Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happily, Ever?

by Lisabet Sarai

Gloriana DeMarco is used to getting what she wants. The outrageously beautiful daughter of a U.S. Senator, she lives in a Beverly Hills mansion, drives a red Porsche, and dances her nights away at the hottest, most exclusive clubs in town. The fact that she also happens to be a vampire makes her even more persuasive.

Hank Storm is a rowdy punk who uses his fists and his wits to survive on the mean streets of South LA. He's also a lycan, the sworn enemy of the blood drinkers who control the city.

When Hank's battered Harley rams into Gloriana's 911 Carrera, sparks fly as well as glass. The mutual attraction is incandescent and irresistible. But Hank and Glori are literally from different worlds. Will they manage bridge the huge gulf between them, the differences in wealth, class, and monster-species, to find true love?

Of course they will, silly. It's a romance.

A happy ending is the sine qua non of the romance genre. Readers crave the satisfaction that comes from seeing the protagonists overcome all obstacles in order to end up, mutually devoted and sexually fulfilled, in each other's arms. Personally, I get that. Readers identify with the characters (at least if the author has done his or her job). Of course readers want characters to be happy by the end of the tale, to enjoy the vicarious experience. Hey, I like a happy ending as much as the next reader.

For an author, though, the ultimate romance commandment, “Thou shalt have a happy ending”, poses some problems. A story is propelled by conflict. Conflict generates suspense, that is, pleasurable uncertainty as to how and whether the conflict will be resolved. Suspense draws the reader further into the narrative. The reader continues in order to discover what will happen next. A “real page turner”, such as we all aspire to write, keeps the reader involved by keeping her off-balance, constantly creating new tension that can only be relieved by reading further.

When an author is constrained to provide a happy ending, generating suspense becomes more difficult. There's no uncertainty about how the story will conclude. The author must find another way to keep the reader turning pages. Authors vary in how successful they are in meeting this challenge. My main complaint about much of the romance that I read is that it is distressingly predictable.

One solution is to create a conflict so intense that the reader will really have a hard time guessing how it could be resolved. Here's the blurb from my upcoming MFM ménage release, Truce of Trust, due out from Total-E-Bound on May 19th:

Some women might think Leah’s existence heavenly. She shares her home with two sexy men who both adore her. Ten years married to lusty, artistic Daniel, she still enjoys the discipline and release offered by Greg. But her lovers’ jealousy and possessiveness have made Leah’s life a hell. Unable to bear the continuous conflict, she flees to an idyllic seaside resort to ponder her future. Gradually she realises that she cannot live without either of her lovers. If the two men can’t settle their differences, though, then how can she bear to live with them?

Obviously, somehow, the differences will be settled, because this is a romance, a ménage romance, and the ultimate commandment must be obeyed. In writing this blurb, though, I hoped to produce at least mild curiosity as to just how these two alpha males vying to possess the female of the species will manage to find an accommodation.

Another solution is to focus the suspense not on the relationship but on another aspect of the plot. In Raw Silk, Kate explores her sexuality with three different lovers. The questions I pose for my readers are, first, will she choose one man or continue her hedonistic experimentation with all three? Second, if she does choose one of them, who will it be?

I originally conceived of Raw Silk as erotica rather than romance. (When I wrote it, 'way back in 1999, explicit romance was not as accepted or as popular as it is today.) The book fictionalizes my own awakening to BDSM and channels my fantasies about a serious, committed BDSM relationship. Of course it has a happy ending (as long as you consider being bound in public by your Master, wearing labia clips and a butt plug, to be happy...). Fantasies always do. I hope, though, that it is not too predictable. In any case, the book is now being marketed as romance. But then, so is Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat, which first inspired me to try publishing my erotic writings.

The erotica genre is less strict about requiring HEAs. Of the twenty stories in Fire, my single-author erotic short story collection, eleven have happy endings, five are ambiguous and four are definitely unhappy. Even for the stories I've classified as happy, the endings tend to be more equivocal than in romance. In “Twentieth Century”, the heroine loses her lover but experiences a sexual and artistic awakening. In “Perception”, the hero disappears after making love to the heroine and she's not sure whether she'll ever see him again. The “ambiguous” category includes one story (“Higher Power”) in which the heroine ends up with a broken neck and another (“Communion”) where she's burned at the stake as a witch. Not your average romance scenarios!

Even in the world of erotica, I see some tendency for editors to prefer happy stories over darker ones. One of my absolute favorite stories, “Trespass”, has been rejected for at least four anthologies, mostly because it ends with the death of both protagonists. On the other hand, I think that it's intensely romantic, a story of forbidden love that crosses societal boundaries.

I'm not going to turn this post into another diatribe railing against the constraints of genre. If you want to write romance, you adapt. You try keep the reader wondering just how your characters are going to get out of their predicament and get together. One of the most skillful examples of maintaining suspense in romance that I've encountered is Erastes' M/M historical romance Standish. As I was reading, I was acutely aware of the genre. I knew that the book had to have a happy ending. Yet the author kept me on edge until the last chapter; it really did seem that her characters were doomed to separation.

Bravo. I only hope that I can do as well. I've tried to pull off a similar trick in my upcoming novella Serpent's Kiss (coming from Total-E-Bound on May 4th). At one point it appears that heroine, Elena, has lost her love forever, sacrificed for a greater good. I won't say any more for fear of giving things away. But at that juncture, I want my readers to be shocked, desperate, to ask themselves, Is it possible that this might not end happily after all?

If I can manage that, then it will be a very happy ending for me!


  1. I think you're right in a way - everyone does know that the characters will get their happy ending. But I think you can say the same about the endings of most genre books.

    In a mystery, the crime generally gets solved. In a thriller/adventure, the hero will save the day. In erotica, they will have sex.

    I think reading a genre is a bit like watching a magician on stage. You know that the pretty lady he's just sawn in half will be put back together in the end. But maybe you don't watch it for the surprise, as much as you watch it to see the trick done well - to enjoy the journey?

    Kim Dare.

  2. Interesting perspective, Kim. But I still think it would be great to be able to surprise my readers - even in romance!


  3. I love to throw in twists and turns, one reason I love romantic suspense. I think the HEA is pretty well expected. Tomorrow I'm going to touch on another possible ending- HFN. Happy for now.

    Great stuff, Lisabet. Your new book looks wonderful.

    Have a great day everyone, I'm off to hunt eggs!


  4. Applying what you have said to my favorite of your works, Ruby's Rules, it is a romance whose ultimate resolution (will Ruby or Rick be on top) is in doubt, and propels the story forward.

  5. Hi Lisabet!

    I think I still have this guy thing about the happy ending nd the whole Magic Hoo-Hoo thing in general about romance. I would need like a whole other level of consciousness to get there. But I admire people who can make it work.


  6. It's a brave soul indeed who writes romance and doesn't include a HEA for the MCs. Oops - just realized I did that - once. Two brothers in love with the same woman - a straight romance so no chance of a menage. One brother is left very unhappy. My editor asked me to write a story for him and leave him happy at the end! Readers will demand it - she said. If only! But every other story I've written has a HEA, even the thrillers.

  7. Hello, Justin,

    Thanks for the comment on Ruby's Rules. I didn't actually try for that suspense when I was writing it. Ruby and Rick were driving the story. I let them fight it out!


  8. The trick, Garce, is to make the happy ending NOT depend on magic. It has to somehow be difficult and yet at the same time to not strain belief (even if you're writing paranormal, the ex machina has to fit with the rules of the paranormal world you've created).

    Thanks for commenting.


  9. Hello, Barbara,

    In Raw Silk, one guy is chosen; the other two are left in the cold. That's the way love is... however, I did work in some compensation for them.

    My latest novel, Exposure, is far more ambiguous. It's erotic suspense rather than romance. At the end, the main character has lost a great deal, including a certain innocence. Nothing can make that up to her. She's considering her options, which include two relationships. But the reader doesn't really know what will happen next.

    Thanks for dropping by.



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