Article of the Month
The Price of Love:
Earning that Happy Ending
c. 2002 by Alicia Rasley
Outtakes from a hypothetical synopsis:
.....Working together as a team, John and Mary are able to save the ranch and vanquish the evil banker. They are celebrating their victory with sparkling water when Mary feels the first labor pains. John rushes her to the hospital and stays with her during the difficult labor. It is only after the baby is born that the demon of jealousy seizes him again. The pretty little girl has dark hair, and he is blond. He can’t help himself. As he watches Mary nurse the baby for the first time, he hurls the accusation at her– that she must have taken a lover and is trying to pass off a bastard as his child.
Patiently Mary assures him again that he is her only partner, and that the child is his. But after a year of marriage, she understands this demon and offers to have the doctor run a blood test. When the test proves John’s paternity, he picks up the baby and kisses it for the first time, and, with tears in his eyes, thanks Mary for giving him this beautiful gift. Mary smiles, confident that she has proved her love and her fidelity once again, and vows to be his forever.
So... how long do you give John and Mary? A year? Until she gets pregnant with another baby he can’t believe is his? Until Mary gets tired of proving herself pure and true and actually does what he keeps accusing her of doing?
In romance as in real life, a bad ending can spoil a good romance.
It’s true that there’s an common type of ending to romance novels, known as “the happy ending”. But all happy endings are not equally fulfilling. Merely matching your couple up and having them declare their mutual love isn’t enough to satisfy the reader who has suffered with them for 300 pages. You need to make the reader believe that these people have changed enough that now they can both give and accept love freely.
Change is the keyword. Fiction is all about change, the change brought by the plot events. If the characters– and the couple– don’t change measurably during the course of the story, then the plot events will be irrelevant... and so will the story. In a romance, the couple has to have changed enough and built a strong enough love to make us believe that no matter what happens after the book ends, they will be able surmount the obstacles together. And it’s the ending that proves and illustrates the change.
(When I speak of the ending, I mean that romantic resolution scene, usually the last scene of all, after the external conflict is resolved in the big climax scene. The resolution is the scene that ought to leave the reader sighing and wiping away a happy tear– but that won’t happen unless you make the resolution show the change in the characters in some event that is unique to this couple. Generic need not apply.)
John and Mary’s romantic resolution doesn’t satisfy because nothing has fundamentally changed. The “demon of jealousy” that plagued their relationship at the beginning of the story still dominates it in the end. John is still making accusations; Mary still thinks it’s her job to soothe his irrational fears. They haven’t changed enough to earn that happy ending, so we can’t really believe it will last.
So how to craft a satisfying ending to a romance novel?
1) Look in the beginning to find the ending: In every conflict is the seed of its resolution.
Know your characters’ journeys, and the couple’s journey– where they start and where they should end up. We cannot freely give and accept love until we have completed our internal journey, whether that's from independence to inter-dependence, from isolation to affiliation, from shame to self-acceptance, from delusion to reality, or whatever other journey we've embarked on. So look back at the beginning of your story and consider what you’ve set up as the journey’s starting point– and make sure you take the reader all the way to the end point in that last scene.
For example, Jealous John’s journey might be from insecurity to security, and Martyr Mary’s from abasement to assertion. The couple is moving from a distrustful relationship to a trusting relationship. So the ending ought to show the completion of that journey. Imagine if instead of Mary once again abasing herself to prove his accusations wrong, she asserts herself and says, “No. I am done with proving my love. It’s your turn to prove you love me enough to trust me.” That would force John to confront his demon. Maybe he’d take the baby to the doctor to get that bloodtest– and then, when he sees the doctor approaching with a big needle, and the baby starting to cry, he realizes that his insecurity is not just hurting Mary now, but also this tiny, innocent baby. And then he seizes the baby and cancels the bloodtest, and goes home and brokenly tells Mary that she has long since earned his trust– and now he’ll spend the rest of his life earning hers. More satisfying, right? They don’t just end up happy– they earn the happiness by completing their personal journeys.
Contemporary author Jan Scarbrough (Best Intentions, Kensington Precious Gems) refers to a hero of hers who was alienated from his father, and that estrangement was affecting his relationship with the heroine. “The hero had to solve
the problem with his father before he could have the heroine,” she points out. Only by completing his journey from alienation to reconciliation was he able to trust himself in a new love. (Remember that one trait many romance readers are looking for in a hero is the ability to be a good father– so reconciling with his own father can be an indication that this hero is finally ready to be a father himself.)
2) Love is transformative because it makes us want to grow to deserve it. So we are drawn to the person who will most challenge us to grow.
Marriage therapist Harville Hendrix (Getting the Love You Want) declares that we subconsciously seek the person who can help us grow and complete our journeys. That’s why opposites attract– but also why we are so often drawn to someone who has negative traits we subconsciously recognize from a parent. So if Tom grew up with a mother who wasn’t physically affectionate, instead of being drawn to a warm, huggy woman, he might be attracted to Julie, who is unlike his mother except in her resistance to being embraced. Somewhere within him, he wants to re-experience that childhood need, only this time he wants to end up getting the aloof woman to overcome her fears out of love for him.
Notice how symbiotic this paradox is. To complete his journey from feeling unloved to feeling loved, Tom needs from Julie precisely what is hardest for her to give, and what she most needs to give to complete her own journey. Through loving her despite her initial inability to give him the physical embraces he needs, Tom might learn that Julie is frightened because she was abused by a man in her past. He might gently teach her to trust again. He might even realize that his mother loved him in the only way she could, and come to lovingly accept what she has given him.
So the romantic resolution should very likely include a hug or embrace– not Tom hugging Julie, but Julie hugging Tom. But careful here. If Julie joyously grabs him and gives him a big bearhug, it won’t honor the difficulty of her journey. Consider how much more affecting this would be if Julie says, “I – I want to give you a hug,” and instead of rushing forward to take it, Tom stands patiently in the middle of the room while she slowly approaches him, and tentatively, fearfully, reaches out her arms and embraces him– lightly at first, then when she realizes it’s safe, fiercely.
3) The one who has the most problems with commitment should be the one to make the greatest step to commitment in the end.
John’s unwillingness to trust Mary is a sign of his inability to commit to this relationship. He wants proof of Mary’s perfection before he’ll give into love– and that’s too much to expect of anyone. So he’s the one with the longest road to commitment. As long as Mary is doing all the committing for the both of them, the relationship will be one-sided. So he’s the one who needs to show his commitment by taking the scary leap into trust in the end.
Another common type of commitmentphobe is the dark and dangerous hero. This is a guy who really needs to learn to give love, not just accept it. So it’s not enough, in the end, to have him decide that okay, he’ll stay and let the heroine love him if she wants to so bad. In fact, he’d probably benefit from having her give up on him and walk away– so that he has to choose dangerous love over safe detachment.
Sacrifice is the clearest proof of commitment-- but only for someone unused to sacrificing. So if Betsy has been obsessed with getting the Holy Grail for much of the book, and that obsession has kept her from being able to commit to Billy, then maybe, to show her commitment, she has to sacrifice the Holy Grail in the end. That sacrifice won’t have the same power, however, if she’s been sacrificing the whole book long, or if she never really cared that much about the Holy Grail.
Historical author Lynn Kerstan (The Golden Leopard, Signet, October 2002) would go even further. “The happiness must be earned--each protagonist must sacrifice what he/she most wanted or needed. In Leopard, Duran sacrifices his one chance for
escape and life, not to save the heroine (too obvious) but to give her the only thing he has to offer at that point--the destruction of her family's enemy. Jessica sacrifices her independence, which is not so difficult, and her pride, which is very difficult, except that when she does it, it's not difficult at all.”
I think you can probably see where this is going– that very sacrifice makes this character more open to giving and accepting love, by demonstrating that this love is more important than an obsession, an internal need, or even life itself.
4) Love is an action, not a feeling. So make the resolution is an event, not just a realization.
Romance readers are jaded. They’ve read a thousand “now I’m ready for love” realizations. They want more. They want that love to be shown, not just told. And that means some event there in the resolution scene, however small and symbolic, that shows the completion of that personal journey.
If she needs some time alone to realize that love is more important than her pride, let the reader experience the solitude with her, and the choice she makes, and her return to the hero. As Jenel Looney puts it, “What's bothersome to me sometimes is when the hero or heroine who needs to change the most does so off the page. I think it's usually much more powerful and believable to show the heroine's thought process as she's thinking, not in retrospect. That way, the reader will have a better chance of buying the change and believing it will stick.”
It’s especially important, I think, to fully stage an apology, if one is necessary because one character has hurt the other. If Jealous John never sincerely and openly apologizes to Mary for his terrible accusation, the reader is going to feel cheated and suspect he hasn’t really changed.
This symbolic event doesn't have to be a full scene to be effective. For example, if the hero is estranged from his family, the last scene might begin with the heroine entering his office and hearing him say on the phone, "You're right, Mom. It's been too long. I'll be home soon, and there's someone I want you to meet. Yes, someone female. I love you. See you next week." And then that can segue into the "declaration/proposal" scene, as the heroine knows now that the barrier between the hero and his emotions has come down.
And that brings us to the big payoff:
5) Love should be celebrated in a way that shows the uniqueness of the lovers.
The reader has waited 300 pages for the big romantic moment– the declaration or the proposal or the celebration of love. This should not be generic! It should not be a fleeting exchange of “I love yous”, as if this couple has been married twenty years and are heading off to work in separate cars. It should be A Big Deal.
Now I have to admit, I’m a sucker for those Oprah “spectacular proposal” shows. I laugh and cry whenever I see that firefighter climb the cherry-picker to his girlfriend’s upper-story window and hold out that diamond ring while his co-workers cheer on the firetruck below.
The great proposal appeals to the need within us to be stars, if only for one other person. We need to know that someone who loves us will go to ridiculous lengths-- at least once-- to make us happy-- and that he knows us well enough to know what will make us happy. And we’re going to feel cheated if we get less than that.
Once I was at a wedding of someone who shall remain nameless, but let's just say we share a set of parents. I was feeling sentimental and asked this young man how he had proposed to his bride. He replied, gloomily, "I finally said okay."
They're coming up on their tenth anniversary now, so his reluctant proposal (or reluctant acceptance of hers) didn’t doom their relationship. But if I felt cheated listening to his account, imagine how cheated his wife feels! Somehow I doubt she’s going to cuddle up to him after their anniversary dinner and coo, "Darling, do you remember that magical moment when you finally said okay?"
So imagine your heroine a couple days down the road, telling her friends about the proposal. What would impress them? The heroine might settle for something less than romantic, but girlfriends – and readers– want more. So go for the grand gesture, scaled to fit the scope of your book, and reflecting the uniqueness of how this couple loves.
First, who would initiate the proposal/declaration? Consider going with the one you decided has had the hardest time committing. If that’s not a factor, well, I’m sexist, I guess. I’d say the hero should propose then. Most of our readers are women, after all, and this is the last chance the hero has to win them as well as the heroine.
Look for an action to symbolize their love. If there’s some place that symbolizes what they mean to each other, return to it in the final scene. For example, if they were teenaged lovers parted by cruel fate, maybe she takes him back to the meadow where they first made love, and she spreads out her grandmother’s wedding quilt, and says, “Our love wasn’t strong enough then, but I think it’s strong enough now.”
You can also use a prop that represents what they mean to each other. If they started out best friends, the hero might pull out a little twist of silver, the sort of ring best girlfriends give each other in 7th grade, and say, “I got you a ring. It’s a friendship ring.” And then, before she can express her disappointment, he might pull out another ring, this one a big diamond, and add, “And this is an engagement ring. I want you to wear them both so you’ll know that I want to be your friend forever– and your husband for even longer.”
Then consider what words these two unique people would confess their love. They don't stop being themselves just because they now know they're in love. Look back at how they talk to each other in the most fun or tender moments in the book. Would they make a sweet joke of the proposal? Or would they use poetic and passionate language?
It’s especially effective to take some catchphrase they’ve used through the book and give it a romantic or tender twist. Remember the end of the movie Ghost? Patrick Swayze has never been able to say, “I love you,” so whenever Demi Moore says it, he just replies, “Ditto.” In the end, he whispers, “I love you”– and she tearfully echoes, “Ditto.” (Sniffle. That gets me everytime.)
Let the language of the declaration reflect something special about their love, something connecting their past to their future in this crystalline present. More than anything else, this moment has to show how well they know each other, and how that knowledge only deepens their love. As Lynn Kerstan concludes, “True openness between them has to be achieved, a clarity of the air between them. They see each other truly, and recognize the bond that will hold them together in the future. The hero sees himself through her eyes, and knows he can love and be loved. And the heroine sees herself through his eyes, and knows that she is loved and that her love is what he most needs.”
Just remember that the end of the romance should not be “happy ever after.” That’s too generic and implausible for our jaded readers. Rather we need to seduce readers back into believing in “love ever after”, that these two know each other so well, and love each other so truly, that no matter happens, whether it’s tragedy or age or just boring old routine, they will have the commitment to get through it together. That’s the power of love, and if we write it right, they will have it forever as they have it in this magic moment.
Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.
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