The changing HEA

It’s an old question: Doesn’t having an HEA in every novel make romance boring and predictable? Scholar Eric Selinger argues that every novel presents a unique HEA—or even HFN (Happy For Now)—that fits that particular novel and no other.


Is happily ever after always the same?

I think one of the confusions that’s out there among folks who are not romance readers is the idea that all romance novels are gonna have a happily ever after ending, the couple is going to end up together. And therefore, the endings of all romance novels are essentially the same. And that’s false in two ways. The first way that it’s false is, in fact, because it’s an evolving and changing genre, the HEA is a shifting phenomenon. There are romance novels now that have HEAs, but without a betrothal, or without a marriage. Maybe there’s a symbolic substitute for it.

There’s a wonderful Jennifer Crusie novel Crazy for You that ends with no proposal. There’s no proposal, there’s no marriage, but the couple are making out at the drive-in and the movie on the screen is Bachelor Party . Bingo! There we go, there’s my symbolic version of the betrothal.

There’s a wonderful Victoria Dahl novel Start Me Up that ends with the hero on his knees popping the question, but the question is not “will you marry me?” The question is “can I date you this winter?” And the heroine says, “Should you be on your knees asking me this question?” So we get these displaced versions of it. That’s an evolution.

We have what’s known as the “happy for now” ending, where you get a couple where there is no institutional fact that guarantees that the couple is together; but we have a sense that this will be a lasting if not “forever after” relationship. That’s a change in the genre. We even have, some authors, Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb most famously, who gives us a couple, Eve and Roarke, in her In Death series who are married by the, what is it, third or fourth book in the series, but the series continues. And in each successive novel, what we have is a marriage that undergoes some kind of barrier, some kind of separation, and something has to be repaired. It’s a fascinating new model for what can happen in a romance novel. That’s one reason that that assumption is false.

The second reason that it’s false is that even when you’re dealing with novels that give us an ending that is “ever after,” a betrothal, a wedding, something that is meant to guarantee that this couple is fixed, that they will be together, the way that those final scenes are written varies tremendously from novel to novel. Sometimes you get scenes that through, sort of, very subtle references in the text look back to moments of tremendous pain or difficulty or loss earlier in the narrative. So that there’s a profoundly bittersweet quality—nothing painful is ever forgotten in that “happy ever after” ending. It’s folded in. It’s made a part of what this couple’s life will be from now on.

You have some scenes that really break with the novel in front of them, where it’s as though we’ve drawn a clear line and now we’ve moved on into a kind of utopian new society here at the end of the novel. So instead of looking back and recuperating and drawing in the more painful material, there’s a kind of pushing of it aside.

And I don’t want to judge those as models. I just want to say aesthetically these are very different.

Do we end with a tableaux? Do we end with dialogue or with a narrative? Do we end with a visual description of a painting or a vista or something that a character is seeing? All of these are compositional choices that make one ending different from another in tone, in imagery, in part-to-whole relationship. There’s a real art to the HEA ending that I think gets overlooked if all we think about is “Is the plot resolved with a happy couple? Yes, done. Okay, it’s all the same.”

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