Friday, April 17, 2009

How happily ever after completely ruins the story

by Helen E. H. Madden

I am not a big fan of happy endings. Or rather I should say I am not a big fan of publishers who only accept and publish stories with a happily-ever-after (HEA)ending. I don't even like it when they say they'll accept happily-ever-after-for-now (HEAFN). It's like these publishers think there's sometthing wrong with a perfectly good tragedy. Hello? Have you not heard of Romeo and Juliet, written by this guy called Shakespeare? It's kind of popular...

So I don't care for a publishing house that only wants the happy stuff. That's not to say I think all stories should end in tragedy. But I do think the happiest ending for any story is the ending that actually works best for a story, regardless of whether that ending is happy or not.

I once spent ten weeks struggling to write a story. I would get about 20 pages into the tale, and slowly run out of things to say. It was because I didn't know how to end the story. I was shooting for a happy ending, one where the guy gets... well, the other guy (yeah, it was a m/m sort of thing). Every time I tried to write though, I could never get past page 20. I wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote those first 20 pages so many times I thought I was going to be sick. Then finally one day I sat down with my trusty ballpoint pen and my notebook and I determined that I would figure out how the story ended by the end of that day or I'd give up entirely and move on to something else.

It only took me twenty minutes of scribbling to realize that the reason I couldn't finish the story was because I was so damned insistent on that happy endinig. It was sort of an "A-ha!" moment, where I was throwing down all possible endings onto the paper, including the ones I thought I knew wouldn't work. The "A-ha!" came when I wrote, "So-and-so dies..."

A-ha. A-HA! Someone dies! Suddenly, the entire story crystalized around that point. Knowing that the story would not have a happy ending changed everything. I threw out all previous drafts of the story and began typing in earnest. By the end of two weeks, I had written what I still consider to be the best (though sadly, still unpublished) story of my life. It was complex, moving, hot, and so forbidden.

And in the end, nobody in that tale lived happily ever after.

It was the right ending for that story, and since then, I've learned that whenever I'm having problems writing a tale, it's usually because I don't understand the ending. It's not enough to say, "I'm going to have a happy (or tragic) ending." I have to understand the ending in order to make it come about. Here are a few rules I've learned since that first painful incident that may help you write your own fitting endings.

Rule #1 - the ending must flow naturally from the events occuring in the story. Deus Ex Machina is the worst way to end a story. It's a big fat cheat in my opinion, and it's just as bad as the old "it was all a dream" kind of ending. When you write your story, you arm your character at the very beginning with the things they will need to survive the challenges ahead - wits, bravery, a killer punch, the ability to perform magic, etc. These are the tools they use to tackle the problems you throw their way. They can always discover or develop new tools as they progress through the story, but don't ever, EVER let some random act of fate (or some random all powerful being) step in and save your hero's bacon. It's a cheat, and as a writer you can do better than that.

Rule #2 - Endings need to show the consequences of the characters' actions, both for themselves and others. Characters will make all kinds of decisions and perform all kinds of deeds, both good and bad, in a story. Just as they should reap the benefits from their good actions, they should also suffer the consequences of their bad actions. And if not them, then someone else in the story should. Actions and decisions have consequences, and those consequences can make for damned interesting story endings. Let things come back to haunt your heroes, no matter how great they are or how much you love them. Need a good example? How about Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings? (SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE BOOK STOP READING HERE) Some readers complain that it's not fair that Frodo suffers so much after all he does to save the world. The wounds he receives during his quest to destroy the One Ring force him to abandon his beloved Bag End and sail into the West where he can finally be healed. Sucks, don't it? Frodo was such a great guy, he did such heroic deeds! It's not at all fair that he has to give up everything he cares about after all he's done. But consider that a true hero is someone who makes a sacrifice, and Frodo knew he might have to give up everything he loved to save it. His sacrifice, therefore, is appropriate to the story. (And if you really want to see consequences in action, read the appendices at the end of Return of the King. What happens to Arwen Undomiel is heartbreaking, to say the least, but again, a natural consequence of her decision to remain in the mortal world.)

Rule #3 - All problems don't have to be solved by the end of the story. In an HEA story, the problems encountered in the plot are resolved so that everyone is pleased with the results (well, everyone good is pleased; the villains are usually not so happy, but then villains don't get HEAs, do they?). When problems aren't solved, in spite of the characters actions (or else are made worse because of the characters actions), then you have a tragedy. Recall that Shakespear guy again. In Romeo and Juliet, the main character's biggest problem is how to be together even though their families are mortal enemies. Unfortunately, things go awry and they can't solve that problem. And yet in spite of this, Romeo and Juliet are pointed to as one of the greatest, most romantic love stories of all time. When a story ends with only part of the problems solved, or at least ends with the characters accepting that their problems can't be solved, that's good too. Ever watch Little Miss Sunshine? I tell ya, nobody gets what they want at the end of that movie, but everyone realizes they're going to be okay.

Rule #4 - Don't assume that having sex means your characters must also have a HEA or HEAFN. All too often, I see stories in erotica and erotic romance that seem to imply that by having sex, two (or more) characters end up developing some deep spiritual bond that will allow them to overcome any obstacle in their path. NOT. Sometimes people have sex with people they shouldn't. Sometimes making love is making a mistake! And besides, wouldn't it be far more interesting to see how a relationship falls apart after the characters have sex, rather than just assume they're going to be together forever because they've done the nasty? Think about it.

Rule #5 - The last one I've got folks, and perhaps the most important. The best story endings don't really end the story. These are the endings that hook the reader into imagining how life might play out after the last page is turned. Yes, endings should provide answers, but they should also leave just enough questions in the mind of the reader to keep them wondering about your story late into the night. This little trick is accomplished by ending the story at the right moment. Think of Frank Stockton's The Lady or the Tiger. We have no idea how this story really ends, because of where the tale cuts off. But it makes things so much more intriguing, forcing us to contemplate the motivations of the Barbarian Princess and her lover's willingness to trust her decision. I wrote a story like this one, finishing the story before the final key moment where a character must make a decision. One reader came back and chewed me out for it. But everyone else loved it. They loved not knowing how things turned out, and they pondered the ending for themselves for a long time. Something similar to this happens in my all-time favorite chick flick, Thelma and Louise. We never actually see the Thunderbird land, do we? We only see that final image of a photo fluttering to the ground, showing the grinning faces of two friends who were willing to stick together no matter what. It's the perfect moment, the perfect ending to their wild ride, and it's both happy and sad.

So keep these things in mind the next time you sit down to write a story. Pick the right ending for your story, the one that matters most to your characters and to you, and thumb your nose at all those guidelines that insist you write a HEA. You'll get your own HEA when you write a story that turns out ot be your very best.

And now here are a few samples of my not-so-happily-ever-afters:

Swingers - a circus aerialist falls in love with two men, but will jealousy end more than just her love life?

The Unfair Maidens - a not so noble knight must deal with the consequences of his conquests.


  1. Hi Helen,

    You've made some valid and very interesting points. You also said your m/m story in which one of the guys dies has never been published. Bingo.

    I'm not disagreeing, not saying that all books have to be cookie cutter, because that would be a boring world indeed.

    I simply think that in the epublishing world of romance and erotic romance, most publishers and readers want HEA or HFN. Those other books you mentioned, classics, aren't trying to get past the editor at Ellora's Cave. They have a different market.

    As should authors. If we were all trying to get to that same editor at EC it would be kinda crowded. Each of us should find our niche and write what makes us happy. (Or say the hell with the niche and write whatever we feel like that the moment.) Just know your audience, is I guess what I'm saying.

    I like wrapping things up into a neat little package, it's part of the fun and satisfaction for me.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Have a great weekend,


  2. I can't say I've ever had the problem of trying to write a story that can't end happily - but maybe that's because getting the character to a happy/hopeful ending is what it's all about for me.

    That said, I do agree with most of your rules.

    Happy endings can't be pulled out of the bag at the last moment. I'm a firm believer a reader should be able to read the story over again and see how and why each bit leads to the ending - they should be able to see why that ending takes place.

    Consequences should be shown, a few loose ends should be left for the characters to work out after the reader closes the book, etc. I'm with you on all that too.

    I guess I just believe that the rules would best be used to help people write a good, believeable, logical happy/hopeful ending :)

    Kim Dare.

  3. Good points, Helen:) Book #3 in my series does not have the HEA, and I'm having problems finding a publisher. I may have to make the ending more of the HEAFN...after all, the story does continue throughout the other books.

    Some of my favorite books growing up ended 'in limbo'...Rosamund Du Jardin's books, Anne Emery's, and even my favorite Judy Blume.

    And maybe that's why I'm having trouble getting past the 1st chapter of anything I begin lately. Maybe the characters don't want the ending I've planned???

    Hahaha..WV is 'bribr'...bribe my characters into behaving?

  4. Happy endings are fine ... if they fit the story. I get frustrated with novels that end with some weird twist to make everything turn out cheesy, even though it doesn't even work with what happened throughout the story.
    Life isn't a fairy tale, so why not let the books end on a sad note once in a while.

  5. I agree with you. Not all stories need happy endings. There are many other tragedies of note. We published a series, Dragon Queen, where the ending wasn't necessarily all wrapped up. It was happy, but it left a lot of questions. We did get some flack from the reviewers about it, but, you know, that was where the character was at by the end of book three. It also left room for more books, although that series is done.

    We have another story by Jaime Samms Poor Boy, an M/M by the way, that's poignant and gritty. It's not necessarily a happy ending either.

    I think the challenge does become with romance and erotica, although erotica is really supposed to be more about the sex than an HEA, is that many readers want the HEA. Not all, mind you, but a lot. So, finding a publisher to accept a tragedy will be challenging.

    With us, we like there to be some hope at the least for Freya's Bower. That doesn't mean that the people have to end up together either, just that the protagonist is in a good spot, whether single or committed. Wild Child, which doesn't publish erotica, doesn't care about happy endings, as we publish a variety of genres that don't always have happy endings.

    Wild Child Publishing --
    Break wild!
    Freya's Bower --
    Weaving passion into words...

  6. BTW, sometimes you just have sex because you are horny. (grin)


    Marci Baun
    Wild Child Publishing --
    Break wild!
    Freya's Bower --
    Weaving passion into words...

  7. "Romance Novel" has a specific industry definition, and this definition requires a "happy ending." "Women's Fiction" is a broader category that generally involves strong romantic storylines, but doesn't require happy endings. This definition was created 50-60 years ago.

    Is "Romeo and Juliet" a romance. By Renaissance standards, yes. By contemporary publishing standards, no. If you want to write tragic endings, or those where the protagonists don't either end up together or with the promise of ending up together, go for it, but don't be surprised if publishers looking for romance novels don't buy them. Instead, look for publishers of women's fiction or general fiction to send your proposals instead.

    Elise Dee Beraru
    Lynchburg, VA

  8. Marci! I saw that!
    Another thing is what constitutes a HEA? What may be a happy ending for one person may not for an other. Not everything is so simple.
    Now, I write under my own name horror and fantasy and a lot of my horror the monster wins. Do I not get published? Nope--I do. I have written as Sapphire some pretty dark endings. Were those stories not published? Nope, they were. One might freak people out is Being a Predator is a Bitch which was in Forbidden Love: Wicked Women. What the werewolf does to someone at the end of the story might shock you--it did me. But guess what the editor liked it. Got paid good too for that short story.
    So writers, write what you feel should be the right ending. There's some publisher out there for you.
    Now off my soapbox.

  9. **Grin** I think this is getting to be a pretty lively debate, and I like it. HEA does not work for me, and never has, because like LuAnn mentioned, life is not a fairy tale (and yours truly ain't an optimist). The biggest problem I have with publishers who require that stories have HEAs is that there is no surprise left in the book. You know everything is going to turn out okay, no matter what. Even Harry Potter didn't really get a HEA, because certain key characters, **favorite characters**, die in the final big fight.

    I think that the romance industry has defined itself too narrowly by making these requirements. First off, how do they know readers only want HEA? Where are the numbers on this? Did someone conduct a formal survey? And how often does this survey get updated?

    Second, maybe HEAs sell books, but will all those books following the same forumla really be remembered? Romea and Juliet may not be a romance by today's standards, but it's still around and still widely read after a couple of centuries.

    The ancient Greeks believed that theater goers needed both comedy and tragedy, and made certain to provide both during their festivals. Tragedies offered a cathartic release, while the comedies lifted people's spirits. Maybe we should all consider indulging in a little tragedy along with all the HEAs, and see if we don't benefit by it.

    Okay, I'll check back to stir up more trouble later ;)

  10. The trouble with these damn provocative blogs is they generate all kinds of thoughtful comments you have to read and think about. Who has time? Gads.
    anyway, I'm trying to write thoughtful erotic murder stories for readers who are looking for alternatives to HFA & HE.

    Then of course one has to find a publisher. I bet there are some out there, yes?

  11. You have inspired me to blog on the subject, and I will refer this great post.

    Add to your list: Cast Away. The ending is ambiguous, neither happy nor sad. But hopeful.

  12. KAT!

    I HATED the ending to Castaway. LOL

    Still hanging onto my Pretty Woman ending....


  13. Call My By Your Name by Andre Aciman doesn't end with the lovers together, but while the affair lasts, it is an epic love story. Is it a romance? It's not of the romance genre. But no one can convince me that it isn't romance.

  14. Sorry I didn't get to respond to this in my post of tomorrow (already subbed)- I've just arrived in the States and since its 2.40 in the morning UK time- I'm not thinking straight. You make some interesting points but I still have to go for the HEA - there is if it's a romance then it's not on my bookshelf.

  15. Whew, Helen! You warned me you'd start a firestorm!

    You echoed much of what I said in my comment on Kim's post yesterday (but said it in a much more organized and literary way...!)

    I run contests where I ask entrants to answer a question about what they like (see my post at Hitting the Hot Spot today, 17 April, for quote about M/M romance...) From what I've gathered, romance readers DO want a happy ending. It's a big part of what they are looking for. I don't think the HEA is being forced down their throats by the publishers. Romance readers want believable characters, but they don't necessarily want stories that mirror real life.

    I've already ranted about the constraints of genres, but complaining isn't going to make them go away.

    Helen, I love your stories, and your endings. In fact, I wanted to link to "The Unfair Maidens" in my post about sex and humor, but it had already been taken down. So I'm glad you've included it here.


  16. There is a reason why stories are merely "published" online or in do-it-yourself anthologies and it's not a question of endings.

  17. Hey, no problem with a not HEA or HFN ending. But not if you want to call it a romance. In fact I think making a "real" HEA or HFN ending (not one that just is because that's what the genre calls for) shows an author knows how to work his or her romance genre.


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