More than the happily ever after
Romances are often derided—might even say most often derided—for their “formula.” For most critics, “formula” in romance comes down to the necessity of the happy ending (HEA=Happy Ever After). If all romances have a happy ending, the argument goes, and the reader knows there will be a happy ending with hero and heroine getting together, what’s the point of reading them?
Margaret Atwood has a fabulous short story about this called “Happy Endings.” The perfect quote at the end: “True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.” As she says, the important part to any story, no matter the genre, is How and Why the characters get to their ending.
More predictable responses to the denigration of the HEA usually run along the lines of, well, we all know how mysteries end, but we read them for the process, for the story that gets you to that ending and why should romances be any different.
In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis delineates the eight necessary narrative events that make a romance a romance: society defined, the meeting, the barrier, the attraction, the declaration, the point of ritual death, the recognition, the betrothal. The HEA is important there, of course, as the Betrothal, but the other elements are as important to the romance’s journey, especially the Point of Ritual Death. (It is the PoRD element that a lot of readers feel is lacking from some so-called “True Mate” paranormal romances, in which the characters recognize each other as soul mates right from the start, resulting in very little internal conflict for them to overcome.)
I’ve figured out that I read romances precisely because I like the narrative structure. I like the eight narrative elements of a romance, and I’m cranky when I don’t get them. I like climax and denouement. I don’t like cliffhanger endings, and I don’t like endings that go beyond one book to the next book (Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series). Seeing a happy couple in the next couple’s book, as happens in romance series like Nora Roberts’ or Suzanne Brockmann’s or Susan Elizabeth Phillips’, is great. I’m assured the characters are thoroughly enjoying their happily ever after but they’re not having to deal with too much trauma. But if Jamie and Claire get their HEA in Outlander and then it’s disrupted and they DON’T get one in Dragonfly in Amber and then they get it again in Voyager and then it’s disrupted again in. . . I don’t have the emotional energy for this. I know others do and I understand why her books are instant bestsellers. They’re just not for me anymore. I want to read the Betrothal element and then be able to trust it. And it’s better that I know that than feel guilty for not knowing why I’m not reading all the great series I started.
Sarah S. G. Frantz, Ph.D. is an associate professor of literature at Fayetteville State University and the president of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.