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