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?