As a writer of romance, I never question the importance of the HEA, the “happily ever after.” It is the one rule to which writers of our genre must adhere. Don’t listen to the guys who tell you it’s not necessary. They’re not writing romance.
I’d be willing to bet most romance readers were pretty young when they realized the power of a good HEA. I don’t know about you, but I realized it from reading some of those tragic classics that still get pedaled as “romances.” Yeah, I’m looking at you, Romeo and Juliet. Do NOT fight Romancelandia on this. Romeo and Juliet is not a romance.
But it wasn’t just the classics. We see people slapping the romance label on all sorts of unhappy endings in pop culture too.
Allow me to present an example from my youth, one that still rings clear to me. The year was 1995. Bon Jovi had just released their single, “Always,” along with the very steamy video featuring actors Jack Noseworthy, Keri Russell, and one of my fave leading ladies, the talented Carla Gugino.
FYI, everyone in this video has a lot of hair. It was the ’90s.
I’m sure you’ve seen the video, so I doubt I’m spoiling the ending for you. Jack Noseworthy’s character, a cute hottie who looks like a little Jon Bon Jovi, is in love with Carla Gugino’s character. As Bon Jovi croons, he makes it clear these two are meant to be. They are madly in love, and we fall in love right along with them.
And then he cheats on her with her best friend Keri Russell. Really, Felicity? Et tu?
Understandably, Carla is distraught. She runs out and finds a hot painter dude. This guy likes to paint while half-nude, so it’s pretty much a no-brainer. They have sex, Carla feels guilty and calls Jack who ends up torching the painter’s place in a jealous rage.
This is not a healthy relationship, people! Definitely not HEA material.
Jack appears to realize the errors of his ways immediately, even though he doesn’t seem to be bothered by his tendency to employ arson as a coping mechanism (red flag! red flag!) He pines for Carla. He begs Carla to forgive him. But my girl Carla does not. I like to think she walks off into the sunset with painter dude. We don’t know for sure because the video ends there.
There are two conclusions to draw from this example.
One: this story is NOT a romance. If anything, I think of it as the precursor to Carla’s romance with the painter. I like to think they’ll have an HEA filled with hot sex and more topless painting.
Two: no one messes with Carla Gugino!!
Now, I was young when I first saw this video, and my first thought was, “This is so romantic! Little Bon Jovi’s pining for her! It’s like Romeo and Juliet!”
It wasn’t until I started reading proper romances that I realized how wrong I was. And when I say romance, I mean stories in which the main characters don’t cheat on each other, in which they stay together. In which no one commits arson. They should commit to each other. They should protect one another. They should try to make each other happy, not miserable. In other words, I learned the power of the HEA.
Of course, I’m being tongue-in-cheek with my Bon Jovi references, but I don’t think I’m wrong. It’s not a romance, but at the time, I bought it as a romance. A tragic romance, yes, but a romance nonetheless. And that’s exactly what people have tried to sell us with other examples like Romeo and Juliet, Cathy and Heathcliff, Tristan and Isolde, any book by Nicholas Sparks, Titanic, the Little Mermaid (H. C. Andersen version,) Gatsby and Daisy, West Side Story, Gone with the Wind. At some point, I’ve heard all of these stories referred to as romances. And then people usually babble on about how those stories “broke the mold” or “redefined the genre” or “elevated the genre.”
I call bullshit. They’re wrong, and everyone in Romancelandia knows it. And anyone who tries to package a tragedy as a romance is kidding themselves. In a romance, the main characters won’t die or commit unpardonable offences against each other. Sure, they will make mistakes. They might hurt each other in certain ways, but those sins have to be forgivable. The reader has to believe that set of protagonists has a healthy future.
So, I definitely learned about writing romance from reading wonderful romances, but I also learned about it from paying attention to stories that don’t end with an HEA. A romance won’t leave you feeling sad or hopeless at the end. It will inspire you. It will fill you with joy and with hope.
Now, I hope you will excuse me. I feel a sudden need to write Carla a real romance.