Happily Ever After or Not?

By Cammi Woodall

“…and they lived happily ever after.” Sigh! How satisfying is it to reach the end of a romance book and the main couple embrace in front of a golden sunset?

But what about when you reach the end of a romance and the couple is not together? Or one of them is dead? Or they broke up? Is this still a romance book?

Let me warn you – this article will contain spoiler alerts about various novels. Proceed with caution!

I did an informal poll among my friends and asked, “Does a romance have to end happily ever after?” The most common response was a puzzled, “Well, isn’t that what makes it a romance?” Another common response was a disdainful remark, “I don’t read romance books!” (Why do people look down on romance novels so much? That’s a post for another time!)

After the poll, I looked at the website for Romance Writers of America. If anybody knows how a romance should end, it should be them. Right? According to the site, the definition of a romance contains two basic elements: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending.

So, Romeo and Juliet or Gone With The Wind are not romances? What about more contemporary novels like Me Before You or The Fault in Our Stars? Each story contains the love between the main characters as the main element, but none include an HEA optimistic ending!

(Confession time – at age twelve I thought Romeo and Juliet was the epitome of romance. A handsome boy defies his family, compares her to a rose, and dies for her? Pitter patter went my preteen heart! Now I can only see two hormonal tweens who got a lot of people killed.)

I have decided that my definition of a romance will focus on the second element defined by the Romance Writers of America – the optimistic ending. Optimistic means hopeful and confident about the future. So does an optimistic ending mean the main couple is together? Do they get married, build a dream home, have a passel of kids, and spend their twilight years rocking away on the front porch?

Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. Don’t get me wrong. I love romance books! I grew up reading Barbara Cartland and Glenna Finley. I expected those books to end happily: i.e., the couple together, the promise of a future, an epilogue with a wedding. It never occurred to me that a romance book wouldn’t end happily ever after!

What if an optimistic ending means that each character learned an important lesson from the relationship featured in that particular book? Every person you touch throughout your life will touch you also. From some you learn patience, from some you gain strength, others give you independence. Relationships, both romantic and platonic, give you the building blocks to become the person you are meant to be.

This is represented by The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Ask anybody who has read the book and they will probably say it is definitely a romance. The story focuses on Hazel Grace, a teenage girl diagnosed with thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She struggles with her mortality, worried her parents will not be able to cope after her death. Hazel pushes people away because she knows they will be hurt when she dies. She meets a boy named Augustus Waters, who has osteosarcoma. He is cancer-free after a leg amputation. In contrast to Hazel’s internalization of her fears, Augustus wants to make his mark on the world. He fears oblivion and wants to be remembered. (Remember my spoiler alert warning at the beginning of this article? Take heed!) A logical conclusion to this book would be Hazel’s death. John Green, however, rips our hearts out. Augustus’s cancer returns and he dies.

Does anybody have a tissue? I have dust in my eye. Yeah, dust in my eye.

This is a romance book? Where is the miracle cancer cure for both Hazel and Augustus? When is the doctor going to rush in and say, ‘Oops! We made a mistake. He’s not dead, just in a temporary coma!’ Where is the Happily Ever After?

It is there, just not in the traditional sense. Hazel’s love for Augustus helps her realize she has been living in a shell. Her parents will be sad when she dies, but it is because they love her. She impacted their lives. She made her mark on the world. So did Augustus.

Seriously, a tissue? Anybody?

So does a romance have to end happily ever after? Some people will still emphatically shout YES! Nothing else will do! I used to be one of those people. The longer I live and the more I learn, however, I find I am changing my opinion. Or rather, I am changing my definition of Happily Ever After.

You have to live and learn in your life, but most important you must love. Love is the glue that will get you past sickness, heartache, stress, or anxiety. Romantic love between two people, love between parents and children, love for your best friends.

Just open your heart and let love in. That way you can live your own Happily Ever After, whatever that may be.

Writing prompt – I love prompts that can go in a hundred different directions. Here is my idea: The note wasn’t signed. It simply said ‘Meet me. You know where.’

Click to tweet: Does a romance have to end happily ever after? Cammi Woodall of the Inspired Prompt Crew shares her views. #romance #amwriting