When we read romance, we expect a happily-ever-after ending. It's actually part of the unwritten contract, one we enter into with each romance novel: “I, romance writer, do solemnly swear to provide characters a happily ever after (hereinafter “HEA”) so that you, romance reader, can willingly endure the torment you are about to experience with said characters.”
What exactly does an HEA entail? Does it require a wedding and babies and a glimpse into the future for it to be truly satisfying? Or is a declaration of love, and resolution of the conflict, good enough?
The answer is different for everyone, of course, but I want plenty of evidence of a strong commitment between the hero and heroine. I don't want to find out later a rose was given just to ensure a wild erotic night in the fantasy suite. To me, that constitutes a serious breach of the romance genre contract.
As Kresley Cole's Dreams of a Dark Warrior winds down, the heroine Regin asks Declan, the hero, what mayhem they are going to do that day, and he replies:
“Lady's choice. I'm game for anything. But after the mayhem, we should start markin' things off our list. Get married, house-hunt, shop for the new swords I'm keen to buy you. . .”
Any man who wants to shop for new swords is in it for the long haul, right? But the next sentence is the real evidence of their HEA:
“Content merely to celebrate a future together, they'd accomplished little.”
These particular characters have had a stormy past, yet they are not rushing to mark items off their To Do list. Still, I'm satisfied, because their contentment emphasizes the “Ever After” part of the HEA. It demonstrates their confidence in a long, loving future together, so I don't need to witness the solemnization of vows to believe in this couple's HEA.
Still, my favorite HEA usually includes an epilogue. I know, I know. Some readers don't care for them. They consider it excessive, and unnecessary, like spray painting six-pack abs onto an already buff cover model.
But I love epilogues. It's too hard to say farewell to characters after we've been together for 300+ pages, so an epilogue gives me a chance to hang around for a few more goodbye hugs and kisses. I sigh happily at a proposal on bended knee, and when there's a wedding, I raise a glass of fictional champagne to toast the happy couple.
Even better is when the epilogue shows them a few years later, like this one from It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The hero, football coach Dan Calebow, is walking his dog, thinking of the changes to his life in the three years he's been married to the heroine:
He smiled to himself as he remembered the way Phoebe had looked when he'd kissed her just before he'd slipped from the house for his nightly outing. She'd been sitting cross-legged in the middle of the living room floor, one of his old sweatshirts pulled tight over her big round belly while she played patty-cake with the girls, who kept trying to grab her charm bracelets and tug at her hair. Tonight he was going to pull that sweatshirt right up to her chin and whisper lots of girly things to her belly. He didn't care how much she teased him. He liked having girls, and he was hoping for another one.
This is like reading the annual holiday newsletter from my favorite characters. I can catch up on what I've missed since I last saw them, even if it was just a few pages ago. I get all misty reading how much their kids have grown, and seeing just how strong the love is between the hero and heroine. Now I know with certainty they can nurture their future, so it's time to close that book and move on, helping another couple find their way to a rewarding Happily-Ever-After.
After all, I need that HEA more than the characters do.
Swans image courtesy of mozzercork via Flickr.