Friday, February 09, 2007

Another Word on the HEA

It's been a few weeks since the last convulsion of "Romance = HEA." But I've been thinking about it, because I have a very complex reaction to the "Romance = HEA" issue.

I believe that something that's published in the genre of romance should end with the lovers united, looking forward to a life together after overcoming all the obstacles to their love.

On the other hand, when I read "it's romance and it's got to have an HEA!" all my rebel-against-authority buttons are pushed. Throw a rule at me, and I'll feel an irresistible urge to break it. It's one of my natural laws.

So I think that we are presenting the argument ineffectively. For those who feel constricted by the romantic HEA, or feel that romance novels suffer from the demands of ending happily, I appreciate your feelings because in some part I share them. But I ask you to consider it this way.

The ending of successful fiction pays off to its theme. If the theme is "misuse of science brings horror and death," the ending won't satisfy if on the last page dawn rises over a new tomorrow filled with hope. If the theme is "only through the greatest sacrifice can evil be overcome," then the hero of the story will die in the end if the writer has done her job.

The theme of every novel published in the genre of romance is ROMANTIC LOVE CONQUORS ALL. That's the ride the reader wants. And that's the ride I generally deliver, because it directly reflects my personal philosophy.

It's pretty hard to pay off to the theme of Romantic Love Conquers All without having the lovers overcome all the obstacles and live happily ever after. And that's why romance novels end the way they do. The authors are doing their jobs effectively in paying off to the theme.

I think that "unhappy endings" are effective when the story's theme mirrors or resonates with the audience's own personal world views. If I agree that only through the greatest sacrifice can evil be overcome, I might cry when the hero dies, but I will also love the novel because the theme that hooked me paid off in the end.

But I don't agree with that philosophy. When someone tells me I have to make a sacrifice, I am just too cynical and assume I'm giving something up so they don't have to. So a book with the sacrifice overcomes evil theme can be the most powerfully written story ever, but it's going to be a tough sell to me. I might admire the prose, the characters and the author's technique, but it probably won't satisfy me.

So instead of thinking "happy vs. unhappy" with all the subtext infecting that conflict, think paying off to the theme. If you are writing a story that features the theme Romantic Love Conquers All, and you pay it off, chances are you will successfully tap into some facet of the eager romance market.


Ursula said...

Joyece wrote: "The ending of successful fiction pays off to its theme"

This is a brilliant observation. The theme carries through the entire work, or it should, in sub text and obvious text, and when you swerve the ending and invalidate the theme, you're undoing the story and all you've worked for. You've, in essence, disproved the theory you set about to validate, and while that might work in esoteric literary fiction, in a more defined market, like genre fiction, your theme is essential and your ending validates that theme.

I agree, to rebel agains the expected is, well, to be expected sometimes. So the HEA is desired. I go back to McKee: the way to really wow your audience is to give them what they want, but not in the way they expect. You can give a HEA, in many forms. So to rebel, rebel against the expectation by delivering it in another way. But don't invalidate it. Because you're invalidating your audience, who will not be inspired to plunk down hard earned credits the next time you publish because you've alerted them you like to 'bait and switch'.

SpecRom Joyce said...

It's not so much my brilliant observation as it is the brilliant observation of writing instructor, John Vorhaus.

Everyone should read his books, I swear.

But looking at it that way does make it a craft issue and not a rules issue. We all hate rules, don't we?