For the past week I’ve been working on the final chapter of my novel. Following the advice of bestselling author and expert creative writing tutor Sharon Kendrick I wrote the end months ago. But when I read it again it wasn’t right. My character had hijacked the love story part of the book since then and it didn’t work anymore. And that got me thinking about what makes a good ending.
It’s pretty clear that readers want the hero and heroine to be together at the end of a romance novel. Publishers, more cryptically, say they’re looking for an ‘emotionally satisfying ending’.
When I started looking into it a bit more I found this pretty illuminating quote from one of my writing heroines, Jennifer Crusie: “I think romance novels, like any genre stories, must provide a reader with catharsis at the end, and that catharsis is usually found in a ‘just’ ending; that is, characters get what they deserve. The bad guy gets punished, and the good guys get the happiness they’ve been striving for because they’ve suffered and grown and struggled.” Jennifer knows what she’s talking about. Not only has she written half a dozen best sellers but she teaches creative writing at Ohio State University.
By Jennifer’s definition to have a happy ending both characters need to grow during the book. If one of them doesn’t then you can’t have a happy ending. I think Gone With the Wind would be a classic example of that. Scarlett was, in my opinion, a spoilt brat from start to finish. I’d have felt a bit let down if Rhett had stayed with her at the end.
The other twist on the happy ever after is the ‘duty’ or ‘noble sacrifice’ ending as in Roman Holiday. It’s one of my all-time favourite films and it makes me cry every time when Princess Audrey choses her duty to her country over her love for Gregory Peck. Another film classic would be Casablanca. If Ingrid Bergman hadn’t got on the plane would that have made a better movie? I don’t think so. Somehow it’s enough to know ‘they’ll always have Paris’.
But there are romances where the ending seems anything but ‘just’. For anyone who hasn’t seen or read One Day by David Nicholls I suggest you stop reading now because there will be spoilers. The book charts the friendship of Emma and Dexter who meet on the night of their graduation in 1988. Following their lives for just one day each year we see how that friendship progresses and eventually turns to love.
I saw the film before I read the book. About three quarters of the way through when Dexter and Emma were happily married I thought ‘this isn’t going to end well’. I was absolutely right. Five minutes later Emma gets knocked off her bike and dies. Yes, dies! How could this heroine, who we’d come to love, die? It just wasn’t right. And no amount of quality father/daughter time four years later was going to make me feel any different.
I felt cheated. I’d gone to see a romance. I didn’t want to come out crying. And Emma deserved her happy ending. She was good. Dexter was a bit of an idiot but she loved him and together they’d suffered and grown. They should have been together.
However (and there’s more spoilers coming up) even if the hero and heroine don’t both live to see the final scene the ending can still have that required emotional quality. Me Before You by JoJo Moyes has an incredibly moving ending. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much at the end of a book. It was heart breaking but I understood.
It seems to me that books with endings that aren’t emotionally satisfying are seen as more serious. They take the book out of the romance genre and lift it to something more literary. That’s the author’s choice but it’s not a route I want to go down.
I want an ending that makes my characters and my readers happy. My characters have definitely suffered (by the way does anyone else find themselves apologising to their characters for what they’re going through or is that just me?) and I’m pretty sure they’ve grown. They deserve a bit of happiness. And my readers have stuck with us. I want them to close the book feeling happy too.
So now I know what I’m aiming for. Only time will tell if I can actually pull it off!
I’d love to hear what you think. What do you want from the end of a romance novel? What are your all-time favourite endings? And what makes them so good?