I was hanging out on the Amazon.com romance forum and a woman asked if a romance novel had to have a HEA (happily ever after) for you to be satisfied. Great question with only one answer from me. An absolute yes. When I read a romance I want that joyous ending. The couple is walking into the sunset together (or moonlight if they are vampires). I want them committed to each other. That means about to get married, married already, mated, bonded, any permanent covenant between them. And preferably with children in the future. No living together for a while or maybe we'll get married. No way.
HFN (happy for now) endings don't work for me. That is one of the things I dread about soap operas and television shows. You know that around the corner, a breakup is inevitable. Well at least in romance novels we should be safe from this. In a romance novel, I don't want to see a HFN ending. I spend hours afterwards feeling let down and fearing that in one, two, ten years the couple will be going their separate ways. That does not work for me.
Fundamentally romantic fiction to me is about escapism. Yes we have adultery, divorce, death, miscarriages, death of children that happens to really good, loving people in the real world. That's why have to have a bubble of safety around our romantic couple. They have to be immune to these events, even if they have had a very tragic life up to this point. I love angsty reads, but the angst must end prior to the end of the book. They can still have issues that need to be resolved, as long as the couple is together to resolve them. I find that the happy ending is even more satisfying in a book with tortured heroes and tormented heroines, and with scenarios that are so intense you often wonder how the writer will deliver the happy ending. And when she/he does, you sigh with tears in your eyes, close the book, and hug it against your chest.
To be honest, I really don't even like books where the couple is infertile, although I have read and enjoyed them. I always feel sad because their precious, everlasting love won't bring another life into the world. It's great when they adopt children together and give them love and a family. But at the same time, it's still sad because they can't have their own children. It makes me really, really sad in a way that lingers after I finish the book. I guess I take my romantic couples too seriously. What can I say? Despite all the crap I have seen in my lifespan, and how messed up this world is; deep down, I am an incurable romantic. I want to believe in love everlasting, and all that goes with it.
That is why I must admit to you today a terrible habit I have: I do read the end of books when I am deciding to read/buy a book. My sister is horrified by my habit. I will tell you honestly that it has come in handy. I have read the ends of books and decided that there was no way I would read the book. Like I said, the HEA is obligatory. Why put myself through the anguish of being disappointed so cruelly? Sometimes I read the end and it makes no sense. In those cases, I am likely to read the book out of curiosity. But if I really don't like the ending, the book goes back on the shelf at the store and I walk away. My time is too valuable to get my hopes up with what sounds like a great love story and then fall crashing to the ground, broken and bruised.
What about in other genres? I still love happy endings. Again, incurable romantic here. Escapism rules the day with pleasure reading. Pleasure reading meaning not for work or school, etc. Doesn't matter what the genre is, I still want the happy ending. Does that mean I have not read one single book with an unhappy ending that I did not enjoy? Not at all. But it is not the same level of fulfillment and joy with those books.
Case in point, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I love this book. It is incredibly well-written and vivid. Atticus Finch is an incredible hero who won my heart. I felt like I was there in that little town seeing everything that Scout saw. I still remember the scene with the rabid dog and how mild-mannered Atticus Finch calmly shot the dog before it could bite any of the children. I held my breath the whole time. This book was a love story about a girl and her father. It was also a coming of age story, and a story about injustice. I did not like that a man was wrongly accused and convicted and hanged. It hurts me to this day. However I can still love this book for the joy of experiencing Atticus Finch and the slice of life through Scout Finch's eyes. Let's just say I would have liked the book more with a happier ending for Atticus Finch's client. But Harper Lee wrote the book the way she was moved to right it, and I can't fault her for that.
When it comes to horror or thrillers, my happy ending is simple. I want the bad guys to be vanquished and for good to win the day. That is why I don't like a lot of modern horror. It seems as though a lot of times, evil is prevailing. Evil may seem like it prevails everyday, but the victory will be won by good in the end. I firmly believe that. Thus, any world that I would construct as an author will adhere to these same guidelines. Now I am not talking "paper tigers," as my writing teacher called them. "Paper tigers" are villians that are not very formidable and make the job of good vanquishing evil seem easy. I thought the villian in Tomb Raider was a very good example of a "paper tiger." He was so wimpy it was completely unbelievable that he could vanquish Lara Croft. You need a very scary, believeable villain, and you need to write the book in such a way that the reader fears that the villain may win, although deep down, they still have faith that good will win out. Doing this makes the happy ending more satisfying to the reader. Even in romances, a formidable adversary/villain is much appreciated by the reader.
Yes, even with movies, I am clamoring for the HEA. I love the ones that sneak up on you. You weren't expecting all to end well, and bang, it does. And when the ending is not happy or unclear, you sink like a stone. Yes there are a few historical movies with unhappy endings I really like, but there are other things that cause it to resonate with me. I will tell you right now, I hated the way 3:10 to Yuma with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe ended. I was totally bummed out for the rest of the day.
But getting back to the subject, please hear me, all romance novelists. When you write that romance novel, remember that it is the reader's escape, her safe place where love is pure and conquers all. Please remember that the benchmark is about the ending just as much as it is about the journey. Otherwise, the reader is left feeling a sense of desolation like no other. How fitting that The Backstreet Boys' song "Incomplete" is on.