Just wanted to let you know, I, too, look for the HEA ending, and will not give an author a second chance to break my heart if the first book of hers I read ends in any other way. I can accept, and even enjoy, a tragic ending in other genres, but in romance it is wholly unacceptable to me. If I found that the author planned to do away with the heroine and have a second book in which the hero finds true love with “another” woman, I’d be seriously disgruntled! (g)
By the way, this desire for the HEA also explains why I feel cheated when I read a time travel romance and fall in love with the hero only to have the heroine return to the future and find his reincarnated soul to marry. Pardon me, but that one really pisses me off! I don’t want his “soul”, I want the guy I fell for. Especially when I read on and find that the hero ended up alone in the past and died never having found another love. Gee, that’s a real upper, isn’t it? (Does this book ring a bell? I believe it was the premise of at least one of Jude D.’s books. . .)
LLB responds: Lene, you might want to check out Issue #23 of my column. Jude Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor, while on many all-time keeper lists, is surprisingly a book that has turned off several readers from time-travel romances. (On the other hand, friend and RReader colleague Ann McGuire wrote a review of KISA as her all-time favorite.)
Author Suzanne Brockmann (SFTHQ@aol.com):
I’ve always approached the romance genre’s obsession with happy endings with some confusion. Why is it that all of our stories must end happily, when many of the most romantic stories of all time (Casablanca comes immediately to mind) end with a bittersweet sacrifice? At times (and not all the time, I’ll agree with that) it’s just more romantic to have lovers part.
But I know that I could never get away with doing that in category romance.
Readers want the reassurance and familiarity of knowing that these characters will live HEA. It’s similar to watching a favorite TV program, and knowing, despite the danger and suspense, that the main characters won’t die. The actors have a contract, after all.
I remember when the popular TV show, M*A*S*H, killed off Henry Blake. I was a very young teenager at the time, and I was outraged that they could do such a thing to one of my friends. As I grew up, though, I realized that what the producers and writers of the show had done was take the first step in making a program that had real depth and meaning. Hey, it was a TV show about war. People die in war, and the writers were giving us an episode with a very unhappy ending that worked really well for the show. But I’m sure that some people look back on that show and think, “They cheated. They shouldn’t have killed him. That wasn’t fair.”
In a similar vein, not every love affair ends happily. And we, as genre romance writers, are limiting ourselves to only a small percentage of story possibilities (and avoiding a possible new level of depth and maturity) if every one of our stories must end HEA.
Yet at the same time, to totally turn around and contradict myself — personally, I’m a sucker for a happy ending. I’m always bummed out if I go to the movies and the hero (or heroine) dies. Yet the movies that move me the most profoundly are the ones that don’t end happily. . . Go figure.
As far as whether romances need to end happily — I’d say currently, yes.
But I’d also dare to suggest that there’s room in the world for romantic stories with bittersweet endings — as long as the readers are properly warned in advance.
Bridges of Madison County, anyone? Can you imagine how amazingly good that story could’ve been if a seasoned romance author had written it?
Ellen Hestead (firstname.lastname@example.org):
A word or two about happily-ever-after endings. Are they a must for me? Yes.
What’s more, it’s not only essential that I know the h/h end up happily-ever-after, it’s essential that I see it happen. Reading Ms. Sutcliffe’s comments about her open-ended book (which I have not read), it struck me that she missed the point entirely.
It’s not that I need to be hit over the head with the ending because I’m clueless. Sure, I know they end up togetherit’s a romance, so I pretty much knew that from the beginning. The point is, I want to see it. I want to be there. I went through all the turmoil and misunderstandings and agonies and hopes that the hero and heroine suffered, and now I want my payback! That’s what the happily-ever-after scene is all about. It’s the reader’s reward for making this vicarious journey.
I’ve always had a problem with Jane Austen’s books for this very reason. Her books are essentially romances, and they’re wonderful romances, but just when you get to the best moment, she “draws a veil” and says something like “and they walked in the garden and resolved everything.” ARRRRGGHHH! How frustrating! Of course, I know Jane was living in different times, so I forgive her. But if I saw this in a modern romance, I’d be ticked!
. . . I just have to add my great, big, huge, ditto to you!! I must have a HEA ending, must, must, must. I guess mainly because I love the fantasy, I love the escape, I love the romance, passion, tension, warm, tingly feelings, and after all that, to not have the h and h be happily together. . . well, it just won’t do. I don’t want to hear about things that could have been, but weren’t. We have enough trouble in real life with busy schedules and problems. Reading gives me pleasure and hours of enjoyment, and to have it disappoint me is just too awful to imagine.
Author Lisa Ann Verge (email@example.com): I think the one “rule” to which genre romance writers have to conform is the “Happily Ever After” ending. It all has to do with reader expectation; in mysteries, the murder has to be solved, and in romance the lovers must live happily ever after — it’s part of the deal. Of course, notice I said genre romance. In moremainstream romance, you can break this and many other “guidelines,” which is why you might see non-HEA endings in big, hardcover romance.
Madonna Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I agree with you about the happpily-ever-after endings. We live in the real world were HEA are very rare; when I spend $7.00 to $9.00 dollars on a paperback I want a happy-ever-after ending. I also came across a book (I don’t remember the author or book) but it was a second one of the same man but the second time around with another woman because he had been widowed. I didn’t buy it. It’s weird but it was like he was cheating.
Yes!!! There has to be an HEA. As a divorce attorney, I deal with unhappily ever after all the time and need HEA in my leisure reading. Thanks for the warning about Gillgannon.
Author Kathleen Eagle (KatEagle@aol.com):
A book must have an uplifting ending in order to be a romance. The reader should come away feeling hopeful. GWTW is a romance even though Scarlett and Rhett aren’t together. “Tomorrow is another day,” is hopeful. A Tale of Two Cities is a romance even though Sidney (our real hero) is on his way to the guillotine because his sacrifice is the supreme proof of his love, and it is an uplifting ending. The latter might not pass the test for genre romance in today’s market, but it works for me.
If HEA means the hero and heroine must be alive and well and on their way to the altar, I would say that’s a narrow definition of happiness. Uplifting and hopeful is what I strive for.
Lisa Daviscraig (email@example.com):
I have to place myself in the bash me over the head with the happily ever after camp. This column caught my eye because I had just been thinking about this very topic. What got me thinking about it? I just finished Pamela Morsi’s No Ordinary Princess. This book, as many of Morsi’s books do, contains an epilogue. In No Ordinary Princess, the epilogue takes place about 20 years after the action in the book — in it the h/h’s daughter marries the son of the secondary couple in the novel. In this brief epilogue the reader is assured that the h/h are still happy, still in love. What can I say? I like having this little glimpse (the epilogue is just a few pages long) into their future life. It is a little bit of “proof” that true love lasts.
Katarina Wikholm (firstname.lastname@example.org):
Being in a minority as usual, I like a good HEA, but I’d rather live with h/h being separated forever than having a contrived, cut-and-paste ending. A happy ending should spring from the story, and not be just another cliché the writer has to obey.
Take the ending in Blade Runner – you can hope against the odds that h/h will live HEA. It’s not very likely, given the circumstances, but you’re free to hope. If Harrison Ford had gazed soulfully into her eyes, and vowed that they were going to stay together no matter what, I would have thrown up and left the cinema, and the movie would most certainly never have achieved the cult status it has today. Another example is Green Card with Andie McDowell and Gerard Depardieu. He’s an illegal alien and is deported back to France in the end. Anything else would have been. . . sissy, silly, sweet, cloying and not good for you.)
It’s the same in relationships. Who in the real living world belives in HEAs? Books and movies are one thing, real life something completely different. . . I believe some philospher said that it is not the goal as such that is important, but the road you travel toward it. HEA is a goal. What’s important is what you make of it. The best you can do is promise to stay together as long as you can, working on any difficulties, wanting to live HEA, and keeping your thumbs crossed. Reality is a messy place, and the human soul even worse. It’s not like life comes with a warranty, to be returned for a refund.
To get back to romance (and movies) – remember Ivanhoe? Will Ivanhoe live HEA with his suitable Rowena, always remembering love lost? I don’t think so. Or the other variety, take the severely alpha males. I wouldn’t live HEA around a walking talking earthquake waiting to happen, however much he proclaimed to love me. . . . I want a good ending, HEA if possible, if not I can live with it if it is tragic, heroic, and self-sacrificing enough.
Author Connie Brockway (ConBroc@aol.com):
I think the romance author’s job is to return the hero and heroine to a place where the potential for happiness is restored, where they are on their way to creating not a happily-ever-after, but a happier tomorrow.
I don’t care for an ending where everyone except the villian is sitting around with an author-generated smile plastered on his face. That sort of ending belittles the sacrifices that our characters make during the course of the book.
Too, I do not want to suggest that all problems can simply dissolve with the right combination of acts (like self-sacrificial ones) and words (like “I love you”) leaving behind a shiny fairytale castle perched on a mountain top simply because our characters deserve the fairytale castle. While I love the idea of decency and love being rewarded, sometimes it isn’t.
Sometimes the best place to leave our characters isn’t at the castle door, but at the base of the mountain. Because the castle wasn’t ever the point, the road was.
Oh man do I agree with you. HEA is essential. . . that’s one of the reasons I prefer epilogues a few years down the road. . . not too far down, mind, because I don’t want to have to imagine my H/H as really old. LOL. I like a tiny hint of their future so I can put the book down satisfied that everything is settled. I don’t like sequels that are about the same couple. . . don’t like sequels where previously written about couples are secondary characters experiencing life problems or troubles. I only like to re-visit them in a second book if everything is going well. In case you didn’t know. . . someone who also broke this rule was Janet Dailey in her Calder series. She was telling a three generation story but when she got to book three she had to get rid of the parents of the hero in that book so that he could take up his inheritance and that meant a convenient plane accident with one spouse dying and the other paralyzed. (I think I’ve blocked out what happened to which. ) Anyway, I read that and that was it. . . I’m never reading that girl again!! I can’t believe Ms Gillgannon has made such a fatal mistake in the romance genre. She’s done herself nearly irreparable harm. (Did I spell that right?) I have read at least one book by her. . .and before I pick up another I’ll have to read something in print by her assuring me she’ll never do that again. I invest myself emotionally in every story. . .I root for these couples. . . I weep for them and I laugh with them. . . I want to believe that all of the awfulness that we live with in real life will not touch them. It’s something I certainly can’t guarantee in my own life, I like to make sure it happens in my fantasy life. And continuing my run-on opinion. . . (G) aside from the lurid and awful prose that Bertrice Small writes. . . I also hate the fact that she doesn’t guarantee a HEA. . . and often has multiple partners/husbands for her heroines. . . ick ick ick. . . .
Lisa Hall (email@example.com):
Laurie, I have to agree with you! As a happily married woman (alomost 9 years), I want all heroes and heroines to live in love into the hereafter. I couldn’t read a second book about a second wife (maybe a second husband?, but hopefuly I’m not that hypocritical). After fifteen years of reading the romance genre, I have never been able to pick up a Beatrice Small book. For years my older sister has encouraged me to read the Skye O’Malley series. Just can’t do it! When I read a book I love, I fall in love with the characters. They simply have to experience the grand passion that only comes about once in a lifetime. Silly? My husband and I hope not!
Author Lisa Kleypas (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I do believe a HEA ending is crucial, especially when the plot of the novel has put the characters through a particularly emotional or wrenching set of experiences. Sometimes a beautifully written novel doesn’t have as happy an ending as I would wish for, and it leaves me depressed! In my own work, I usually employ a “double” happy ending, one for the main body of the book, and another in the form of a short, upbeat epilogue. Other writers do this as well, and I think it always works.
I am totally for them;’ I think that’s why I enjoy sequels so much. I can still stay connected to the previous couple and watch their families grow.
This was especially true in the Fallen Angels series by Mary Jo Putney. As each new couple got together, we were allowed to check in on our old friends and see that they were still moving on rather nicely. I have to have the HEA ending and a baby or two really settles it nicely for me.
Happily ever after endings are essential to me. I read romances for the fantasy, and for the comfort of knowing that, whatever happens in between, at the end the hero and heroine will be happily together. I don’t read romances for unhappy endings, multiple husbands/partners or death. I don’t read romances to be challenged too much or disturbed or upset. I don’t always want the same thing from all romances, either. Sometimes I want to laugh, sometimes cry, sometimes I want something really sexy, sometimes I don’t. Luckily, there is enough variety within the genre to give me all of this. I like reading intelligent romances with smart heroines. I always want to be engaged emotionally by the characters and the plot. And I always want my happy ending!
I love historical romances, and often find them to be springboards to more serious nonfiction historical reading, where I can find plenty of unhappy endings.
I didn’t love the ending in Katherine Sutcliffe’s Devotion. Her previous novels are among my favorites and I generally liked this book. However, I missed the emotional payoff typical of nearly all other romances with conventional endings, including Ms. Sutcliffe’s earlier books. I guess I do need to be hit over the head. The more happily ever after detail I can get the better. I’m one of those sappy readers who loves epilogues!
Author Julie Moffett (email@example.com):
My first book, Fleeting Splendor, does not necessarily have a perfect HEA ending — in fact, it’s been described more often as a “bittersweet” ending. Another book with the same type of ending is Island of the Swans by Ciji Ware. Both of our books are romantic triangles with two sympathetic heroes and one heroine.
I guess it depends on your definition of “happily ever after.” In my case, the heroine loved both men, but had to make a choice based on a number of factors, including listening to her heart and believing her fate took her in a particular direction. Of course, this is a dangerous proposition for an author because you risk angering those readers who are rooting for the hero which loses out. But, hey, it was my first book — and what did I know?? :)
Seriously, I wanted to explore the different types of love we as women can experience and how it shapes our lives, and often our destinies. Sometimes it can result in a bittersweet ending, but love isn’t always so simple.
A rather cryptic answer to your question, but I hope it is at least understandable.
Bonnie Malmat (firstname.lastname@example.org):
Hi! As a romance reader for a lonnngggg time, there are several things in romance books that I like, but a HEA is essential! I love sequels/series (Rachel Lee’s Conard County and Tyler series) comes to mind. However, if they kill off someone important/beloved from a previous book, especially the hero or heroine, it absolutely destroys my interest in that author henceforth. I read a few Cassie Edwards books and came upon one that killed off the heroine from a previous one, but what was especially bad was that it made her look weak and whiny. I shy away from Edwards’ books now, which is a shame, because she may not always do that. Janet Dailey ruined the Calder series that way too.
Many romance readers read as sheer escapism, or to fulfill some missing romance in their life. If I want reality, I’ll watch the news, or read regular fiction. Yes, romance is formula driven, but so what?! Many other genres use a certain formula. Those of us who read know the “ground rules”. It’s when they are ignored/abused that we get upset.
Judy Stevens (email@example.com):
On the subject of happily ever after, my opinion is without reserve. I must have it! When I’m reading a book I invest my emotions in rooting for the ultimate survival of the hero and heroine as a couple. This caring is the crux what makes a book successful. Obviously if I don’t like the characters my desire to care about their well-being dwindles, but if an author has written a true “keeper” and all the elements are in place for happiness, I can’t ever imagine a greater betrayal between the bond of trust than to destroy the illusion. I don’t want to know the two years later he was hit by a car but gee, she was really happy while it lasted.
You”ve made a good point in mentioning Bertrice Small and her Skye O’Malley series. Small, as a author survives the destruction of the HEA syndrome by already breaking another taboo of “Sex with more than one partner”. Frankly, Small’s books are about sex with very little romance. The illusion that True Love creates a sexual pleasure that can only be found in one other person doesn’t hold sway in Small’s books. Her heroes and heroines routinely receive sexual satisfaction from people they do not love (in fact from people they hate and despise!). With that kind of a mindset, heros/heroines become interchangeable without an emotional investment by the reader. It’s a different kind of book and they can be interesting if you read it with the right frame of mind.
As I read your column sometimes I’m amazed at how alike we think! I too, have worried over the younger heroine/older hero syndrome. When I first started reading romances back in the 70’s. I remember that the Harlequin Presents books when they were first published often had Heroines of 18-20 and Heros of 35-40. It was as prevalent in category romance as the rapes were in historical romances! Even then, before the breakup of the ultimate romantic couple Charles and Diana, I wondered:
- What did they have in common, she was too young to hold her own
- Would she still love him after she grew up
- How long could they stay married and how long would she be a widow
What can I say? It worried me.
The only book I ever read that had an ending I could live with in this area was “Flora” by Anne Weale. It was a historical with a younger heroine/older hero and the epilogue took place as she was an old woman, looking back on her long widowhood. It had been made bearable by the love letters he had written her the only time they had ever been separated. The book ended with the heroine dying as her young again spirit leapt out of her body and ran to meet the hero where he was waiting for her. The HEA was provided in the afterlife.
Heidi Leighton (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I used to think that I could handle romances where the h/h didn’t end up together or you weren’t sure if they would be together or not. I thought Scarlett got what she deserved in GWTW, she was an absolute jerk to everyone around her. But I recently saw a movie that destroyed that belief in myself. The movie Up Close & Personal just about killed me. I had all these emotions invested in the characters, I was really rooting for them, and then to have the hero killed off and the way the heroine finds out about his death. I was really frustrated!! So I guess I have to vote for the traditional HEA ending to my romances. However, I don’t like the sickly sweet epilogues either. The ending has to fit with the way the characters have acted throughout the book.
This discussion on HEA endings reminds me of the first romance I read with a sad ending. It was a historical by Janelle Taylor and if I could remember the name of the book I would tell everyone in order to warn them. This book had a case of two heros and I think I should have put it down right then and there, but I was new to romance and therefore, had no idea what was coming. So fool that I was, I kept reading. Big mistake. The first hero has escaped from prison and so is eventually sent back (even though he was innocent) after he has impregnated the heroine, of course. The heroine is unmarried and pregnant, so who does she turn to? Hero #2 who kindly offers to marry her because he’s always loved her. So what happens? Eventually Hero #1 (who I prefered by the way) comes back, finds her married, confronts Hero #2, finds out he has a child, and goes off into the sunset heartbroken and alone!! What kind of mess is this? After all the torment we witnessed Hero #1 go through, the least thing Ms. Taylor could have given him is a smidgen of happiness at the end. I read this book in October of ’95 and to this day I’ve yet to read another Janelle Taylor. I do not trust this woman.
I’m sorry but when I read a romance I have to see the HEA. I should think that we deserve it after all we went through with the hero (heroes in some cases) and the heroine. Therefore, I want to see the couple still married with five kids 10 years later.