There is a growing trend of romance novels with alternative endings to HEA (Happily Ever After). There’s HFN (Happy For Now) and also conclusions that are not so happy at all – like hero/heroine/both die(s). This post is not about them. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to romance novel endings. I’m perfectly fine putting my romantic MCs through the mills during the conflict phase, but the resolution must be that they live and enjoy a full life together. Anything less than that is an overpromise – nay, a prank on the unwitting reader.
Which brings me to my next point. For centuries, happily ever after has received a bad rep (among non-romance-readers, at least) and to no fault of its own. I don’t understand why people feel that romance novels set “unreasonable expectations”; if anything, I believe they set a standard we should all aspire to. Why should a person settle for anything less than happiness in love? What else would be the point? And for those people who think “happily ever after” is equivalent to a permanent cheering charm, let me assure you, it’s not. It means that our couple now knows that to stay together they will have to work at it and face the ups-and-downs of relationship; but long as they are teamed up, they will remain content and it will be okay. In fact, that the couple goes through so many obstacles during the novel to reach that place where they decide they were meant to be together is a testament to their commitment. So happily ever after really just translates to
“Committed ever after. Happily.”
Having said that, for a romance author, attaining closure is not that easy. I mean, as a reader, you must’ve realized how each time you reach the end of a good book you feel that sense of bereavement when finally putting the book down, right? Well, you have spent only a handful of hours getting to know those characters; imagine what the author must’ve felt closing the book on those wonderful characters after giving birth to them and then nurturing them for months, maybe years. So a romance author (or any kind, for that matter) needs all the help he/she can get to give their writing that flourish.
So what does a good romance ending make?
Tie up loose ends. As the story comes to its logical conclusion, all the relationship questions should begin to unravel themselves. The romantic counterparts should have talked through their differences with one another as well as addressed their individual self-doubts. At this time, it is important to ensure that any other external conflicts or mysteries were also given enough time to work themselves out, such as that which may exist in the subplot.
But don’t reach the resolution too suddenly. Sometimes, you will find that an author waited till the very end to address a certain conflict. However, this only makes the conclusion feel rushed and the plotting lazy. Worse, the reader can guess that it was probably done in error because the author forgot about it. This is why outlining is so important. Resolution should be a gradual process rather than being lumped into the last couple of chapters (unless it’s a short story or novella, in which case, the overall structure is different). It is true that conflict build-up occupies a larger share of the story content than the solution, but the pacing and tempo of the story should rise and fall in a graceful bow with an arch leaning slightly to the right (think PLC curve), rather than having the resolution(s) be piled up and thrown off a cliff.
Round up only after the climax. The correct chronological order is conflict > climax > conclusion. While it’s important to have a wow ending, the reader should also get an opportunity to dwell in its afterglow. Therefore, the final scene should remain distinct where the reader gets to enjoy a glimpse of how well the romantic couple gets on once they have decided to stay together, giving it a sense of an overall good decision.
But don’t prolong the magic unnecessarily. While it may be tempting to linger in the lasting happiness, it is wiser to bow out gracefully while the reader is still hooked. Yes, readers sigh despondently when a good book ends, but the same readers will sigh in languish if the book takes too long to end. Also, you should have ample opportunity to line up those sexy giddy scenes at the beginning of the novel.
Plan the ending before you begin. I’m talking outlines again, folks. Going back to the earlier point on resolutions and rounding them off, it is important to have a proper framework for your story before you begin. Just as you have goals for your writing process, your story should start with an end goal for its characters too. Know the conflicts and how they will be solved to avoid stumbling into plot holes that creep up on you just when you are ready to put your quill down – or worse, you forget about them altogether and readers come back to point them out to you!
Go back to the beginning. All good stories come full circle. Mirroring the final scene to the opening scene is a great trick to leave the reader with a sense of wow. But the conclusion should also reflect on each of the predicaments your MCs have gone through as individuals as well as a couple to give a purpose to the ending.
Tie it to a larger theme. Romance novels come with their own unique agendas and not just for the sake of making another fictional couple fall in love. An author addresses a different issue important to him/her as a voice-agent for the public in each book, which is then imposed upon the individual MCs to work through. Give a shout out to the character arc(s) in the story by slipping in some action or inner thought of the MC in the final scene that shows how far he/she has come along.
Make it satisfying. Twists and turns are great page turners but if you will end the book with a twist, it should still taper to that end. Add a few telltale signs here and there in the book that makes the reader pause when they reach the end and say, “I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming!”
If it’s a series, make sure you leave a hint. Category romances are all the rage. And a good thing too because when we see a quirky sister or a dashing friend related to one of the MCs, we want to see them have their own happy ending. But that’s just the thing. When you write your novels about a series of different couples, you should introduce at least one of the MCs in the follow-up book during and not at the end of the current book. Give them a few lines in a few scenes here and there throughout the book that hint at their individual personalities to leave your readers wanting more. And if your novel is written about a single couple but divided into different volumes, while each book should address its own stage in the main conflict as well as the resolution, the ending should also leave off on a cliffhanger to keep the reader coming back for more.
Leave the reader anticipating. Even when the romantic couple has overcome the main obstacles to their relationship and you have shown the reader how giddy they are together, you should hint at their future. It can be the joyful banter, the riveting physical chemistry, or a bun in the oven. But give the reader a hint of “what’s next”.
Make the last line worth it. While opening sentences in novels receive all the glory, the final words are equally important. They are the ones that leave a smile on the reader’s face and make them feel replete. And believe me, that feeling leaves a lasting impression of you as a romance author.
And lastly, happily ever after does comes in many shapes and sizes. The comfort of reading romance is the promise that all will be well at the end. But that doesn’t mean it need be a rinse-and-repeat. Each couple is different and so should their ending be. How the characters traverse the conflicts and their individual lives throughout the book should dictate how they come together as a whole, demonstrating to the reader the joy in the compromise.
And that is precisely what is so great about romance novel endings – what is the end of a book for the reader is only a new beginning of the couple’s journey together.
Ok, did I overdo on the sappiness? See? Should have ended while I was ahead.