Friday, December 10, 2010

Romance Endings

Romance follows fairy tale structure. Not mythic quest structure. Can't say that often enough. Study Voegler, study Campbell, if you think it will give you something to think about or a point of comparison. But never forget, dear romance author, that you're actually writing a fairy tale.

Exhibit A

Say it with me now. Fill in the blanks.

"And they all lived ______ _______ _______."

This concept is so intrinsic to genre romance that authors have shorthanded it: HEA, for Happily Ever After, a/k/a the way the good romance novel ends.

There is some debate about the shape and form of that HEA ending. Vladimir Propp, the Russian formalist who studied thousands of local wonder tales and created a 31-step template for this type of folklore, held that the final step was a wedding. All other steps -- whether obstacles, challenges, triumphs, or meetings -- led inexorably to the wedding IF the protagonist was successful on the journey. Cinderella marries the Prince in the final moments of her story.

Now we're less inclined to view a formal wedding ceremony as essential to the HEA. Now we discuss this ingredient in terms of the promise of commitment or the proof of an enduring relationship. Regardless, the final moments of a romance novel will demonstrate to the reader that the pair-bond has been created and will not break. The form of that pair-bond can vary a little, but its presence is mandatory.

Or, as Leslie Wainger puts it in Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies (which is actually a damned smart book),

The final expectation every reader has when reading a romance novel is that it will end with the hero and heroine expecting to spend their lives together and face any future trials as one.

Compare this to the mythic quest structure, which ends with the hero recrossing a threshold and becoming the master of two worlds. Dorothy returns to Kansas in the end and is as comfortable there as in Oz. But she doesn't marry the wizard, does she? Of course not. Marriage can occur along the path of the hero's journey, but it's not the destination.

I'm going to keep this short -- there's more I could say on this subject, but my goal in this post is to make you think about the differences between fairy tale endings and mythic quest endings. A lot of you are going to resist these ideas because you've been taught quest structure as if there are no other options. There are. And we use them. We just don't always recognize them.



Blythe Gifford said...

Kathleen Gilles Seidel once gave a great workshop on happy endings making the point that there is some commitment publically as part of the community. (A wedding is a public event.) This tracks, for me, with the Hero bringing back the "elixer," or His/Her knowledge, for the benefit of all. In this context,a stable relationship benefits the entire community. (I use fairy tales AND the Hero's Journey!)

Anne R. Allen said...

Thank you, thank you. I've never read this, but I've certainly felt it. I've had editors truncate my book before it got to HEA because the hero had already "returned." Arrgghh.

Jessica Silva said...

I think this is the element that always bothered me. I'm a cynic so when everything seems to be going right--even if things are somehow 'going wrong'--I'm rolling my eyes. "You JUST met him. Why are you acting like that?!"

BUT it's a good idea to think about--ending with that commitment. A book that has a more romantic twist would definitely have that promise, even if the two lovebirds weren't necessarily lovey-dovey the whole book and maybe haven't even kissed yet. With a book that has some romantic elements, but isn't necessarily romance, might not have that at the end. It's good to know the difference :)

Jami Gold said...

Hmm, Jessica brings up a good point. How do those "romantic elements" stories fit? Can they follow the fairy tale structure and end with a promise? Or if it ends with just a promise for sometime in the future, would it be expected to follow the mythic hero's journey structure instead? I'm thinking of a story where you *know* they're going to end up together, they *know* they're going to end up together, but the final step toward togetherness hasn't been taken yet.

Ponder, ponder...

Edittorrent said...

Well, I'd say, if one of the main plots is a journey of the couple towards romance, it's a romance. It might be other things (a mystery, a suspense, a quest), but it's a romance.

If they know and the reader knows they're going to end up together, well, that doesn't seem like a quest structure. The quest ends with the hero taking the elixir or getting home or whatever, usually returning to the place he left. Right? Where's the heroine in that? If he takes her back, that's a public demonstration of their pairing, so a HEA/romantic ending.

If he leaves her to take the elixir back or assume the kingship or whatever, well, I don't think the ending is happy (much less ever after). If the last scene is his leaving her, is it a romance? (Yeah, Casablanca, which I love, but I don't think is a romance-- it's more of a male quest in which the woman is instrumental in his getting to the end.)

What you'll see in a romance is usually that she goes with him back, or he leaves her and comes back and gets her -- and THAT is the scene that completes the story, not the return of the elixir.
IMHO, that is.