“And they were all miserable. The end.”

In a discussion about genre fiction in my writers’ group, a romance writer listed her qualifications for a work that fits under the umbrella of “romance”. There were only a few guidelines: the story must focus on a romantic relationship of some sort, and it must end happily. I don’t know why, but that last qualification surprised me. I’ve read quite a few romance novels, but I don’t write in the genre, and I’ve certainly never tried to sell anything in the category of romance. It must end happily? It must?

“What would a story that focuses on a romantic relationship but doesn’t end happily be called?” I asked.

Her answer: “something else”. (I’m convinced that there is such a thing as a “tragic romance”, but I do believe my friend is right that it would not be sold under the modern classifcation of “romance”.)

I suppose that’s why I don’t write romance: my brain doesn’t default to “happily ever after”. Sure, I like to read happy endings (at times, I crave them!) but the ideas that come to me when I write so seldom lend themself to walking off into the sunset. In fact, my endings hardly resolve anything at all:

-a girl leaves the only stability and familiarity she’s found in a world gone mad to follow a man she’s not sure she knows anymore…

-a woman reflects sadly on a love that’s now lost through all of time…

-a man is resigned to his fate…

This is how my stories tend to end: ambiguously. (And just a bit depressingly…) There may be hope, or the promise of a better life ahead, but the story always ends before that point is reached. Even if I picture my characters happy in their futures, it never occurs to me to show it: I always leave them at that fork in the road, without any hint of which turn they’ll take.

I appreciate this tactic in stories I read: to me, the more interesting part of the tale is not always the resolution, but rather, the key decisions that lead to the resolution. The real struggle is not in slaying the dragon, but rather in deciding you’re going to try. (After all, how does one conjure that amazing mixture of arrogance, bravery, and stupidity that leads them to believe they can take on a magical fire-breathing creature many times their size and win?)

Of course, now that I’ve noticed my failure to write happy endings, I’m going to have to give them a try. (It’s a gaping hole in repertoire, and it needs to be filled!)

But tell me, gentlefolk: do you like tragic endings, or would you prefer them to be happy? Does it not matter as long as things are wrapped up and resolved? Do you like it when the author leaves things ambiguous?


2 thoughts on ““And they were all miserable. The end.”

  1. Actually, there’s an open call over at Dreamspinner for bittersweet endings (which is what I’d call a romance that ended unhappily. A bittersweet romance. Maybe a Gothic romance, depending on *why* it’s an unhappy ending). So it does definitely get sold under the romance umbrella, just not often. I assume it does happen a little more often with straight fiction, simply by volume.

    Happy endings sell better. The thing about romance writing is that it’s not exactly high-brow literature. It’s intended to be sold to people who need a little escapism in their lives, which is all perfectly valid, but it’s not exactly meant to reveal deep truths about the world. People want a happy ending with their fantasy, so unhappy romance becomes the elephant in the room by virtue of being a twist on the genre that completely undermines the genre.

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