Apr 3 2011 11:00am

The Unwritten Contract: Happily Ever Afters in Romance

Swans form a heartWhen 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.

Dreams of a Dark Warrior by Kresley ColeAs 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.

It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth PhillipsEven 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.


Donna Cummings writes lighthearted contemporary and historical romance. She can be found at, or talking incessantly about coffee on Twitter @BookEmDonna.

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Alie V
1. ophelial
I feel totally cheated if I read a romance and don't get a HEA. I agree, it's like a contract the genre has taken out with its readers. If I didn't want a HEA I would read general fiction personally.
Liz Lipperman
2. Liz Lipperman
Great blog, Donna. To me, HEA dooesn't always mean they get married and have a zillion beautiful kids. It means they have come to a point in their lives where they now know what they need to do to be happy. If that means being with the hero, all the better. If there are kids involved sometimes it means doing what is best for the child. But sometimes, like in The Greatest Little Whorehouse in Texas, love means doing what is best for each other even if it means scarifice. Those are the kind that bring tears to my eyes. And who could forget Dolly Parton singing, 'I Will Always Love you" as Burt Reynolds walks off the porch??
Donna Cummings
3. Donna Cummings
@ephramyfan -- I know what you mean. I was really enjoying a book that I thought was a romance, but the ending didn't look at first like it was going to have the HEA. I was a nervous wreck. LOL Fortunately, it did, but boy did I have to work for it!
Donna Cummings
4. Donna Cummings
@Liz -- You're so right about the characters knowing what they need to be happy. The 300 pages BEFORE the HEA is where they learn what that is, and it's often way different than they thought initially.

And I haven't seen that movie for so long. . .*sniff* Are you SURE it ends like that? Positive?
Liz Lipperman
5. Anita Clenney
Hi Donna. I have to have a HEA, and I do love epilogues. I like to see what the characters are up to after the story is over.
Donna Cummings
6. Donna Cummings
@Anita -- I like to know what they're up to as well. I've decided epilogues are kind of like dessert after a nice meal. LOL
Liz Lipperman
7. ReaderCarolyn
I once checked out a book mistakenly marked as a romance (it was an audiobook), and even up until the very end of the book, I kept waiting for some sort of romantic resolution. Nope, it was a straight fiction, and I was so disappointed at the end. It's not like I don't read fiction, with all kinds of angst and unhappy resolutions, but when I specifically set out to read a romance, I better get that HEA!
Carrie Strickler
8. DyslexicSquirrel
I'm an epilogue fan myself. Dreams of a Dark Warrior did had an epilogue of sorts. It was kind of cute.

The guaranteed Happily Ever After is one of the main reasons I read romance. I know that no matter what happens, or how much I sob like a baby, while reading, the ending is going to be happy and make it all worth it.

I hate reading/watching things that end sadly. I read and watch movies to escape reality, I don't want to get depressed! Lol
Donna Cummings
9. Donna Cummings
@ReaderCarolyn -- Yes, exactly! I don't want my expectations to get all twisted around like that. If I know there's no HEA ahead of time, I can prepare myself. LOL

@DyslexicSquirrel -- I can't really do sad anymore, which is why I love the HEA part of romance. When I was younger, I loved star-crossed lovers and sad endings . . .but luckily I grew out of that. LOL That HEA does make it all worthwhile.
Liz Lipperman
10. ClarissaSouthwick
What a wonderful post, Donna. You are so right about the promise. I only like sad endings if I know from the outset that I'm reading a tragedy. It's a big disappointment when you keep waiting for the hero to come back and never does. The older I get the more I appreciate the HEA's.:)
Donna Cummings
11. Donna Cummings
@Clarissa -- I agree. I need those HEA's more with each passing day (decade). LOL It helps make everything seem so much more hopeful, especially in real life.
Liz Lipperman
12. @drgradybooks
I also love knowing what happens to the characters I've invested so much time into - after their HEA - which is a must! I love the stories that give us a little picture into their future together. (I'm guessing that's why my own stories always end up as series, so I can sneak a glimpse into the lives of my past characters.) Really enjoyed this post, Donna! Thank you.
Donna Cummings
13. Donna Cummings
@drgradybooks -- A series! Even better than an epilogue! I love revisiting characters, because as you said, we've invested so much of our time--and our hearts--in their story. I'm content when I see they've turned out as well as I'd hoped.
Liz Lipperman
14. BrooklynShoeBabe
My stories do have to have HEA but no epilogues unless it is a movie although the epilogue for Love and Other Drugs ruined the movie for me. :-/
HEA doesn't have to be a promise of marriage, but a promise of togetherness after the odds they've just conquered.
Donna Cummings
15. Donna Cummings
@Brooklyn -- Ahh, a vote for NO epilogues. :) I suppose some of them can be too much, like repeating the punchline of a joke. Even if they're meant to give that "promise of togetherness" which you mention. That's the essential part.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
16. tnh
I don't mind not getting a HEA, if it make sense to me and there's some kind of satisfactory emotional closure. I'd infinitely rather have that than a book in which it makes no sense for the romantic leads to wind up together, but they do anyway.

How do I measure that? The former leaves me feeling like I'd enjoy reading another romance. The latter makes the whole idea of the genre seem less attractive.
Donna Cummings
17. Donna Cummings
@tnh -- I think a satisfactory emotional closure is definitely what we're after. In the instances where something like that was expected, but there was a sad ending instead, the closure was not satisfactory at all! I agree about the romantic leads ending up together when they don't even seem suited. Of course, when that is the case, I don't often finish the book. :)
Olivia Waite
18. O.Waite
Another vote here for the HEA. I don't mind a little bit of sacrifice, but the hero/heroine (or hero/hero, heroine/heroine/, hero/heroine/heroine/what-have-you) had better end up at least setting foot on the road to forever by the end, or I'm going to feel cheated.

That said, my favorite books are the ones where the happy ending is pretty aggressively earned or valued. Lonely heroines (Jane Eyre and Anne Elliot), tortured heroes (OMG Kinsale's hero in Prince of Midnight, or Zoe Archer's Catullus Graves in Stranger). Angst on a human scale -- I don't tend to buy into a lot of the paranormal "but I've been lonely for a thousand yeeeeeeeeeears!" kind of angst.
Liz Lipperman
19. Janet W
Even better than an epilogue are continuing glimpses of the couple's HEA. Two of my two fave examples are On A Wicked Dawn, by Stephanie Laurens and Silent Melody by Mary Balogh. In OAWD, we see Devil telling Honoria, the mother of his three children and the love of his life (think I mixed up the order), that he loves her. Oh swoon. Silent Melody is even better -- Luke and Anna are a integral part of the plot and when it comes to unearthing the villain, Luke wants Anna to stay safe and off stage. She's having none of that and they have an argument. Even better! They make up so marvelously and so in character. So yummy to the whole notion of epilogues: bring 'em on. But more (like how Susan Eliz Phillips does it, just one example), is even better.
Carrie Strickler
20. DyslexicSquirrel

Yeah, I don't even really watch the news much anymore because I just get so depressed. I need to have a HEA these days. They are my bread and butter lol
romance reader
21. bookstorecat
"but I've been lonely for a thousand yeeeeeeeeeears!"


"Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon." --Susan Ertz
Liz Lipperman
22. Jenny Brown
I have mixed feelings about epilogues, especially in historical romances where the hero has attracted us because he is a strong, adventurous character comfortable flaunting the rules of society. All too often the heroine is attracted to that hero because she doesn't want the safe, boring life that's been planned for her. The couple experience adventures that bond them. But what do we see in the epilogue? The couple their children are living the safe, boring life she tried to escape. I find it hard to believe the men we have fallen in love with through the rest of the story would be satified living in such a dull, socially acceptable manner.

So if we must be given glimpses of the future, I'd prefer to see the heroine become an equal partner with the hero as they live a life that continues to be filled with the kind of adventure that made them fall in love with each other as the plot unfolded. In the historical setting that usually requires that the heroine not immediately begin a family.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
23. tnh
Unless they're doing something like travelling abroad with their children in tow. That's challenging enough to make one wish for a few dull moments.
Donna Cummings
24. Donna Cummings
@O.Waite -- I like your phrase: "setting foot on the road to forever". You're right about it applying to all kinds of love stories. And when it's harder to get to that HEA, I think I need that little coda to reassure me that all truly is well. At least for the moment. :)

@Janet -- I love the examples, and I guess the nosy side of me will always love glimpses into the characters' future lives. I am also in awe of your extensive knowledge of characters and their stories!

@DsylexicSquirrel -- I'm the same way, and if I was forced to give up my HEAs or coffee. . .eeek. Well, I suppose I could learn to drink tea!
Donna Cummings
25. Donna Cummings
@bookstorecat -- LOL -- I love that quote. I'm also trying to figure out what it's like to be bored on a lovely day like that. :)

@Jenny Brown -- What a great explanation. I can see exactly what you mean, and I confess this hadn't occurred to me before. I guess I want the assurances that they're happy together, but that should include instances of them being true to their character, which includes all the growth they've accomplished throughout the story.

@tnh -- LOL -- Travelling with several young'uns might make the epilogue veer off into a new adventure. :)
Carrie Strickler
26. DyslexicSquirrel

I think all my HEAs have taken away my natural coping mechanisms hahaha. I honestly couldn't care less.

Oh, I love tea, but coffee? Coffee and I have a special relationship. I would never completely abandon it. I just cheat on it occassionally with Chai.
Liz Lipperman
27. cabepfir
I have to know that the two of them love one another and that they will stay together in a happy relationship. But I usually find epilogues superfluous, and I don't care for how many children they will have or if they will have children altogether. For me it is enough that the marriage is hinted to (in historical fiction especially), but I don’t need to see it on screen.

You're totally right about the contract between author and readers, in any case. Genre asks for HEA.
Donna Cummings
28. Donna Cummings
@DyslexicSquirrel -- I think the HEA *is* my coping mechanism. LOL And coffee is the foundation of my personality, so if I were to have to give that up. . .*shudders* I can't even contemplate it.

@cabepfir -- The contract between author and reader is essential. I can see how the epilogue might seem superfluous. I guess I'm one of those clingy types that can't let go. LOL So the epilogue gives the story a chance to bend my fingers back, so I'm forced to let go of it.
Carrie Strickler
29. DyslexicSquirrel

People don't even try to talk to me in the morning before I've had my coffee. I'm going camping this weekend and my friend told me, "We have to make sure you have your coffee!"
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
30. tnh
Cabepfir @27, I think your HEA only differs from my "satisfactory emotional closure" by needing explicit indications that they're going to stay together in a happy relationship. That's a narrow gap, and there aren't a lot of endings that fit into it. George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion is the only one that comes to mind. Is that an unsatisfactory ending?
Alie V
31. ophelial
I'm so bad at having to know if it's a HEA that I cheat and read the last page. I can't contain myself. My guilty secret.
Donna Cummings
32. Donna Cummings
@DyslexicSquirrel -- There are some mornings I can hardly MAKE the coffee before I've had some coffee! Hope you have room in the camping gear for something in addition to coffee. :)

@tnh -- That's an interesting question about Pygmalion. I read it after I'd seen My Fair Lady, so it didn't seem as satisfying as the movie one did, although the movie one kinda irks me now. LOL

@ephramyfan -- Eeek! You're one of those! LOL I remember reading something that I didn't want to end, and I had to keep my hand over the last few paragraphs so I wouldn't be able to see too far ahead.
Carrie Strickler
33. DyslexicSquirrel

I absoloutly love the automatic setting on my coffee maker. It's a life saver. And we did manage to pack more than just my coffee. But we still need to pack up the car so we'll see how that goes!
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