I originally polled readers/authors on the Happily-Ever-After ending in issues #1 and 2 of this column. Since more than a year has passed since that time, I thought we could revisit the topic and ask:
Must a romance have an HEA ending?
As I indicated in Issue #27 of this column, "Personally, while I appreciate subtlety in romance, I need to be hit over the head with the fact that the hero and heroine are going to be together forever."
Here's what readers/authors had to say:
Support our sponsors
Author Amanda Ashley/Madeline Baker (email@example.com):
My readers occasionally mention the fact that they like happy-ever after. . . they also like a prologue that shows the characters and their kids living happily a few years down the road.
I don't know about other publishers, but my editor at Leisure has always insisted on a happy ever after ending. I tried to write one where the hero left the heroine at the end of the book because he knew he was wrong for her, but my editor insisted I change it. I was a fairly new writer at the time, so I did as she asked. If I was writing the book now, I would fight to keep my original ending.
I guess that I prefer happy ever after, too. A Knight In Shining Armor one of my favorite books, but, in my opinion, it also had the most disappointing ending. Maybe Jude knew what she was doing, since people are still talking about the end of that book, but it ruined the story for me.
A romance has to have a happy ending!! That's one of the main reasons I read romance!!! A book has to make me smile at the end -- or sometimes cry! :-) If it doesn't, I wonder why I even bothered reading it. And, yes, I also hafta be hit over the head with the fact that the h/h are going to be together after the book ends.
Charlotte Sellers (charlott@borg):
After reading romance novels for some fourteen years, I am growing bored with the same old predictable stuff and really have difficulty remembering many books after reading them. I understand that, basically, all romances are predictable - man and woman will marry at the end and live happily ever after; however, it is very refreshing to find books that fulfil this basic criteria without following the same patterns. I really enjoyed Sutcliffe's book especially because of the non-traditional ending. While I don't have complaints with the "beating over the head" ending, I appreciate and value the rare book that deviates from the norm. I applaud any romance author who takes risks and tries to do something new with a genre that desperately needs revitalization.
Author Aimee Thurlo (http://www.comet.net/writersm/thurlo/home.htm):
I personally think that without the happily ever after ending you're cheating the readers. Women want to have that because it's so very often missing in their own lives. Reality has a way of intruding. We create fantasies. Let them be just that.
From Kathleen L Schemine (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I agree with your statement about wanting to be hit over the head with a happy ending. While in college I read Rosemary Rogers' trilogy about Virginia and Steve. The first book was about how they met, battled, and fell in love. In the second book they were estranged and then reunited. When I read the third book, another estrangement and reunion, I quit caring about them. I wished I could have said to them that after all this time they should know each other well enough to decide positively if they should be together or not. The HEA ending of the third book seemed ridiculous because I didn't have faith that they'd stay together. It may have been a HEA for the characters, but the third time around wasn't one for me.
Christiane Friese (email@example.com):
Generally, I have to agree that I want a HEA ending when I read a romance. It would be quite a shock to reach the last page only to find out the hero would rather stay single and the heroine enter a cloister (a bit extreme, I know). However, I do not think that an open end, or quasi-open-end, has to be that awful. I have not read Sutcliffe's Devotion, so I can't say whether or not I think it's well done. But in a lot of books those last several pages are so terribly (I can't think of a propoer English word, the German equivalent would be kitschig) saccharine sweet and cloying that I often just roll my eyes and can hardly bear to read through them (unfortunately, I cannot think of an example right now). I think I would rather prefer an open end to something like that.
I haven't read that duo of books with the twice married hero either, but I don't think that could put me off an author for all times either. A lot of the enjoyment I get reading romance comes from the development of the characters and their living together through their problems and not from knowing they will live on cloud nine for the rest of their lives. I think the difference is that while I do require a happy end to that specific situation portrayed in a book I do not need necessarily the assurance they live happily ever after. The situation that either the hero or the heroine has been happily involved before meeting their partner is common enough in romance books. I often wonder what those relationships were like and whether there is not another story waiting to be told. Therefore I can very well imagine reading two books about the same hero with two diferent heroines (or vice versa). Maybe I will even give this duo a try!!
Finally, I would like to add how much I like and enjoy your column and The Romance Reader. As a romance fan in Germany (reading, however, only the English versions, because the translations are incredibly bad!) I don't have a lot of possibilities to learn about new books or even discuss them. Therefore this site is always great fun to visit!!
Author Katherine Deauxville:
Happy ending, yes. Modified. Many contemporaries don't need the locked-in "and so they lived happily ever after". Just an implication that maybe it's going to be a satisfactory relationship.
But a happy resolution - definitely. I don't want a heroine running off into the rain crying after the hero has explained that he has a wife and two kids he intends to stay with.
As for endings - period - yes, spare me the dangling non-resolution. The not solving the mystery. That's a tease that I, as a harried reader looking for information and entertainment, want to be spared.
I am one of those that absolutely must have a happily ever after ending. I read romance because it is pure escapism and provides an outlet for my imagination and idealism. If the ending were't happy, I think my goal would be defeated.
Elaine Wethington (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I have recently read four romances that had "ambiguous" endings. These were Penelope Williamson's The Outsider, Megan Chance's The Portrait as well as her Fall from Grace, and Roberta Gellis' romance based on Orpheus and Eurydice.
I enjoyed all of them, but for different reasons than I typically enjoy romance. In all of these books, the heroine ends up with the hero. Gellis does it in such a clever way in the retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend that I almost stood up and applauded at the end of the book. But I could not buy for a minute in any of these books that we were headed for the traditional happy ending at any time. These women were heading for serious trouble, because the men were serious trouble. (And in the case of Fall from Grace and the Gellis book, the women were fated to die.) I think, however, their unhappy fates are pretty obvious from the beginning, and I wonder if many readers wouldn't just end up putting the book down? I know that The Romance Reader's reviewer of Fall from Grace had this problem with the book. Once again, I thoroughly enjoyed all 4 books, but not as romance novels per se.
Author Jennifer Crusie:
I think romance novels, like any genre stories, must provide a reader with catharsis at the end, and that catharsis is usually found in a "just" ending; that is, characters get what they deserve. The bad guy gets punished, and the good guys get the happiness they've been striving for because they've suffered and grown and struggled. But a "just" ending can also mean a "sadder but wiser" ending (like Scarlett O'Hara's) or a noble sacrifice ending (like the one in movie Sommersby) or a "pick-up-the-pieces-and-go-on" ending in which it's clear the characters will not have perfect, easy lives thereafter, but are better off because of the struggles they've won and the life lessons they've learned.
So if HEA means a perfect marriage with perfect children in the offing, no, absolutely not, the romance doesn't require this. But if HEA means all the pressing problems solved with hope for the future and a feeling of personal achievement and of justice served for both the characters and the reader, then, yes. Romance doesn't admit despair at the end, nor does it posit the world as a cold, cruel, chaotic place. It offers hope, salvation and order through connection with others (not just the romantic connection with the hero). That's why it's so popular.
Mary Jane (email@example.com):
I need those happy endings, too. The wonderful writing that I've found and those happy endings are why I read romance. (In fact, I read the very end of a book before I buy it to make sure there's a happy ending.) Life can be tough sometimes and there's alot that is beyond our control - I love escaping into a great romance novel and knowing that in the end the characters I care about will live happily ever after.
Kathy Boswell (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I'm in total agreement with you. If I don't have a happily ever after at the end, I'm very disappointed. I have to know that the couple are going to live happily ever after and stay in love and married forever! If there's a family sequel or whatever, that couple is married, happy, has kids, the whole bit!
Author Deborah Simmons (Deborah118@aol.com):
To me, a happy ending is part of the appeal of romance. I don't know if I would read a romance without it, and I doubt if I would write one, either.
Andrea Schlieder (DXKD78B@prodigy.com):
The HEA is an absolute must for me. This is what makes romance as a genre so appealing-the ending can be depended upon to be happy. And even though I know this is a given I still take a quick peek at the last page 'just to make sure'. If I ever read a 'romance' that did not end happily I would most likely never read that author again.
Andrea - who never got over the ending of Gone With The Wind!
Your column has prompted me to once again broach the one thing about your otherwise fine work in the romance genre that has always deeply disturbed me; your insistence (and RWA's) on defining romances as something that has a happy ending. For me, that is the definition of a romantic comedy, using comedy in the Shakespearean sense of something that ends happily (i.e., not necessarily something that is wildly humorous). But the bulk of the most famous romances in the world are romantic tragedies: Romeo & Juliet, Tristan & Isolde, and so on. But perhaps it would be better to stick with prose -- well then, take Wuthering Heights. While I always found that book a bit overrated and disjointed, an awful lot of literary types (esp. women's lit types) think it's the cat's pajamas. Not calling it a romance lessons the prestige of romances, IMO.
But perhaps we should focus on more readily accessible popular novels. The one that comes immediately to mind is Gone with the Wind. If I ask my husband to name a romance, GWTW is what he'd say. Not only that -- it is a masterfully written book that offers an incredibly realistic characterization in the form of Scarlett O'Hara and a vividly researched historical setting, even as it includes all sorts of period-piece prejudices that we should never forget people held. gain, Excluding GWTW from romances again does a disservice to the genre, IMO.
And actually, as for its "unhappy" ending--while I sob at the ending of Romeo & Juliet and many other romantic tragedies, I have never been saddened by Rhett's departure at the end of GWTW (by Mellie's death, yes; by Rhett's departure, no). Scarlett was a spoiled brat before the war and selfish money grubber after; she lusted after Mellie's husband long after Melly became her best friend; she was a big show off; she treated Rhett abominably; and she didn't know her own feelings until it was way too late. Frankly, my dear, I thought she got what she deserved!
Anyway, if I had to define a romance, it would be a book that focuses on one or more human love relationships.
Thanks for letting me "vent" this I know dissenting opinion.
(To read E.P.'s follow-up, which was a Letter of the Week, and the responses it received, please click here.)
Author Jaclyn Reding (email@example.com):
My vote is yes on the HEA. For me its the final conclusion, the resolution of the conflict that has been driving the story from page one. Without it, the story is lacking. My best example? Gone With The Wind. I love that story. I love Scarlett. I love Rhett. I hate the ending. It left me hanging. It left me feeling incomplete, for although I knew Scarlett would go after Rhett - she just had to - without having that tangible proof of it there, that small niggling bit of doubt always remained. Did she go after Rhett after all? Did she succeed in winning him back? The reader was left wondering. . . hoping. . . but never knowing for certain.
Linda Williams (firstname.lastname@example.org):
To me the definition of Romance is the HEA. No HEA, no Romance. But the author has to do more than just hit me over the head with the h/h's mutual pledges of undying love at the end of the novel. The development of the characters & plot up to that moment have to lend strong credence to the veracity of those pledges. Not only do I have to hear the words, I also have to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that the H/H are going to love each other forevermore.
Last year I severely disliked one of Elizabeth Lowell's more recently written western novels primarily because of the ending. I thought the hero was simply deluding himself and the heroine about his committment to her on the last page of the novel. So much so that I could easily visualize another big misunderstanding based on the hero's insecurities and lack of trust in the heroine occurring the very next day, or even later that afternoon! As a character, the author had not proved to my satisfaction that this "wounded" hero was not still carrying around the same woman-hating emotional baggage that he brought into the novel on page one. (Sorry, can't remember the title -- it was the one about the civil war vet who was tracking down the outlaw gang members responsible for kidnapping and killing his child, and who got permanently side tracked from his mission to help our heroine save her ranch.)
Another writer who at one time I enjoyed reading but I never pick up today is category writer Diane Palmer. Her books often depicted wounded heroes a la Lowell who carried around written in granite preconceived notions of women based on their appearance, their profession, their family, etc. Men who have these whore/madonna mentalities where women are concerned, have to do more in their evolution of character than just flip the heroine from category 'A' whore, to category 'B' madonna to make me a believer in the novel's HEA. If the author has demonstrated to me concretely that the hero has evolved sufficiently to see all women as real people, with faults, virtues, etc. then I'll believe that the HEA is for real.
Also, the author really has to go the extra mile to prove the HEA in those novels where the hero is initially described as a "rake" or womanizer. I have to have compelling proof that the tom cat has mended his ways!
And finally, like you, I worry about age gaps. Not only is the heroine looking at a long term future of widowhood but a lot of conflicts arise as the hero ages; jealousy, insecurity, loss of virility (his), increased sexuality (her), etc. So you see, I have to be able to see that 17 or 18 year old teenager as the personality type who will remain devoted to her 35-40 year old husband twenty years down the road when he's 60 and she's just 38.
From Katherine Lazo (email@example.com):
I think HEA endings are definitely called for. I remember one Silhouette Desire, by some author whose name I can't remember (this was all years ago); I was about to buy it since the last title (a Silhouette Romance) I had read by that author had a blissfully HEA ending. Then I realized the name of the heroine (a widow) sounded very familiar -- she was the heroine in the previous book by that author! Immediately after that, I placed that author on my "to avoid" list. This is one criterion where "first strike and you're out" applies.
Author P. Alice Duncan (firstname.lastname@example.org):
As far as I'm concerned, if a book doesn't have an HEA ending I don't wanna read it. Okay, so my own personal life hasn't exactly been filled to the brim with HEA's and maybe that colors my perspective. However, for me one of the reasons I love romance so much is that people fight the good fight and win, unlike real life in which the outcome is often questionable. My opinion isn't shared by everyone, but also as far as I'm concerned, the romance genre is based on fantasy -- it's the way life should be and would be if justice prevailed, as it were. In many respects, the romance and mystery genres are similar. In mysteries the crime is always solved. In romances, the hero and heroine have an HEA. Real life is often infinitely more murky than that, darn it.
Jacquie Rogers (email@example.com):
I don't read to get depressed. I want the heroine and hero sitting in the kitchen with their baby twin boys at the end of the book.
I really hate trite conflict, though. The "He doesn't love me. . . She doesn't love me" that goes on for 100 pages makes me disgusted as a reader. Hurl! Of course, as a writer its a no brainer.
Laverne Zemaitis (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I really require a Happily Ever After in a romance. If I want brutal reality, I go to another section of the bookstore. I also agree that sequels where we learn a favorite character from another book has died really bother me. For a few hours a week, I live in a wonderful world where passions run high and love lasts forever. Please don't jolt me back to earth!
Author Denee Cody (DeneeMCody):
I think the HEA is essential to romance. Critics of the genre point to this as evidence that romances are formulaic and to a certain extent they are correct. Of course their tone is usually derogatory, implying nothing of merit can be written to a formula. However, most art is restricted by some form. Shakespeare's sonnets were written to a form (the sonnet). What a writer does with the form elevates the story above the commonplace. So, while there are a few "restrictions" in romance, the HEA appears to be the one absolutely essential to the readers.
Like every writer I know, I have so many story ideas bouncing around in my head I won't live long enough to write them all. Some of those ideas, while they have a strong romance in them, do not have happy endings. I would never write those stories as romances. They would have to be done as mainstream historical fiction, where there is more flexibility in how a book ends. The necessity of the HEA ending is invariably the reason I decide not to write certain stories I would love to explore. It is the one crucial criterion that, for me, decides whether or not the story is a romance. Every other story element can work as either romance or mainstream, but not this one.
I've read excellent novels, with strong romantic themes, or great love stories, that did not have the HEA and could not be classified as romance. I'm not sure if a lot of other writers feel some frustration over the "rule" for the HEA. I do, when I have a story I want to tell, but know it doesn't quite fit. But I think most writers, like most readers of romance, accept and prefer the HEA. I'll be interested to see if your survey supports my impression of what is preferred.
Beth Abott (email@example.com):
I tend to be a lurker, but I am quite adamant on the subject of the HEA ending. It is mandatory for me. Period. If I want reality, I have my own life (g). I can read the paper for real life angst. When I read, I want to escape, preferably into a wonderful, romantic, erotic fantasy.
Life is tough, everyone has hardships. Very few people have happily ever after. Why do I need more of unhappiness in my reading? I gave up Daniel Steel because she always makes me sad. If I want sad I can watch my local news and save five bucks!
Author Mary Jo Putney (Mehetabel@aol.com):
Part of this depends on the definitions -- romance in the grand tradition, like Romeo & Juliet, Gone With the Wind, etc, often did not have happy endings, and in fact the poignance and tragedy often were part of what made the story memorable.
However, the romance genre books that we read and write by definition have happy endings. These books are read as escapes from the difficulties and stresses of everyday life, and few of us want to read 400 pages and get invested in the characters only to find out that they can't work out.
Personally, I wouldn't want to read a romance with an unhappy ending, and I certainly don't want to write one. The same is more or less true of other genres -- one wants the ending to be satisfying, if not necessarily "happy." (What kind of mystery wouldn't solve the murder?)
From Liz Zink (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I also, have to have an HEA ending. I read romance to relax and to remove myself from reality for a time. I can't do that if I'm confronted with a "bad" ending. I have enough of the real world, I need to know that the hero and heroine are going to overcome obstacles and make it through to the end. I can recall one book right off the top of my head, Beauty by Susan Wilson (I think) the heroine dies at the end giving birth to their child. Now the story was great up until that point and the heroine did make the ultimate sacrifice for her love, however, I thought I was reading a romance with a happy ending and was extremely upset about the ending. I gave the book away, and I usually don't do that. I like to hoard my books. If I'm reading a different genre of books, I expect different things to happen, I won't be so upset by a non HEA ending, but if it's labeled as romance, I want happily ever after, darn it!
Author Marsha Canham (email@example.com):
As a general rule of thumb, I would say yes, readers expect HEA endings and authors usually deliver them. There are some exceptions, like Gone with the Wind and The Thorn Birds, and they certainly worked. I myself had to fight long and hard with the editors when The Pride of Lions was being copy-edited. It does not have a standard HEA ending; it ends with the hero and heroine being separated until the sequel, The Blood of Roses, brings them together again. But in that instance, it was the logical ending that won out over the acceptable ending. I just couldn't see a Jacobite soldier agreeing to let his English wife remain in Scotland at the outbreak of the Rebellion of '45, when he knew his clan's territory would be hotly contested in battle.
I did receive more mail from Pride than from any other book I have written -- about 400 in the span of a few days. Most of it was due to the publisher 'forgetting' to include the preview chapter for Blood of Roses, which would have told the reader the sequel was on its way. But out of the 400, a good percentage agreed with my thinking: an unconventional way to end the book, but totally logical.
Would I do it again? If the storyline warranted it: absolutely.
From Penny (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I didn't have a problem with Devotion. I knew the guy was gonna go get 'er, course some kissy and huggy would have been nice between the two of them, I guess that's why some readers felt cheated, we wanna see and hear the HEA, just knowing it happens isn't enough. Absolutely, this HEA is a prerequisite for a good romance, or else what's the point? Like Sommersby, that movie with Richard Gere and Jodi Foster, which was a great romance till the last 5 minutes, then I watched in horrified disbelief as a wonderful story was ruined totally!!! I never watched it again, and I loved it, up to the very end.
I have never forgiven Linda Lael Miller for her first book in the vampire trilogy she wrote, Forever & the Night. She let the hero and heroine get together at the end, but they forgot who they were, so they didn't know it. Whatta drag of an ending for a good book. I have never forgiven her, and that was the first and last book of hers I read.
On the other hand, Robin Gideon wrote a vampire trilogy, in which the heroine grows old and dies, because she refuses to become a vampire, and the hero of course is immortal. Robin Gideon handled this beautifully, and I didn't feel the least cheated of my HEA, because the heroine remained true to herself, and I knew the hero would love her forever, tho his life went on. This is the only book, however, where the death of a character hasn;t knocked my nose completely out of joint and made me really mad at the author. If I wanted reality, I'd read the newspaper. When I read romantic fiction or watch what my daughter calls a "chick flick," I want all my cliches intact, thank you.
From Judith Czako (email@example.com):
I agree with you - if it's not HEA, it's not a romance. It can be a wonderful novel, a terrific story, a moving experience, the best book ever, all of that and more, but it does not meet my criteria for a romance. If I buy a book that is self-described as a romance, or published as one by a known romance publisher, I expect it to remain within at least that convention.
Author Elizabeth Grayson (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I think that almost by definition a happy -- or at least hopeful -- ending is a requirement of genre books. In Mysteries, the crooks get caught. In Westerns, the good guys win. In Science Fiction, the world gets saved. In Romance, the hero and heroine end up together. Or at least they have a strong hope of being together. People read genre fiction to have the assumption that "all's right with the world" confirmed. That guarantee allows writers of genre fiction to explore difficult or tragic circumstances in their books, and allows readers to engage emotionally with characters going through these things with the assurance that "everything will come out right in the end."
Books where the crooks get away and the hero and heroine don't end up together are not genre books. They are something else -- something every bit as viable, often every bit as enjoyable to the reader. But different. They are suspense or thrillers. Women's fiction, contemporary or historical novels. Literary fiction.
But if you are talking about "Romance" as genre fiction, a happy ending is, in my opinion, mandatory.
I agree with you the a happily ever after ending is almost essential to a good romance novel. One example that immediately comes to mind is Dana Ransom's Pirate's Captive. In a sequel, we learn that the heroine died relatively soon after the ending of the Pirate's Captive, and that the hero has been alone and grieving for over fifteen years. To make matters worse, we have to watch hm die. This was actually a traumatic experience for me. Pirate's Captive is one of my favorite books of all time, so I just ignore Ransom's future and make up my own. After all, it is fiction.
Janis Reams Hudson's Apache series is another matter. Two of these books have the same hero, his first wife dying between the two. Now, I can understand an author writing a book and later realizing something was wrong (whatever it may be) and having to do something about it. However, in this case, Hudson obviously intended to kill her, as seen in an epilogue that foreshadows her demise. Why? There is no reason for the first book, except to set the stage for the second.
Thank you for this oppurtunity to actually express something I have thought about for a while.