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Book ends

The other day, I was talking to a friend about why I prefer romance (though I read in many genres). As always, the HEA came up. I won't get into that too much here because I've covered it in previous posts. The important thing to know about me as a reader is that if I'm going to invest my emotional energy in the characters, I want a payoff.

My friend said something like, “But I don't want to know how it'll end. I want to be surprised.”

I had no response, because the thing is that I do too. I never read the last chapter or the last page before I start a book. My favorite books are the ones that smack me upside the head with a surprise at the end. I don't even read the back cover blurb because I don't want any part of the story to be spoiled for me. (My apologies to the marketing department.)

Yet, I still want my happy ending. The thrill for me is in the struggle to get there. In how the characters overcome the obstacles in their way.

I said as much to my friend, but it didn't feel like enough. We moved on to other topics and ate our sandwiches.

But it nagged at me. And then I realized something. Romance is not the only genre that demands a certain type of ending. In other genres, their may be no romantic happy ending, but there's generally some kind of triumph.

I mean, really, how pissed would you be if you read a mystery and the PI or detective didn't solve the case? Even if he doesn't catch the killer in that book, he figures out who it is, or he finds the victim. And if he didn't, you'd probably never read that author's books again.

What about a thriller, like something by Vince Flynn or David Baldacci? The larger terrorist threat may remain when you close the book, but the day has been saved…at least until next time. Otherwise, what's the point in telling the story?

Think of movies. Would you want to watch Independence Day if the aliens won? What if Wesley didn't get the girl in Princess Bride? What if Matt Damon didn't outwit and evade the CIA in The Bourne Identity? Seriously, would you want your money back?

Even memoirs usually have an uplifting purpose. How the author overcame an addiction, recovered from a painful divorce, or learned to let go of childhood trauma, for example. Often, with some kind of win, positive outcome, or hope for the future.

I'm not saying my friend is wrong. How could she be? These are all just opinions. Hers and mine.

And yes, some people love the unexpected so much that they want the unhappy, dystopian, or ambiguous ending. I'm cool with that as long as I don't have to read it.

But popular fiction is popular precisely because it delivers what we expect. Authors who can do it in a unique or surprising way may find more than moderate success. But at the end of the day, they're adhering to the basic expectations of the genre in which they're writing.

As a reader, I demand it. What about you?

Tell your friends!


  1. Reply

    Really interesting post, Gwen, since I just finished Mockingjay. I’d love to comment in that context but I can’t post spoilers.

    I think one of the ways the happy ending works for romances is that it frees you to get involved in the story without fear that the ending will upset you. I know I’ve been terribly disappointed with endings in some women’s fiction because the ending either wasn’t emotionally satisfying or didn’t feel like it resolved the story.

    • Reply

      I love the way you put that, Mary. I posted about my experience reading Dear John a while back. While that book provided resolution, and maybe even the “right” ending, I felt tricked and angry at the end.

      I’ve also been mad at books that were called romances, but didn’t deliver the HEA. One in particular was by a well known romance author, but was part of a suspense series in which the romantic part of the story doesn’t resolve until the 3rd book. I’ll never get to that 3rd book.

      If it’s Janet Evanovich, I know what I’m getting. If it says “romance” on the spine, however, I have different expectations altogether.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Curtis


    Gwen, Mary, I’m with you. A story needs to ” resolve.” The story structure of the prodigal is basically this– 1) Home. 2) Away from Home. 3) Home sick. 4) Home. Ya gotta have the last “home,” the resolution, or it doesn’t work for me.

    Even the dystopian work of Cormac McCarthy’,The Road, resolves in a word of grace.

    That, plus the fact that since no one knows me from beans, the last thing I’m going to do is try to sell a book that dumps the person of the reader or the person of the lead character in a heap in the middle of the road in the last paragraph of my book. That isn’t resolution that is abandonment. I can’t go there. And, I certainly don’t care to take my readers there either.

    All of this has made me wonder. What would a Zen novel read like?

    • Reply

      Hey, Curtis. Good to see you again. I probably went way beyond my friend’s meaning, because I’m pretty sure she likes resolution in her books. For me, the key thing is what type of resolution I’m looking for.

      Anyway, I’ve never thought of story structure in quite that way. Simple. And I love your visual of “dumping the character in a heap in the middle of the road in the last paragraph”.

      Zen novel ending? Nothing short of Nirvana would do. 😉

      • Curtis


        You will get a kick out of this. My simple story structure is based on the four parts of the Biblical story of the prodigal son. Those story parts were actually the outline of a sermon. 🙂 A story is a story written or told.

        And, yeah. With four points, there was some nodding off. However, i did notice folks enjoyed my description of his
        “riotus” living.

        Love the Nirvana line. Now that we are here. Are there any Zen novels?

        • Reply

          Makes sense, Curtis. I guess even the Bible used the format. 😉

          Not sure if there are any Zen novels out there, but maybe it’s the next big thing…

  3. Christine


    I love your thoughts about the resolution of the story, but I wonder if other genre writers are asked “why do you write X?” as often as romance writers are asked that question.

    I’m sure the question is often innocuous, especially when asked in a casual conversation over lunch with a friend, but I often feel that we are asked to justify the romance genre choice as writers because people don’t understand the complexity of writing a romance novel.

    And that raises my hackles a tad.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Christine, and you bring up a good point about romance authors. In this case, we were discussing what we read, but it could apply to writing as well.

      Good luck with your revisions and layering!

  4. KM Fawcett


    I love a good happily ever after. I also like to see the characters suffer before they get their HEA. It makes it that much more satisfying when they finally do “ride off into the sunset together”.

    Curtis – the only zen novel I’ve heard of is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

  5. Reply

    I love happy endings. I especially like books that make me cry, both tears of joy and sadness. And I’ll happily cry at the same part of the same book dozens of times.

    I also refuse to write a book without a happy ending. I’ll put my characters through h*ll, but I’m going to make sure they survive and go on to the next h*llish journey.


  6. Curtis


    Thank you. I forgot abut Zen and the Art. Read it back in the day. I was glad when he told more story and gave up on the review of philosophy. It became more The Zen of Story Telling than Socrates on a Harley. It was fun.

    I kept poking around till I found, The Ronin: A Novel Based on a Zen Myth. Plot points can be picked out of the chapter titles. I skip all but the transition points.
    What do you bet the last chapter is resolution? ” And become what I am”

    A great Rustling behind him
    The gifts of hate
    Wave tossed man
    The journey through hell with a torch
    The Black Laquored Box
    And become what I am

  7. John Randolph Burrow


    A very interesting post, Gwen. (And lots of interesting commentary ahead of me.)

    You definitely got me thinking, as one issue I have been battling out in my own head concerns just wading through an already deeply rutted maze for the gajillionth time… pointlessly. Playing with plot expectations can be exciting, and reading books that donʼt go where I anticipate can be wonderful (literally, I guess). Even in genre lit, I donʼt read to receive the same massage repetitiously.

    On a less personal note, I presume that clearly Hollywood is right, then. Tragedy is utterly dead as a popular art form? Characters can suffer (as expected and desired above) but must come out all right in the end. Hmmmm…

    Thanks for the thought-stimulation!

    • Reply

      Hey, John. I’m so honored that you were moved (or provoked) to leave a comment! 😉

      I don’t know if tragedy is dead, maybe just not as well received. I don’t mind books that make me think, cringe, cry, or get angry about an injustice.

      And I think tragedies still offer closure/resolution. Even Romeo and Juliet had a positive turn. The Montegues and Capulets made up right?

      Anyway, glad it got you thinking. Let me know if you have any flashes of inspiration. Happy writing!

  8. Reply

    Okay, I’m no expert, and we could talk about this in so many ways, but here’s my two cents: It’s very Western to want that resolution at the end. I find it amazing how the basic concept of story differs from one side of the world to the other. In Eastern tradition, they’re very comfortable with ambiguous endings. And that extends to Europe. Look at European films. When they try those ambiguous endings here, Americans aren’t crazy about them. I’m thinking of movies like the Break-Up with Jennifer Aniston. It could be that movie didn’t do super well for other reasons, too, of course. But in general ambiguous endings–and tragic endings– don’t resonate as well in Western culture (although we are much more open to tragic endings than ambiguous. Tragic is acceptable if it makes sense in the story and we get the catharsis from it we seem to need).

    • Reply

      Ooh, thanks for piping in, Kieran. Even if I did have to beg. 😉 I hadn’t really thought of the cultural and geographic preferences angle, but you’re so right.

      I supposed we’ve been trained to expect certain types of endings from our books/movies. Now I feel brainwashed! But I still want my happy ending. 😉

  9. Chris


    Happy endings aren’t a Western phenomenon, they’re an American phenomenon. Watch enough British television and you’ll find that they’re all about the ambiguous and they’re generally a stronger reflection of how life really is. I actually loathe happy endings just for the sake of happy endings. A happy ending has to be earned (and they very rarely are) and it has to be realistic. This probably explains why I don’t watch a ton of movies b/c the ending is predictable before we’ve even sat down, no matter how unlikely a similar resolution would be in real life.

    • Reply

      Interesting point, Chris. For me, I guess, I want the escape from the way life really is. I get tired of the bad news, unhappy people, divorce, abuse, crime. I want to be cheered up.

      A happy ending does not necessarily mean I’ll like the book or movie. It’s the means to the end that’s important for me. The best is when I can’t imagine that they’ll get there, and I wonder if it’s going to work out (even if I know it is because it’s guaranteed).

      Thanks for sharing your side of it. The world would be a boring place if we all agreed. Easier maybe, but boring.

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