Happily Ever Afters: Fact or Fiction?

I’m a huge fan of stories with happy endings. I love seeing couples experience the thrill of meeting, getting to know one another, and realizing that they’re in love. A happy ending is the frosting on a mighty tasty cake.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if romance writers aren’t misleading readers when we wrap up our stories in tidy packages, tie all the threads into pretty bows, and give the impression that our couples will have no trials to endure, no challenges to face, and no hurdles to overcome once the proposals have been accepted or the wedding vows recited.

Real life doesn’t work that way, does it? We know it, and so do readers.

I read an unusual and unexpected Valentine’s Day post, written by my agency mate, Heather Kopp, titled “This is the Person You Will Hurt,” and was impressed with her honesty and transparency.

Heather talked about how we’ll end up hurting our spouses more–and more often–than any other person. It’s inevitable. The closer we become, the more friction there can be.

The most important point Heather makes is that forgiveness is crucial in a godly marriage. We’ll likely find ourselves on the giving and receiving end of this precious gift.

As I pondered the truths in Heather’s post, I asked myself how they relate to the HEAs romance readers crave. After puzzling over that question for some time, I realized that making a small shift in my thinking could make a big difference.

Instead of promising my readers Happily Ever Afters, I can strive to give them Hope-filled Ever Afters. The couples in a romance aren’t guaranteed happiness, but they do have hope of a rich and rewarding future.

The guests at a wedding, especially those who are married, know the couple’s life won’t be all sunshine and roses. They expect the husband and wife to face some tough times but to work their way through them as others have done.

In the same way, I believe readers who reach the HEA ending of a story know the couple has what it takes to make their relationship or marriage work. Our heroes and heroines have endured trials, faced challenges, and overcome hurdles. In the process, they’ve grown individually and as a couple. If the story could be classified as an inspirational, they will have matured in their faith as well.

If we’ve done our job as writers, we’ve given our readers hope that the characters they’ve come to know and–hopefully–love, will take the lessons they learned with them as they move into their fictional futures, futures that will include a hefty dose of happiness.

• • •

What do you think of HEA endings? Are they satisfying or sappy?

Do you think it would be more realistic to refer to HEAs as Hope-filled Ever Afters?

Do you believe that forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts we can offer our spouses?

• • •

Image from iStockphoto.
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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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23 Responses to Happily Ever Afters: Fact or Fiction?

  1. I agree that the writer must show the couple working through controversy in the book until they get to the point where they can overcome it–by doing that—one gets the hope that this couple can work through future challenges together. I love happy endings!

  2. Loree Huebner says:

    Great thoughts here. I think most romances show a major conflict to get to the HEA. If the couple can make it through, I feel satisfied that they will have the love and strength to always overcome problems to reach the HEA in the end.

  3. I’m glad you’re reading Heather’s blog. She certainly keeps it real and still offers hope for a happy ending. I always find something to chew on in her posts, and it’s fun to see you translating that to writing stronger romance stories.

  4. Donna Pyle says:

    Great food for thought, Keli. Real life can certainly inhibit happy ever afters – which is why is so nice to read fiction that offers them pretty much every time. But I agree, it has to be a “real” happy ever after. A Cinderella ending might be nice once in a blue moon, but reading where love conquers obstacles with the couple hand-in-hand warms my heart. But then, I’m a romantic at heart. :)

  5. I definitely write (and enjoy reading) hopefully-ever-after stories! I want there to be come-to-Jesus moments and doses of reality just like real life, but stories should also leave us with hope. Karen Kingsbury has mastered this very well.

  6. Absolutely agree that forgiveness is one of the most important things in marriage. It sounds like your agency mate wrote a fantastic post. I adore HEAs precisely for the reasons you wrote above. :-)

  7. “Hope-filled ever afters” – I like that!

  8. I think you’re spot on here, Keli. I hate endings when the couple’s problems just dissolve altogether, because that isn’t realistic. Oftentimes, it is about compromise (not as in compromising your faith, but in other ways) and understanding. That’s not to say I don’t like HEAs–just ones that don’t go far enough in resolving conflict realistically. But I like your idea of a hope-filled ever after!

  9. I think that, after all the struggles we put our characters through,once the ending of the story is reached, we offer the reader the notion that if our couple can make it through recent disasters, they have what it takes to make a successful and happy life together. The payoff at the end of the book is also the promise for the future.

  10. Melissa Tagg says:

    Hope-filled ever after…oh, I love that. I recently read Susan May Warren’s latest book, “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and it’s such a great example of a hope-filled ever after. Every once in awhile, happily ever afters can spend sooo much time tying up every loose end that the ending starts to drag. What I like about hope-filled ever afters is they often end right when I’m feeling the biggest swell of emotion…So, I do like both the hope-filleds and happilys, but sometimes I’m left thinking longer about the hope-filled ones…

  11. I write hope-filled ever afters. I can’t guarantee happiness. But hope, well that’s a guarantee I can give. And that’s why I changed my tagline! :) Excellent post, Keli! As usual!

  12. Great post! Yes, I hope our demographic – married women – comes out of reading romances with intent to strengthen their marriages. If they see a hero and heroine working through conflicts, negotiating their relationship, and falling in love, they’ll remember the work and wonder of their own early days. Then resolve to find that spark again!

    • Sorry Keli, WP is still giving me a fit. I read that article and I wondered about the essence of what it was saying. However, it might be yet another example of those who have little or no faith in READERS and their intelligence. HEA and romance is the number one selling category of all fiction. The reason is not because people actually believe it, but because they want to escape and believe in something less mundane than their every day life. However, I did comment on that post that readers, like viewers of soaps, tend to take it all in with a ton of salt. Soap opera actors have been shouted at in supermarkets for being so cruel to their spouse (their make believe spouse). It happens :)

  13. bethkvogt says:

    I thought Heather’s blog post was one of the most insightful I’ve ever read.
    And I do have some opinions about HEAs … I’m actually taking part in Karen Elliot’s Romance Week (starting over at her blog tomorrow). My post is titled Deconstructing Happily Ever After. That whole “And they lived happily ever after . . .”
    That isn’t the end of the story.

  14. Very interesting post! I guess I am a sucker for HEA since I grew up watching the Disney movies (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White..) and enjoying Jane Austen novels.

    But succesful books like The Horse Whisperer or Bridges of Madison County didn’t have that HEA scene at the end, yet I LOVED those stories. Sometimes a little longing at the end is good too! Sniff.

  15. Cindy R. Wilson says:

    I have to say first that I absolutely, 100%, believe that forgiveness is the greatest gift we can give our spouse–or probably others close in our lives as well. And yes, what’s done with that forgiveness is up to the other party but it’s a healthy and vital step to take in every relationship.

    I LOVE HEA’s. I’ve questioned before whether certain ways writers wrap up couple’s lives in a perfect bow might lend a hand in disillusioning readers, making them believe that this is how real life really is. But most of us know it’s not. Also, I believe a good writer doesn’t just get their character through a hurdle and let them off without being scathed, I think a good writer makes it clear to the character and the reader that the MC has grown by enduring that experience so that they will be stronger for other hardships they will most definitely face in the future. And if there’s a HEA where a couple unites and gets to be in love, and married, that’s even better :)

    Great thought-provoking post!

  16. I like your concept of Hope-filled Ever Afters. Too many happily-ever-after stories are unrealistic because life continues to pile on new challenges.

    Forgiveness is a wonderful gift. The only place where I might question its relevance is in situations of abuse. Abused spouses sometimes forgive and return to be abused again and again. It can be a never-ending cycle because forgiveness doesn’t address the underlying problem.

  17. Julie Nilson says:

    “Hope-filled ever afters” is an excellent term, Keli! I think that “happily ever after” has come to be associated with the unrealistic fairytale-style “and everything was perfect from then on out!” ending. Most readers don’t want that, but we do want some assurances that the characters we love/like are going to be OK. So “hope-filled ever after” fits the bill perfectly.

  18. Deborah says:

    I read romance novels to go away in my brain for a while… To smile and feel all warm and fuzzy… Kinda like a warm bath on a cold night. That said, I love the Idea that the story would end with hope… Hope that the trials and tribulations have given a couple the opportunity to turn towards one another for strength and comfort. That’s the kind of scenario that makes my heart go putter patter!

  19. This is super interesting stuff, Keli. Especially since I am rewriting book 2, which has the hero and heroine from my debut novel, only four years later and they are married. They aren’t the main characters, but they are important secondary characters and there is going to be some tension b/w them (at least that’s the plan), only I’m worried because I don’t want my readers to be bummed out because everything isn’t perfect. The key is also giving them their fair share of sweet, fun, romantic moments too.

  20. Brianna Soloski says:

    I’m a sap, so I love a good happy ending. I also like the idea of hope-filled ever after. I think it’s far more realistic. Learning forgiveness is a huge thing and takes so many years to develop. I also think forgiveness is a two person thing – both sides have to be willing to come together to overcome whatever obstacles they may be facing.

  21. karenselliott says:

    I like happy or, as Stacy says, hope-filled. I cannot tell you the times I have come to the end of a romance novel, or a story with romance in it, and it is a sad ending…and I’m left sitting there saying, “No, no, no!!”

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