In which I shall be laying down the rules and expecting the universe to comply
So. There has been a lot of excited discussion on twitter and on Dear Author lately about various elements much-cherished in the romance genre, in particular the requirement for an ’emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.’ In other words, they have to get together by the end and the reader has to be convinced that they are happy. The common shorthand for this ending is Happy Ever After (HEA). It can be signalled formally by an engagement, a marriage, and all-too-frequently, or by an epilogue set some time in the future when our happy couple have produced a quiverful of babies. Bonus points for this epilogue if infertility was one of the plot points in the book. It can be signalled more informally in any number of ways that are appropriate and specific to the couple involved. The major sources of conflict in the plot, both external and internal, need to be resolved so that the reader can be confident there are no obstacles to the hero and heroine enjoying a blissful future together. Or at least, years of arguing whose turn it is to put the rubbish out.
Today we have two questions which I will settle once and for all:
(a) must every romance novel have an HEA and, if not, what are the limits of acceptable alternatives;
(b) is there such a thing as a series of romances in which only the final book has an HEA?
I will deal with (a) first.
No, not every romance novel must have an HEA. It’s not always appropriate to the characters and the story, and not necessary for the ending to be emotionally satisfying and optimistic.
For example, consider what an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending for a romance featuring 19 year olds is likely to look like. The couple should have overcome all the conflicts in the book, external and internal. But readers know that at that time of life things often change quickly. External circumstances and internal emotions are more volatile when you’re still at college. These kids can be together in an emotionally satisfying way that is optimistic for their future, but not be rushing down to the jewellery shop to put a ring on it. They may not even want to use the ‘l’ word, though probably they are feeling it. They are likely to freak out if the heroine got pregnant. They might still be considering career choices that involved periods of separation. They certainly still have a lot of growing up to do. By the end of the book they should have achieved what they need now, and that should offer potential for the future, but it does not need to be a settled commitment and if the author suggests that it is, they will need to work extremely hard to make that seem plausible. (I know it’s not a romance and there were other reasons for doing it but the Harry Potter epilogue is a good example of when this doesn’t work.)
These sort of Happy For Now (HFN) endings aren’t just for the young’uns. What about a story that takes place over a very short period of time (no matter how long the book is)? Or a romantic suspense where the couple meet at a time of high pressure and maybe in a life-threatening situation? I’d want to see endings for these couples that are optimistic for the future, but realistic about the fact that they will still have a certain amount of getting to know each other and getting used to each other in more normal circumstances. There has to be a desire to try and make it work, but it would feel wrong to have them rushing to an altar (real or metaphorical). If they were my friends I would be advising caution and patience, no matter how optimistic and pleased for them I was. They might be saying ‘I love you’s and hoping it will last, but until that love is tested against the everyday mundanity of life for a while, I don’t think they should be conceiving triplets and putting down joint deposits on a house.
So here’s what I require at the end of a romance novel:
Couple are together
They are happier together than they were apart
They are optimistic that this will continue
I am optimistic that they will continue to make each other happy for the foreseeable future
There is nothing in the plot left unresolved that will be an obstacle to their future happiness
Here’s what is optional:
I love you to be spoken
I love you to be thought
Rings, weddings, babies
They believe utterly that nothing short of death will separate them
I believe utterly that nothing short of death will separate them
Things that were not in obstacles in the plot are also resolved (INFERTILITY, I’M LOOKING AT YOU.)
Side note: if you are the sort of reader who likes to imagine that all HFN’s turn out to be HEA’s, that’s great! I don’t think authors should leave anything unresolved that would spoil this for you. But that’s up to you as a reader. I think HEA’s demand to be read that way, while HFN’s allow more ambiguity when imagining the future beyond the book.
Now onto (b). Is there such a thing as a series of romances in which only the final book has an HEA?
No, no, no, no, no.
Here’s what you can have:
A serial romance, which is one book, chopped up and sold in short sections for the purposes of extracting more money out of readers. The serial episodes will not have HEA/HFN but they will be clearly labelled as such and readers will know that the resolution only happens in the final book.
A series of connected romances, each featuring a different central couple. I think that all HEA couples must remain together throughout the series. I would be okay with HFN couples splitting up, but I can see why some readers would object to this.
A series of books of some other genre with a romantic subplot that has a series arc. Mystery series work well with this set up. The romantic subplot does not have to reach its resolution until the final book.
A series of books about a relationship of which one or more meet the definition of a romance but many do not. These are not books I want to read when I am reading romance. For me they are a breach of trust and a betrayal of the genre. If you tell me that these books are romances but they do not fulfil the promise that a romance novel makes, I will be cross and upset, and I will feel let down by the book. The ending is such a core part of the definition of a romance, and for me it is the determining factor in the experience of reading romance. The confidence I can have in the ending is what allows me to enjoy the journey. The certainty of resolution gives me the freedom to experience the conflict and separation without fear.
To me it is very simple: one romance novel, one HEA/HFN. Everyone, please to be taking note of this and acting accordingly. Thank you.