Monday, February 4, 2013

(Not So) Happily Ever After

It is February, the month of love. Ah, Valentines Day! Some optimist must have decided that February was far too bleak and wisely chose the old legend to create a holiday around. (I know that's not the real history. I did that one last year.)

Quite coincidentally, I have been reading To Weave a Web of Magic, a collection of four fantasy tales with a romantic bend (Claire Delacroix, Lynn Kurland, Patricia McKillip, and Sharon Shinn.) I highly recommend it. Three of the four tales end in the seemingly prerequisite happily ever after. One does not.

Let me backtrack just a little...

I joined the RWA (Romance Writers of America*) in 2011. I do not consider myself a romance writer, but my books always have a strong romantic element to them. Because the RWA broadened its horizons to include my sort of stories, I was able to sign up, and thus able to join a local writing group that I am very happy to be part of. There is one thing about the RWA that I don't like, and that is that it is absolutely necessary for your novel to end in happily ever after. It's right there in the definition.

I do love happily ever after. I'm a sucker for it, I have to be honest. However, I don't like it all the time. If you know how it is going to end right from the beginning, in my opinion, it gets boring no matter how many stones you throw at your lovers. I rarely let everyone in my stories live happily ever after. Some of the characters will, but some will not. And some will have happily enough.

Slight spoilery:
The fourth story in To Weave a Web of Magic is Claire Delacroix's An Elegy for Melusine. It combines elements of the John Keat's poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci and the Cupid and Psyche myth. As you can imagine, Ms. Delacroix's story doesn't end any better, and yet it was still incredibly romantic from start to finish.

My favorite painting, La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee
So--does a story have to end happily to be considered romance? If you are strictly a romance writer, it seems the answer is yes, it does. The RWA has recently cracked down on what is considered romance, and what they will call romance by their standards. But what about those romances that do not end happily? Is Romeo and Juliet any less a romance because they both die? Cupid and Psyche? I won't add any less obvious stories here, but I can think of quite a few tales I would consider romance, even if they don't end happily.

Romance? Or strong romantic element? Is it fair to say something isn't a romance if it doesn't end happily? What books/stories do you consider romance, even though they don't end happily? Comments are open to all spoilery! Just be warned before you read them.

Terri DeFino

*The RWA is a fantastic organization, very writer-friendly, especially friendly to unpublished writers. It is an organization of cooperation, mutual respect, and truly, a group of writers and writing professionals who work together even when they are--in fact--competing with one another.


Debbie Christiana said...

I thought the love story between Jack and Rose in Titanic was beautiful and it had a heart wrenching ending. No, some of the best romances don't have happy endings.

But of course, I love a happy ending too, who doesn't?

Nice post, Terri :)

Terri-Lynne said...

Rose and Jack! One of the best love-stories of recent years. See, I consider that a romance! Not to be a downer, but all love ends in someone crying, whether it's a break up or someone dies. Unless you are Nicholas Sparks and can arrange for your lovers to die at will in one another's arms. ;)
(the Notebook, for those of you who don't know.)
Thanks for stopping by, Deb!

Diana Munoz Stewart said...

I don't think you need a happily ever after for it to be a romance. However, I understand why the RWA has set that standard. I think they're trying to appeal to their audience. They are very conscious of what sells. And most people like their romance, like their romantic comedies, to be lighthearted.

Terri-Lynne said...

If I understand it correctly, the RWA has tightened up its guidelines due to some very real concern that the genre was moving too far away from it's core. I do understand it, even if I don't wholeheartedly agree with it.

Thanks for stopping in, bellisima!

Unknown said...

Ah, Romeo and Juliet along with Jack and Rose (thank you, Debbie)! Two great examples of where love bloomed and we didn't have the popular HEA. Well, RWA is promoting their formula for success as Diana pointed out. I find too predictable a bit boring but admit I'm a sucker for a decent ending. However, to toss out a cliche (don't shriek fellow writers) 'better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.' Take that RWA!!!

Terri-Lynne said...

Sharon--I'm with you. I find it boring, no matter how well done. And that's not to say that HEA is boring! Only that if you KNOW it's going to end happily from the get go, there's way too much tension lost. If it weren't a hard and fast criteria, at least there would be a little doubt involved, and thus a bit more excitment.

Honestly, I don't get it. I do, kinda, but I just don't agree. I guess that's why I'm not a category romance writer.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

I don't suppose RWA defines what constitutes a "happy ending"?

I just finished watching "Out of Africa". I'd call it a romance, though it definitely does not have a happy ending.

PC Cast writes some fun fantasy romance with happy endings. I've only read one of her novels. It was a nice, light frolick through a pseudo-medieval world complete with very sexy mer-men, but I remember feeling a little unsatisfied when the story ended. All that "happiness" didn't quite dig deep enough into the truth of romance, desire, love, and life.

'Gone With the Wind' -- I mean really, is there anyone out there who would not call this classic novel a romance?

And here's a question to chew on: Is the ending to 'Gone with the Wind' happy or not?

Some would say Rhett walking out on Scarlett was not a happy ending. But I bet we could argue otherwise. I suspect that when Scarlett woke up the next day, free of that domineering scoundrel and ready to take the reins again at Tara, she realized she had never been happier in all her life.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

The Last of the Mohicans -- omg, that's like one of the most romantic movies ever! And it does not have a happy ending. Okay, so boy gets girl in the end, but still! So much is lost in the journey...

I think I'm still trying to figure out what constitutes "happy".

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin, the RWA requires--An Emotionally-Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

Not Rhett and and Scarlett, that's for sure.

BUT--would you classify GWTW as a romance? Or as a historical fiction? Last of the Mohicahs, Out of Africa, The English Patient, Titanic--they are not classified as romances either, even if they are all about the love story within.

I think this is both where the RWA is right and wrong. It is RIGHT to keep category romance as what it is, devoted to what it is. But where I think it's wrong is requiring the romance to end withthe HEA formula. Is a romance a romance if the boy and girl don't live together in unconditional love forever and ever? For those devoted romance readers, NO, it's not.

And I suppose that's why I'm not a big romance reader either, even if just about everything I read has a strong romantic element.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

(This is Terri--for some reason, if I post on my own name from THIS computer, it goes right to spam. Very strange.)

And I will add this--the RWA is very open to gay relationships. Doesn't have to be boy/girl. This is where romance is leaps and bounds ahead of many other genres where it's still fairly taboo. HRB's Chasing Cold (Stephen Graham King) was not a love story, but the romantic element was gay, and it met with some raised eyebrows. George Martin's Knight of Flowers and "King" Renly are openly gay in the series, but not in the book. It's more hinted at than displayed. In the romance market--gay romance is it's own category, and is very well-read by men and women alike.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

I think whether you classify some of these stories as romance or something else depends on whether you're talking about the novel or the movie.

As novels, 'Last of the Mohicans' and 'Out of Africa' are not romances. The movies, in my mind, clearly are. (I remember being thoroughly disappointed the first time I saw the movie Out of Africa; it seemed to me that they had distilled the amazing life and accomplishments of Karen Blixen into little more than her relationship with Dennis; that the importance of this character, who was relatively absent in the novel, was greatly exaggerated by the screenwriters simply to give Robert Redford a romantic lead.)

I still reserve the right to call GwtW "historical romance".

I've also seen romance defined as a story in which a romantic relationship is the core element of the plot, without which the rest of the story would not make sense. This seems to me a reasonable definition, and not nearly as proscriptive as "it must have a happy ending".

My guess is that RWA's ruling on happy endings won't be long for this world. RWA is an excellent professional organization with dedicated writers, who like all authors will want to respect and promote their genre without restricting their creative license.

This discussion reminds me so much of the ongoing debate as to what constitutes fantasy. I'm wondering if SFWA has similar definitions for their genres? They certainly are very stringent (and outdated, imho) on what constitutes a "professional author".

Anonymous said...

One of the things that Romance readers are looking for -is- the predictability. They want to know what the end will look like before they invest emotionally in the in a way, yes, they might be perceived as boring. (That would also be like saying that a Mystery is boring because you know they'll catch the bad guys in the end.) Readers of different genres have differing expectations.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--I am actually going to pose it to my writer's group. Is Gone With the Wind historical romance? I think it is the best example of what I mean, because it IS a romance, and it's a historical, but it does not end in the manner necessary to categorize it as a romance, as far as the RWA is concerned. Very interesting.

I don't see the RWA changing that anytime soon. It got as close as it was going to get when it opened up to the "strong romantic element" giving me the ability to join their ranks. They have since pulled back on that, at least where their big contests are concerned. No more "romantic element." It MUST be a romance as outlined in their guidelines.

Again, I don't mean no disrespect. I completely understand the reasons behind their recent decisions to keep closer to the core. The romance readership is VAST. And while you might think that would give more wiggle room, it actually seems that they've found branching out to include not-so-category romance dilutes the pool, so to speak. It leaves a lot of would-be romance writers out of the loop, and that's the unfortunate part, but the writership being as huge as it is means doing a little culling to keep it manageable.

Terri-Lynne said...

JK--I'm so glad you chimed in. You are more familiar with the RWA than I am. I've only been a member a little over a year.

I agree--most devoted romance readers ARE looking for that predictability. They want to know, no matter what happens to their lovers, that it will end happily. Comfort food for the reader-brain! But I do believe, when you cater to and only to your largest demographic--while fiscally smart--you're leaving out a whole lot of readers looking for something different.

In the scifi/fan/horror world, it keeps expanding to include all sorts of combinations and invention. It does muddle things to an extent--and we see that by how science ficiton, fantasy, steampunk, etc are all shelved together in libraries and bookstores--but it allows for broader audience appeal, while still giving those diehard pulp scifi fans, or high fantasy fans, their brainfood of choice.

And, all that being said, this is where the small presses come in--they're filling in the niches bigger markets only pay kind of lip-service to.

The romance genre is truly vast--from historical to regency to LGBT to paranormal--the list goes on and on--they are pulling in more readers than all the other genres combined, and then some. By keeping this core of HEA, they keep that control group of readers they know will come back time and again. The romance genre thrives, no matter what the world is doing, no matter how society changes. There is no doubt about that.

Anonymous said...

That is true. The romance genre has held the largest part of the market for a very long time, mostly by giving the people what they want. IF they don't want that, then they simply look eslewhere....which is where other genres came in.

BTW, I qualified for PAN because my contract calls my work "Romantic Fantasy". There's not a single kiss in The Golden City, and there's not a HEA. (That says nothing of The Seat of Magic.) I am rather saddened by the loss of that RITA ('romantic element'), though, which I might have been able to shoot for...

FWIW, I think RWA also respects the HFN ending, especially in areas of erotica and menage. (I haven't researched their language on the web-page, but I know a lot of my chaptermates write HFN.)

Terri-Lynne said...

JK--it has been the topic of conversation in my local writing group since the announcement. Well, it usually ends up there. :)

I qualified to join the RWA as a romantic fantasy author because they'd stretched their former parameters. With the removal of "strong romantic element" from the RITA, I can no longer enter.

And, in talking about it with my group, I do understand that they are "going back to their roots." Keeping it pure, so to speak, and it's mostly because when it comes to judging, they don't have enough judges for ALL the entries that come in. Culling out those not strictly romance was a necessary, however unfortunate for us, step.

Now, one can still JOIN the RWA with that strong romantic element--like my stuff--they just can't enter the contests. Well, not the RWA ones, anyway.

Happily For Now--that is a whole other topic! I don't read erotica or menage, so I can't really comment on that. I wonder what the "official" stance would be. Is it a gray area? Hmmm...

Anonymous said...

As for RWA contests, you might pop over and look up the FF&P-RWA group (yes, I'm a member). It's Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal...which has a lot of members you might recognize.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

JK--link me!

My own writing group, while RWA affiliated, has all sorts of out-of-the-romance-box writers. It seems it's just as far as the contests are concerned that the rules are a bit firmer.