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Writing the Romance Novel: Happy Ending or Happily Ever After?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

John Thornton (Richard Armitage) and Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) in North & South

One of the main criticisms of the romance genre is that it sets up unrealistic expectations for what life is really like. We all grew up on the Disney version of romance: Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were doomed to languish forever until receiving true-love’s kiss (never mind the fact that she didn’t know anything about him, having only met him once); Cinderella is doomed to a life of servitude until she attends a ball, where she meets a prince, who then puts her shoe back on for her (never mind the fact that she’s only met him once and doesn’t know anything about him). Belle at least gets to spend time with her Beast of a prince before committing to him in marriage—never mind the fact that his life has just completely and utterly changed and she has no idea what he’ll be like now that he’s a completely different “creature.” Ariel’s non-aquatic prince falls for her when she can’t even talk to him so that he can learn anything about her.

Do you get my point? The ending Disney gives us (and many romantic movies, for that matter) is, “And they lived happily ever after.”

Let’s get real. No one lives “happily” ever after. Contentedly, maybe. Companionably, definitely. But no one can be happy for the rest of their lives.

This is why, in the romance novel, one of the most important parts of the plot is the “lose”—the part of the story in which the hero and heroine are separated, when something comes between them that will possibly take one away from the other. It is their struggle to make things right again, to reconcile their relationship, that lends credence to the idea that these two people will be content together for the rest of their lives.

In a romance novel, we’re striving for a “happy ending,” one that will leave the reader with the confidence that five, ten, thirty, fifty years down the road, this couple will still be together. They will be able to overcome all of life’s unhappiness and find the strength to make it through in each other (and in God, in inspirational romances). That means we must spend the majority of our story showing the reader that these two people have the ability to make their own happy ending. That they aren’t going to give up at the first bump in the road (i.e., they won’t cave under the conflicts that come their way in the story), that they believe in each other (i.e., if their “lose” is based on misunderstanding or a mistrust issue, it must be solved, the trust rebuilt before the conclusion of the story), and that they won’t stray (i.e., why it’s a good idea not to start a romance novel off with one of the two characters already in a serious relationship that’s going well, otherwise, what’s to keep her from dumping the hero and moving on if someone better comes along, if she already has that track record?).

Have you ever finished a romance novel and were absolutely disgusted by the sappily sweet dialogue between the hero and heroine at the end? I feel that way every time I finish writing one of my manuscripts. 😦 Because I’ve never been in a romantic relationship, and because those conversations are usually pretty private, I have a hard time getting my head around what might actually be said in one of those situations. But when I read one that works, I know it, because of the exhilaration I feel, the longing sighs I give, the sadness that the story has ended, the desire to read it again.

This is where filmmakers have it easier than novelists—they can just give us a great kiss at the end and we’re happy. Think about these on-screen kisses: Aragorn and Arwen, From Here to Eternity, Breakfast at Tifffany’s, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Princess Bride (though it does have narrative over it), Say Anything, When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Titanic, and Spiderman (not technically a kiss at the ending, but the upside-down kiss). How much easier are those kisses to show than they would be to write?

What filmmakers can show with a kiss or with the hero and heroine riding off into the sunset, we have to do with words, usually with dialogue. When we do it right, it’s like when Michael Vartan comes out onto the pitcher’s mound and kisses Drew Barrymore at the end of Never Been Kissed. When we do it wrong, it’s like that old cliched 1930s/40s kiss with the kicked-up foot, the heroine in a somewhat reclining position in the hero’s arms—what I call the “Calgon, take me away” kiss, because it’s about as substantial as bubbles in a bath.

As I said, I always hate my endings when I write them, but I do try to keep one thing in mind: my characters will never say or do anything at the end of the book that would be completely out of character for them. A hero not well-versed in literature is not going to suddenly start waxing poetic. A heroine who has a strong personality isn’t going to suddenly turn faint and weepy (though she might burst into tears like Eleanor at the end of Sense and Sensibility, because she just can’t stay strong any longer—but that character had the potential to do that from the very beginning). A hero who keeps his emotions bottled up inside isn’t going to find it easy to share what he’s feeling with the heroine—and go on and on about it for paragraphs.

Another thing I try to do with my endings is to somehow tie in the main theme, possibly even the title of the novel, with what is said in the last scene. For example, the last lines of Ransome’s Honor are:

    William’s ship, his career, his reputation—none of it mattered any longer. For, if asked, he would walk away from his crew, forsake his duty, and even sacrifice his own honor to provide for and protect Julia.

    Love demanded nothing less.

For Discussion:
How do you like romance novels to end? Lots of dialogue—promises of undying love? A great kiss? A wedding scene? If you’re a romance writer, how do you end your novels?

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  1. Tuesday, May 27, 2008 5:49 pm

    I actually like the idea of the foot-popping kiss, as Mia in Princess Diaries calls it. The best one is in Living It Up, a Martin/Lewis movie. Jerry is hiding under the bed while Dean kisses the girl Jerry thinks he’s in love with, and her foot pops. It’s hilarious.

    I like to know that the H&H will be together forever, through good times and bad. Their reactions at the end have to be in character for them, like you said. A wedding is ok, as long as it doesn’t feel contrived. That’s one of the reasons I don’t read Heartsongs, the end nearly always being a wedding feels contrived to me. I’m very fond of a great kiss.

    Since I’ve never finished a romance, I’ll leave that part of the question for everyone else. But I do know that none of the ones in my head end with a wedding. Then again, they don’t fit the traditional romance formula either.


  2. Tuesday, May 27, 2008 10:06 pm

    I love it when a book ends with a wedding, but a romance must ALWAYS end with at least the knowledge that a wedding will take place shortly. I want the ending to be as glorious as the ‘lose’ was heartbreaking.

    Someone once said take your characters so low, to such a horrible conflicted place, that the grace that saves them, the love they find, shines out in contrast so brightly that the ‘bad’ was worth it.


  3. Caleb permalink
    Wednesday, May 28, 2008 12:32 am

    You may have just accidentally proven The Lion King to be the most realistic love story of any Disney movie. Or maybe Aladdin. What are the odds?

    I don’t read or write romance novels, obviously, but, from a filmmaker prospective, I typically prefer a weddingless ending. If there is a wedding, I think I would rather it happen somewhere in the middle so that they still have time to prove to you they made the right decision (Jerry Maguire; sort of When Harry Met Sally since they show you years later).

    Otherwise, looking at my collection, I seem to mainly go for the tragedies (Titanic, Moulin Rouge) or the completely open-ended nonmarriage ending (Juno, Garden State).

    It’s only fair to admit that out of 300-something DVD’s, only 15 or 20 that I own might have romance as the #1 theme. I’m not exactly the key audience.


  4. Wednesday, May 28, 2008 8:37 am

    What a great post, Kaye!

    I know exactly what you mean about many endings not being believable. I often find myself saying, “Oh, that’s just lame–not them at all,” but the rest of the story was so wonderful, so I’ll reread up to the ending once more and create my own finale that stays true to character.

    For me, it’s important to reveal character incompatibilities between hero and heroine from start to finish as that’s real life. I’ve been married near eighteen years and as well as hubby and I get along, we still have conflicting character traits that will always keep us on our toes–that’s what keeps life interesting, though, right!

    And staying true to character is the ultimate. I cringe when I read sappy endings where the hero and heroine have been stubborn, strong, and domineering throughout the whole rest of the book–it just doesn’t fit. But having one of them release a single emotional statement with a nervous twitch can show a whole lot about what they are willing to do for the other.


  5. Wednesday, May 28, 2008 8:39 am

    Meant to finish that with: The trick is to not go overboard!


  6. Wednesday, May 28, 2008 8:40 am

    I still have runny eyed creature, I see. And is that red lipstick it’s wearing–so NOT my colour.


  7. Wednesday, May 28, 2008 10:31 am

    I love romances that end with weddings. 17 years later, I still very much love the entire wedding scene!

    The kiss works, as does the ceremony, but the most important thing is that there is a sense that this couple will work to be together, that’s it not a fleeting relationship. No, things might not be perfect but they will be happy–and get through whatever curve balls life throws them–because they are together. That’s the commitment that makes a marriage work and that’s what happily ever after is all about.


  8. Wednesday, May 28, 2008 12:19 pm

    This picture is probably the most perfect visual you could’ve chosen for this post!! 🙂

    I’ll have to come back with a detailed comment later…


  9. Thursday, May 29, 2008 10:14 am

    I suppose I have to at least quibble a definition: I do believe in “happily ever after” if you don’t expect “happily” to be a state of continual euphoria.

    “Content” to me is too bland a word. In my mind it’s a word of settling.

    I think some people are so afraid of the real “bad endings,” (e.g., divorce) invalidating potential “happily ever afters” that they swing to the reverse problem: causing the real “happy endings” to be neutralized by the (unknown) percentage that “don’t work out.”

    I think the main flaw that “romance” and/or fairytale movies (the original stories end much less-frequently as HEA) has brought into our culture is to expect short-cuts.

    I have been harassed more times by people saying I mistreated my husband by “leaving him hanging.” Or “giving him a hard time.”

    “Why didn’t you want him?” “What took you so long? He’s perfect for you?”

    I was using my head and not finding “the person I could live with,” but “the one I couldn’t live without.”

    And it wasn’t even like I took a long time: he brought up engagement in the middle of April and we were engaged by the end of May.

    I sort of blame the expectation to “know” and for it all (tension and questions) to resolve quickly on the Rom Com. Not b/c it’s a bad genre (I like it) but b/c it programs some people to telescope time and see things more clearly than they are in reality.

    O/T and its own discussion I suppose. Sorry.


  10. Thursday, May 29, 2008 4:13 pm

    The best romance endings for me are not necessarily about the dialogue or the events. It is all about how I *feel*. Feel good endings reaffirm my faith in love & life and motivate me to be a better person. Yeah, I know, it sounds totally cheesy. But for me that is the ultimate pay-off: to feel really good when I finish a book!



  11. Wednesday, March 25, 2009 6:09 pm

    Hi Kaye,

    I came across your page while doing research for an AVP (audio-visual presentation) I’m producing. Its for a debut. The debutant and parents requested a Fairy Tale theme or something like the movie Enchanted. May I borrow the first paragraph? I think it will make a great intro to the presentation. It’ll give it a bit of a twist. Pleeeeeeez?


  12. Wednesday, February 24, 2010 2:08 pm

    Kaye, I just read through most of your Writing the Romance Novel series at the recommendation of Rachel Fernandes. Great stuff. Thanks.


  13. Adriana permalink
    Saturday, March 16, 2013 9:16 am

    if ending is the one is dead? it will be sad ending, right?


    • Saturday, March 16, 2013 10:04 am

      Then, by definition, it isn’t a romance novel, which is the point of this series.


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