The key element that makes a novel a romance is the ending. How to conclude your book so it’s satisfying to the genre readers who have set expectations? By ending with the happily ever after (HEA) or the happy for now (HFN). If your book doesn’t have a happy, emotional ending where your two protagonists fall in love by the time the plot is concluded, you will have a hard time selling your book as a romance.
However, that doesn’t mean you should take it easy on your characters. The road to romance should never run smoothly in a good book. You want there to be ups and downs and nail-biting tension so that when the dark moment arrives, the reader has a reasonable doubt that all hope is lost between the two lovers.
In the 1988 movie Bull Durham, Annie wakes up in bed alone after a passionate night of lovemaking with minor league baseball player Crash Davis. The audience is led to believe that after challenging each other for the entire movie, finally they will be together forever. Except, Crash leaves her a note and an apple, and drives off into the sunrise forever. Or does he….? Just as the audience is feeling melancholy, Annie walks home from the last game of the baseball season and finds Crash sitting on her porch swing. He left her because he wanted to finish out the season and break a minor league record, but he came back because he was tired of chasing a major league contract and just wants to be with Annie and listen to her crazy theories. Cue the ending music as the two of them laugh and dance as the credits roll.
That’s a HEA ending because you’re assuming that Crash and Annie will weather the storms of life together and eventually get married or settle down in domestic bliss. A happily ever after doesn’t necessarily have to end with a wedding or the hero on one knee proposing to the heroine, but they do have to be together.
Casablanca is a great love story, but it’s not a romance because in the end, Ilsa leaves Rick and goes off to an unknown future with Lazlo, while Rick and Louis begin a beautiful friendship. Titanic is not a love story because Jack drowns. Rhett Butler put up with a lot from Scarlett O’Hara, but by the end of Gone with the Wind, he leaves her and no longer gives a damn. While all these movies have romantic elements and great lovers in them, that doesn’t make them a romance because the lovers are apart at the end of the book/movie. The Hallmark Channel and Disney movies have good examples of stories that end in happily ever afters. In fact, Cinderella is what most people think of when they picture a happily ever after.
In the 2000 movie Chocolat, Vianne and Roux have a playful love affair, but he’s chased out of the small town because he is a river gypsy and the townspeople don’t trust him. However, after the pious magistrate shows he has feet of clay and the townspeople come around, Vianne decides to stay in the small town and Roux visits every summer. That’s a HFN ending. Roux and Vianne will be a couple during the summer months and it’s left up to the audience to decide if the HFN will eventually turn into a HEA.
Another example of an HFN romantic ending is in the 2012 movie Silver Linings Playbook. Pat is hung up on his ex-wife, but Tiffany challenges him to overcome his anger management issues. Tiffany has her own issues that she is working through. Her therapist thinks if she concentrates on winning a dance contest, it would be therapeutic. Unfortunately, Tiffany needs a partner and has fixated on Pat, who is not on board with it at all. So Tiffany forges a letter from his ex-wife and make it sound like Pat could have a chance at reconciliation with her if they win the contest. Pat agrees to be Tiffany’s partner and they find strength and healing competing in the contest. Tiffany falls in love with him. After the dance contest, however, Pat goes to greet his ex-wife who was in the audience. Tiffany storms off, thinking all is lost. But Pat quickly catches up to her and tells Tiffany that she’s the one that he wants, and that he knows she forged the letter. They’re both so damaged and have so much to work through that the audience isn’t quite sure they’ll go the distance, but there are enough clues that they will be happy for now.
Another reason to have an HFN ending instead of an HEA ending is when there’s not a lot of time for your lovers to believably get married or commit to a long-term relationship in the time frame of your book. You can handle this in two ways. The first way is to write an epilogue at the end of the book that time jumps ahead six months or a year. That way the reader can still see the wedding or the engagement scene and the HFN becomes a HEA. Or you can keep it as a HFN as long as the couple has overcome serious obstacles together. By bonding under pressure and still coming out strong, the reader will be satisfied with them finding peace and happiness at the end of the book with the promise of something more once they get more familiar with each other.
No matter what ending you choose, building up to the end will be the glue that binds your characters together and keeping them invested in the romance up until the last page.
USA Today bestselling author, Jamie K. Schmidt, writes erotic contemporary love stories and paranormal romances. Her steamy, romantic comedy, Life’s a Beach, reached #65 on USA Today, #2 on Barnes & Noble and #9 on Amazon and iBooks. Her Club Inferno series from Random House’s Loveswept line has hit both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble top one hundred lists. The first book in the series, Heat, put her on the USA Today bestseller list for the first time, and is a #1 Amazon bestseller. Her book Stud was a 2018 Romance Writers of America Rita® Finalist in Erotica. Her dragon paranormal romance series has been called “fun and quirky” and “endearing.” Partnered with New York Times bestselling author and actress, Jenna Jameson, Jamie’s hardcover debut, SPICE, continues Jenna’s FATE trilogy.