Anne here. I participated in a symposium on Genre Fiction at Melbourne University last week. It was a fascinating day and I enjoyed myself immensely. I was on two panels and at the end of the day took part in a debate — "In the battle of the genres, romance will always win." It was lovely, lighthearted fun.
One thing that surprised me though, was that so many of the other participants in the day (not the romance writers) confused "romantic books" (in which one or both the lovers end up dead) with "romance novels" (in which the lovers end up alive, together, and happy.) They mostly talked about the former, and pretty much ignored the latter.
It was as if they weren't comfortable with the notion of "a happy ending" — which is a vital part of the definition of genre romance. As if it was a bit embarrassing to have to admit to. Or something.
Some people in the literary world think that books with a happy ending are somehow a cop-out, or unrealistic, or even flat out unbelievable — that tragic endings make for a more "real" experience.
And it bewilders me that so many writers (outside of the romance genre) think that crafting a happy ending is so darn easy, too. Because that's what they mean by "a cop out" — taking the easy way out. Clearly they've never tried to write a satisfying happy ending.
To me, it seems a lot easier to create a character that people care about, then kill them off at the end of the book. You're guaranteed an emotional response from readers after that — and presumably readers in those genres expect that sort of ending. To me that seems a much easier way to achieve a climactic ending. (Then again, I've never tried killing off my hero or heroine, either.)
Sure, it's effective. I've been reading a wonderful fantasy series, the most recent book of which was all about a tiny girl, kidnapped by evil people who intend to destroy her in the nastiest way. I worried about that little girl all through the book — and at the very end the author had her escape her evil captors and run off into the snowy forest — in the dead of winter.
I screamed with frustration. But I'll buy the next book — whenever it comes out, some time in the long-distant future. And that little girl had better survive! (I think she will. I trust the author — but I have to wait to find out!)
I've read plenty of books with tragic endings — my degree in literature was full of them — not one happy ending in all my years at university — though some of them were wonderful. And I know a lot of people love a good "weepie." But more and more I prefer to read — and write — happy ones. The word is full of enough misery and gloom — I don't need to add more to my life, or anyone else's.
I think there is a deep human need to read books that balance the uncertainty and negativity of modern life, to read books that value love and relationships, that end on a hopeful note and remind you that life is worth living.
Crafting a believable happy ending is harder than it looks. Firstly you have to create couple who are right for each other —that's harder than you think. Then you need to make readers care about your characters, then you have to send them on a journey (physical or emotional) that is satisfying. Readers want characters to earn their happy ending — Mary Jo calls it "torturing her heroes".
At some point it has to look like they won't make it after all — creating believable doubt. Then you have to craft the ending so it isn't just a convenient mush of "I love you John, I love you Marsha" — though we do want "I love you" to be said. By both hero and heroine. It's a balancing act. The ending has to satisfy on a number of levels.
I like to tie up as many loose ends as I can. Some people hate that — they think that's unrealistic — and it probably is, but it's part of what makes a satisfying happy ending for me. I don't want to be left wondering what happened to the dog in chapter four, or whether the little girl who ran off into the snow—ahem—whether the nice minor character who was hit by a carriage survived.
Some people love an epilogue, others hate them. I'm quite fond of them myself — but not the kind of epilogue that starts twenty or fifty years later, with the hero and heroine gray-haired and cheery, surrounded by their many children and grandchildren. I hate that. As far as I'm concerned they've only just come together — I'm not ready for them to be old yet. I want all the joys of life to be ahead of them, rich and glowing in my imagination.
So what about you? What makes a good happy ending for you? Do you like loose ends tied up or dangling? To you like or loathe epilogues? What's a good "happy ever after" ending you've read lately? Or do you enjoy the occasional book with a tragic ending?