great love story in which the two main characters are deeply in love, but kept apart for some reason. They live parallel lives still in love, but not able to do anything about it. It would be hard to write and make work. I know I've seen or read something like this, but can't remember what it was. I still prefer Happily Ever After though, that is what we read romance for.

Kytaira said...

I need a HEA in my romance. A lot of it comes down to expectations. If I'm reading erotica, I can be happy with a HFN if I know that is a possibility. Any mass market romance I expect a HEA. For some of the smaller epublishers, I don't expect a HEA but anticipate a HFN. Black Lace - I'm thrilled with any kind of happy ending.

If it isn't going to be a HEA for a mass market, I want some clue such as Book 1 of Dick and Jane's adventures. How did Brenda Joyce do it with her series? I know she has one were it's the same couple in each book. Outlander is another series that doesn't have a HEA for each book isn't it? I'm assuming they didn't get a HEA for the first books. Part of the reason why I never read them.

Julie Robinson said...

YES, I NEED my romances to have an HEA. I read romance to believe in HEA, in love. Too many relationships in life don't have an HEA, and I don't need to read about them. That's just depressing.
Julie

Teresa D'Amario said...

I need HEAs in my romance. Happily for now rarely even attracts my attention. If I want a non HEA I can read other books. If I want to write a Non HEA, I'd market it as something other than romance.

I even once tossed a book that was an UF, because originally 5 books was promised on the author's website. Later they sold more. Only I didn't know, so I'm expecting a good ending (if not happy) at the end. Instead i got a destroyed heroine collapsed in tears on the floor, alone, unloved and devastated.

Can you say PROJECTILE?

You can't lead a reader to believe something is going to happen and then it not. They/We get angry. We (or at least I) don't come back to see if you fixed that in the next book.

I once read a book shelved in romance. At the end, the hero was dead and the heroine had to wait for another lifetime for them to be together. HUH? Nope, not a romance. Not a good book, imho. Great paranormal themes, but let me down in the end. If I'd read it as a paranormal mainstream, that would be different.

The reason most women read romances is they need that nice warm fuzzy feeling at the end. The feeling that says "Everything is going to be okay. They overcame everything in their lives, now I can too." Even if it's false. Even if it's just for that moment. It's what the reader is looking for.

After a good romance book I give the dogs a hug and kiss, then go down and snuggle with hubby. Not for any other reason than I want him to know I love him.

THAT is what a good romance book does. :D

EmilyBryan said...

Mamakim--I think you've nicely summed up the feeling of most readers. In an uncertain world, we want a guarantee.

Patricia--You mean something like Anna and the King of Siam. They love each other, but can't bridge the culture gap. An deeply fascinating story, but not a romance in my estimation. I'd class this as fiction with strong romantic elements. Which I think is code for no HEA.

Kytaira--If I know I'm starting a series, and I trust the author, I can wade through a couple of books looking for the HEA. But I will be hugely disappointed if I'm cheated out of it later!

EmilyBryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
EmilyBryan said...

Sorry. Had to fix a glaring typo!

Julie--I agree. If I want to be depressed, I'll turn on the news.

Teresa--I hear you saying it's all about reader expectations, something a writer ignores at her peril. Begin as you mean to continue and deliver up that HEA at the end!