An unwritten rule has been doing the rounds for quite some time, suggesting that a romance novel should always have a happy ending.
Where did it come from? Who said it first? Who knows? I suppose that is the point. Whether it is “no one gets left behind”, “don’t swim within half-an-hour of eating” or “what do you mean the earth is not flat?” (I know, this one was actually written down), an unwritten rule is something that is believed to be true and you might have a hard time convincing some people that it isn’t.
Yet we still come across people who break these rules. How many times have I sat through endless pages in a book, only to discover that the protagonist is dying of an incurable disease, or that the so-called hero is about to be shipped off to the front line where he falls in love with Florence Nightingale, unintentionally of course, or that the actions of the two focal characters are entirely meaningless as they just can’t find a way to stay together? Probably not too many, but enough to annoy me.
If the objective of a writer is to give readers a powerful emotional experience, why would anyone choose an ending that results in grief, heartache or the absolute agony of putting your characters in a platonic torture chamber? Some writers, perhaps not necessarily writers of contemporary romance novels, do this exceptionally well and their audiences love them for it. These are powerful emotional experiences after all. But the readers of romance novels expect something else – a happy ending.
I struggle to envisage ever giving my readers anything else. I couldn’t stand it. After spending hundreds of hours getting to know your characters, while working through the first draft, the second draft and so on, you cannot help but invest in your characters and become emotionally hooked yourself.
If I were to force my female protagonist, for example, to overcome one obstacle after another in pursuit of her goals, only to deliver the news that ‘perhaps he (the person you were made to fall in love with) is just not for you’, I don’t think the many-fish-in-the-sea argument is going to cut it with anybody involved.
And this is something I know to be true, unless a novel of mine contains a vague time travel plot, I cannot foresee it ever having an open-ended finish. Mark my words, unless I absolutely have to obscure an ending, you will know how my books end, without a doubt.