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.
Here are a few of the things I’ve learned about happily ever afters, from being both a reader and writer.
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, 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 the hero and heroine some time alone if you can to sort out their happy ever after.
First published on the Pink Heart Society website