Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Happy Endings

Columnist Annie West looks at that staple of romance writers everywhere - the happy ending.

We all know that one of the things romance novels of every type have in common is their happy ending. We expect it, anticipate it and enjoy it. Woe betide any writer who doesn't deliver! It mightn't be a surprise that hero and heroine end up together but that doesn't mean authors can get away with a slapdash effort where the hero declares his undying love and the heroine accepts him but the reader is given nothing more to explain how it is that the pair overcame all the obstacles in their path.

The ending is the pay off for readers. We've invested time and energy in seeing this pair through the trials and tribulations of their story. We've ridden that emotional rollercoaster for a whole book and now we want to be convinced that happily ever after is possible, not just possible but inevitable. That their love conquers all else, and that they truly will be happy together. We want to feel the emotion of that moment and if we don't...well we mightn't read too many more books by that author again! They say a great opening grabs the reader and sells the story. A satisfying ending will make the reader want to read the author's next book.

It's crucial that aspiring authors focus on getting their opening right. But without a great ending all the work that's gone before is for nothing. The fact is that terrific, sigh-worthy endings don't often just pop into a writer's head to be tossed off before their first cup of coffee for the day. They take work and planning. It's the writer's job to deliver that tried and true happy ending, but in a way that's unique to this hero and heroine, in a way that wraps up the story completely and makes the reader sigh or smile or dab a tear, but above all, makes the reader feel good about the whole reading experience.

Easy, eh? I wish. Here are a few of the things I've learned about happily ever afters, from being both a reader and writer. Hopefully some of you will be able to add a few more tips!

Don't rush! In your mind the story may be all over since, as the author, you know how all the problems have been resolved. However, this is a stage readers love to savour. The moment when, beyond all apparent hope, the dragons have been vanquished and H&H are committing to each other or at least allowing for the possibility of commitment. If there's a declaration of love and an acceptance and suddenly it's the end of the book, we're left wondering why that didn't happen 200 pages ago! The characters as well as the readers need to feel the significance of this moment.

So, don't just give us the words, show us the emotions as well. We want the characters to rejoice in their happy ending so we can too. Talking heads at this point rarely satisfy.

Tie up all the loose ends. There's nothing worse than finishing a book and then thinking 'Hey, wait a minute! What about...?'. Even if it means making a running sheet of all the points you need to cover in the last chapter or so, it's worth doing it. This ending needs to convince and for that to happen, all those threads need to tie together.

Which leads me to consistency. If you wrote the whole book on the basis of a conflict because of X (eg. hero's fear of blonde women, or his goal of saving his ancestral home, or heroine's determination never to marry a man who isn't called Ernest) then you can't expect the reader to accept a happy ending if that X factor isn't resolved. If we don't see and believe the hero accepting that a woman with red hair can be even more attractive, or see him change his name to Ernest to win the heroine, the obstruction that kept them apart still exists. It's no good airily saying, for the sake of convenience, that he/she sees this no longer matters. That would make a mockery of the story you've just written. If it still mattered to them a couple of chapters ago, we need to see and believe in the change in their perspective.

Similarly, if your hero has been laconic or even terse to the point of gruffness for the whole book, it's a bit much to expect he'll suddenly talk non stop for pages without breath, describing to the heroine how he fell for her. And, if he's one of those heroes who treats her badly earlier in the story, it's not enough for him to wave his hand and say that was because he was falling for her and resisting his emotions. Again, we need to see him come to that realisation and make amends. If he's going to grovel make it good, and don't think that a page of penitence at the end will excuse everything. Make him (and, for that matter, her) WORK for this happy ending.

Make sure the black moment that leads to the resolution of the story has real impact. Make the stakes high. This works best when characters must confront their worst fear or face a reality they've spent a lifetime avoiding. Their love should give them a new perspective. In my current book, PROTECTED BY THE PRINCE Tamsin faces the realisation she's been used by the hero, which taps into a lifetime's fears and ingrained beliefs about herself. Yet she can't just walk away, she must face the truth. For Alaric, his moment of truth places him in the worst of all positions where duty and love are pitted against each other with no easy solution. He faces a future that embodies everything he's spent his life avoiding because it evokes his darkest fears and his hidden weaknesses.

Sometimes an external event can help you get your characters to the sticking point to face their unresolved issues. But beware using too often the deus ex machina (the 'God in the Machine') where fate intervenes out of the blue with a convenient accident or crisis that has nothing to do with the love story. Yes, this can work wonderfully, and some terrific romances use this device. But it has to be managed carefully so it doesn't feel like the author is taking the easy way out. Better, if you can, to come up with a crisis that is in some way integral to the rest of the story.

This is the moment when your hero and heroine need to shine. Keep the focus on them. Some very skilled authors can write a final scene with a cast of hundreds in attendance, but for beginner writers in particular, make it easy on yourself and give H&H some time alone if you can to sort out their happy ever after.

What do you love best about romance endings? Have you got favorites? Do you have any other tips on how to get the all important ending right?

Annie's current story (out now in North America) is PROTECTED BY THE PRINCE, a Presents Extra release. You can order it from eHarlequin, Amazon or The Book Depository (free postage anywhere), or buy it in stores. To read an excerpt visit Annie's website. While there you can also read how she came to write the story, see pictures that inspired it or enter a contest to win free royal themed stories including PROTECTED BY THE PRINCE.


  1. I love this post. Thank you Annie West. I write romance. I've been putting together a front page for my web-site. One of my comments is "where every ending is happy". Thank you for saying it so well.

  2. Hi Annie,

    I love closing a book with a wistful, happy sigh. I think you've hit the proverbial nail on the head when you say writers shouldn't rush the ending. I hate it when the hero and heroine declare their love for each other and then eight lines later the story is finished. I LURVE to wallow in all those good feelings. There are so few books these days that actually detail the experience of joy, but luckily our genre is one of them. :-)

  3. Hi Marleen,

    It's nice to meet you here. I'm glad you approve of my thoughts on endings. I quite enjoyed writing this, as it's something I've thought about a lot - probably because I like reading a HEA so much!

  4. Michielle - I love to wallow in those good feelings too! That's the payback for sticking with the heroine and hero through thick and thin - the joy of feeling (not just seeing) it all come together in the end. Isn't it terrific when an author nails that?

  5. I love this post Annie. One thing I've noticed in my own reading is that when an ending is perfectly done, I'll read it more than once in order to savour it. In a way it is the most important scene in the book and hard to write without falling into any of the traps you mentioned.

    I loved Protected by the Prince - and the ending was perfect!

  6. Sarah, I feel I should buy you chocolate or something in gratitude for saying the ending of 'Protected by the Prince' is perfect! Wow. Actually I don't find them easy to write, which is one of the reasons I had such a good time writing about them - reminding myself of all the things I need to concentrate on.

    Yes, I've read the end of a book more than once. I think it's a great sign when you don't want to let go.

  7. Hi Annie,

    Thanks for the wonderful article.

    I always love the ahhhhh moment when you reach the end and it can't be too short or I feel cheated.

    Your fantastic stories always give that good feeling and that's why I read Presents.

    So much drama but you pull it together.

    I have my keepers and a satisfying ending is an integral part or a good story.

    Margaret Midwood

  8. Hi Margaret,

    It's great to see you here. I know you're a big Presents fan and I'm glad you liked the piece. As you say, there's so much drama to pull together sometimes!

    I can't imagine having a 'keeper' that doesn't have an 'ah' ending. Just as important as the opening, in my opinion.

  9. You're so right about endings, Annie. A good one leaves us with that lovely satisfied glow. But there's nothing worse than feeling as though I've been hustled up to The End - makes me feel like an unwelcome guest being shown the door just when things should be getting interesting.

    I loved Alaric and Tamsin's story - now there's a satisfying happy ending!


  10. Sharon,
    You put it so well. Being 'hustled' to the end of a book is so annoying when you just want to savour it. That's definitely a section to be read slowly and enjoyed (ore read fast and reread).
    I'm so pleased you found the end of Tamsin and Alaric's story pleasing.

  11. Hi Annie - thanks for a great article ... esp for us aspiring romance writers :)

    I feel a little cheated when the HEA is quick and over within a few paragraphs.

    As you wrote, the H&H have much to overcome before they get to their a happy ending and readers want to savour this moment, it's taken 200 pages to get there, we don't want to be short changed! ;)

    BTW - I really enjoyed "Prince" :)

  12. Hi Joanne, it's great to hear you enjoyed the article. I hope it helps. I might dig it out myself next time I'm approaching an ending. Oh, I wish that were now but I've still got a way to go!

    Thanks - I'm glad you approved of Alaric and Tamsin's story.