Saturday, April 18, 2009

Happy Endings

This week Oh, Get a Grip! welcomes Barbara Elsborg.


When I read a book, I expect the experience to be a positive one. If it isn’t, I don’t finish the book. It usually gets tossed to the bedroom floor with a grand flourish in the hope that husband will notice so I can rail about the disappointment of wasting my time and money. Of course having to get out of bed to mop up water, having knocked over my glass, sort of spoils the moment.

Genre expectations exist for all types of books. Fans of mystery novels expect to see a crime being solved, horror fans want to be scared witless, readers of fantasy require an imaginative challenge and hard core sci fi readers – ah well, I don’t get those weirdoes but that’s probably because I was crap at physics. The requirement for a HEA in romance books has some people rolling their eyes but what’s wrong with romance readers expecting a happy ending? What’s wrong with anyone wanting a happy ending?

I read to be entertained, to be removed for a while from my ordinary life on my mega-yacht drinking champagne and be transported to a fantasy world of good looking guys. I don’t mind if they’re alive or undead, werewolf or gargoyle, prince or pauper, (but not zombies- I have to draw the line somewhere). But I need to know that the world I enter will become ordered and safe and happy by the end of the book.

To be honest, I like HEA or HFN in everything I read, romance or not. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t read books with unhappy endings, I do, though most often by accident. It’s not something authors announce on the back page – oh by the way, I kill off that lovely hero and leave the heroine to take poison on his grave. Strangely enough, it’s books with unhappy endings that have stayed with me longer than the others. Jay McInerney’s Ransom is a case in point – I love it because I became so emotionally involved with the hero. I faithfully read all the brilliant Karin Slaughter’s series and was staggered by what she did to her hero who’d I’d grown to love over several books. I had to go back and read it again because I wondered if I’d made a mistake. She was paranoid about people revealing the end and threatened disembowelment at the very least for those who spoilt it for others. Fearing she might come after me with a knife, I won’t say too much but I still think about that ending and don’t understand WHY she did it. Even if she’d gone as far with that character as she could, why kill him?

Unhappy endings are not common in romance. If I ended up in floods of tears because one of the MCs died or walked away from love, I’d feel cheated and annoyed. I don’t mind crying at their angst part way through and I don’t mind crying with happiness because they end up together, though it doesn’t happen often. The crying I mean. Readers need characters to get what they deserve. I want the villains to receive their comeuppance. I expect the hero and heroine, or heroes, having completed their journey and learned life’s lessons, to be rewarded with happiness. That’s why I read romance. I want the world to be fair and just.

So what’s the attraction of romance books when I know what’s going to happen? If the ending is predictable, why bother reading? Because HEA isn’t straight forward and is only a small part of the whole. We don’t know the journey the MCs will take and if a writer is skilled enough, she or he will make that journey so compelling we feel the happy ending is the perfect finish.

It might be the fairytale ending of marriage, 2.4 kids and a blissful ride into old age. It might be more a HFN, the feeling of satisfaction that having shown characters maturing during the book, the author has given them the hope of a better life in the future. So it’s really what comes before HEA that’s important- the journey, the learning experience, the battling through difficulties and disappointments as the relationship grows so that the readers feels these two or three – ooh, maybe more – characters can’t live without each other.

How about romance books that don’t have the HEA – or at least my view of a HEA. Gone with the Wind – is the one most commonly quoted. Rhett walks away but we don’t know if Scarlet follows. Personally I couldn’t give a damn, my dear. She was horrible! Remains of the Day is a great story but definitely has an unhappy ending. Jude Deveraux’s – A Knight in Shining Armor is a time travel romance where the hero goes back to his own time and leaves the heroine in the present. We get a sort of HEA but the ending still niggles with me that the two main protagonists don’t end up with each other.

I suppose I learnt a lesson from that with my story – Power of Love – to be released by Ellora’s Cave on the 20th May. It’s the story of a woman whose boyfriend has been killed. He returns as an angel. I never plan my stories – so I got towards the end and thought – how am I going to keep them together? It never crossed my mind that Joe would go off to heaven and leave Poppy to find another love. No, they had to stay together so I made it happen. Ah, the power of the pen!


Barbara Elsborg lives in West Yorkshire in the north of England.

She always wanted to be a spy, but having confessed that to everyone without them even resorting to torture, she decided it was not for her. Vulcanology scorched her feet. A morbid fear of sharks put paid to marine biology. So instead, she spent several years successfully selling cyanide. After dragging up two rotten, ungrateful children and frustrating her sexy, devoted, wonderful husband (who can now stop twisting her arm) she finally has time to conduct an affair with an electrifying plugged-in male, her laptop.

Her books feature quirky heroines and bad boys, and she hopes they are much fun to read as they were to write.

You can find out more about Barbara and all her latest releases with Ellora’s Cave, Loose Id and Ravenous Romance on her blog here.


  1. I have a favorite author who killed off the heroine's partner/lover/eventually husband after several books. I'm still reading her after 23 years because she went on to other series. One of my favorites had the heroine telling her lover to take a hike only to have him try to redeem himself and almost make it back in her good graces in the next novel and leaving me to anticipate an HEA in the future. He is too much a by the book FBI agent to go along with what she wanted done with a suspect. Will they find a compromise? I can't wait to find out.


  2. Hi Barbara,

    Thanks for joining us :)

    I think you're right - through the week we have sort of lost sight of the story as a whole. The ending is important, but it's still a very small part of the whole.

    After all it's what happens before the end that decides if the ending - happy or sad - is going to make sense, and I think the one thing we've agreed on is that it has to follow on logically :)

    Kim Dare.

  3. Hello, Barbara!

    Welcome to the Grip. I love your bio!

    I agree that the journey being the important part of the story. But when you are writing, doesn't that journey sometimes threaten to take you places that make you uncomfortable? Doesn't it ever feel wrong (from a literary perspective) to create a HEA? (It does for me.)

    Or do you have the ending in mind before the story starts, before you begin writing? And just work your way towards it?


  4. I've never written anything that has an unhappy ending. They've all naturally migrated that way. I don't have the ending in mind when I start, I really do just wing it with every story. But I do agree that you should follow your heart with your writing and the ending should be the one that feels right- whether it's unhappy or not though the chances of publication, if that story is a romance, are very low indeed.
    Thanks for inviting me! It's been great.

  5. Looking forward to seeing you in person.

  6. I'm the one with three heads, gap teeth and pointy ears! You can't miss me.

  7. Basically, I'm a fantasy lover first and a romance lover just behind. Because of that, I DON'T require a HEA/HFN in everything I read or write. BUT, this is the difference.

    If a book is called genre romance ... not dark romance, not classic love story, not mainstream, not chick lit, not straight-genre... If it's called genre romance, by definition, it SHOULD include a HEA/HFN. That's what genre romance declares, as a description of the genre, whether it's sweet romance or erotic romance. Calling something genre romance and not giving the required HEA/HFN is cheating the reader, and who wants to hack off a reader unnecessarily?

    Because I write both genre romance and not, my site includes a helpful rating scale so HEA/HFN lovers don't accidentally pick up something that doesn't provide it.



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