The Happily Ever After

I’ve been thinking about what happens after the Happily Ever After.

It’s a given for me that a romance must have a happy, satisfying ending: I wouldn’t want to read a book where the hero and heroine didn’t end up together (and if I don’t want them to get together, the book obviously isn’t working for me). But there’s a tendency, especially in series, to trot out the happy couple years after the fact, just to show them happy! and healthy! and fecund! and not having any kind of conflict whatsoever. They have nothing but beautiful, bright-eyed children, who brush their teeth without being told to do so.

Now, there are some things I would not do to a prior hero and heroine. I wouldn’t make them divorce. I wouldn’t make them separate. I wouldn’t kill one of them off. And I would never, ever, have one of them cheat. They all live to a ripe old age, and they are never, ever unhappy because of their marriage.

But part of what I am trying to do in writing a romance is not just to write about a couple who manages to solve whatever problem du jour (du livre?) that I conjure up. It’s to convince the reader that the couple has grown to the point where they are capable of solving all of the things that life throws at them. That they can face anything–financial downturns, difficult children, the death of parents, misguided siblings–so long as they do it together. I want you to believe that in the face of a world that is not always kind, fair, or good, that their life will be kind, fair, and good, because they have each other.

To me, that’s what real romance is about. Not the flowers or the chocolates or even the sex. It’s about knowing that the world will always be a better place because that person is by your side.

Trial by Desire is a book that focuses on Ned and Kate (who are the hero & heroine of the book). But Gareth and Jenny show up. And everything is not all sweetness and light in their life. They do have a problem. But that problem is one that they’ll face together. I worried when I wrote this. Was it violating some cardinal rule, to imply that my hero and heroine have worries after their marriage? Should they have had two sets of twins in the intervening years? Should their life read like an advertisement for a diamond commercial?

Ultimately, I decided that I was shortchanging Gareth and Jenny, if I implied that they were so weak as a couple that they could not handle a little stress in their life.

I’m thinking about this again, as I’m working on my fourth (fourth!) book, and have finally realized that the book has to intersect the life of my third-book-heroine in a way that will make her very, very unhappy. Anything else would be cheap.

Can I do that? Is it allowed?

I think I’ve just decided that it’s not only allowed, it’s required by the mechanics of the fourth-book plot. Whatever happens, Margaret’s husband will stand by her. They’ll work through it together. And I hope my readers will never, ever doubt that they have a happy marriage–even if not all times in the marriage are equally blissful.

So what do you think? Would it ruin a prior book for you, if you found out that the couple faced conflict in the future? How much fairy tale do you need in your happy endings?

33 thoughts on “The Happily Ever After

  1. Courtney – I feel that by adding stress and conflict to a romance is a bonus to having a happy, satisfying ending. I’ve been married for 40 years and the hard times when we have had to struggle or have disagreed has only made our marriage a better stronger one. Couples facing tough econmic times for the first can lead to conflict or a greater and most lasting love. This aspect of relationships should definately be included in romance novels – it’s included in life!

  2. I follow pretty much the same rules as you — I won’t kill off a prior hero/heroine, make them cheat, and so on. That said, I did stab a previous hero through the heart in a later book, and injured a previous heroine so badly that she almost died (in a scene that both my editor and readers have told me worried them, because they weren’t sure how far I’d go.)

    So I’m all for bringing in prior characters and beating them up and throwing obstacles at them. To me, a happily-ever-after doesn’t mean that everything is sunshine and roses; it means that they are going to get through everything they have to face together.

    And another conflict for them to face means another victory, IMO — and a reaffirmation of that love. They don’t just get the HEA in their book; they get to face another challenge and make it through in another. How can that not be awesome?

  3. I think I’ve seen this more often in mysteries and in paranormals, but I love seeing old couples come back and work through new problems as a couple. Having someone to lean on and to help me through hard times is one of my favorite parts of being married, and one of the things I really missed when I was single. It might not be sexy in the traditional sense, but knowing someone is there to hold you when life is overwhelming is one of the sexiest/most attractive things about being married. I’d love to see that ability to lean on each other, and to trust each other in hard times, in reappearances of couples in historical romances.

  4. I’m all for it. My only caution is that the former couple should not distract from the main couple’s issues and romance with their own problems. The new book should not become a shared book, but simply provide a glimpse into the lives of the previous couple, while focus stays squarely on the main couple. Does that make sense?

  5. I’ve only occasionally seen this brought up in this way, but I have to say that I agree with what you’re doing, and what other commentators have said. If a couple is going to show back up in the series I’m all for showing additional issues for them to overcome. Real life (and I know some people have said they don’t want to read about real life in their fiction, but that’s not me) has stress and difficulties and trials that couples work through – either together or apart. To me, the HEA means that they’re going to work through it together, probably coming out stronger on the other side of it.

    When I finish a book with an HEA I don’t assume that everything is sunshine and roses for them, I assume that they love each other so completely, with such devotion that they’re going to face life’s ups and downs together.

    Meljean said: “And another conflict for them to face means another victory, IMO — and a reaffirmation of that love. They don’t just get the HEA in their book; they get to face another challenge and make it through in another. How can that not be awesome?”

    You say it so much better than I. I totally agree.

  6. As long as there aren’t the things you said you wouldn’t do, and I’d add death of a child to that list, I’m fine with a couple having troubles in their life, so long as their love is still the strong bond I envisioned for them when their book ends. I completely agree with you about the belief that the strong love bond is the focus of a romance story. And that bond shouldn’t be broken by the trials that a couple faces in life.

  7. I’ve said before that I don’t trust couples who don’t fight. It means they haven’t relaxed enough to show their true selves and it means their relationship isn’t strong enough to withstand some tension. The same applies to troubles happening later in life. If everything’s smooth sailing I’m going to worry about strong their relationship really is.

    HEA shouldn’t mean “dead”, not even in the heavenly sense. Life is full of conflicts. Someone who avoids them is a coward. Someone who overcomes and resolves them is a hero.

    Meljean, yes, I wasn’t sure how far you would go. That was scary. But at the same time that felt real. It lent weight to the danger the heroes were facing and to their triumph when they finally overcame it.

  8. “in the face of a world that is not always kind, fair, or good, that their life will be kind, fair, and good, because they have each other.”

    Awww. ::sniffle::

    When prior couples show up in a book for no reason other than to show off their happiness, it can feel cheap and intrusive. I don’t mind if they show up because the new book affects them. They need to be the same characters they were in their own book though. Sometimes the visiting characters aren’t true to how they were written in their own books.

    When fourth plot makes third heroine unhappy, will there be resolution to the unhappiness or reassurance that she can/will cope? It seems like what you’re talking about could make your romance world more vibrant and “real,” and even lead to a same couple sequel or series (gasp!). Personally, I enjoy married couple romances.

    [Say, does this have anything to do w/ the fact that you read the next Miles book? O_O ]

  9. @Meljean “in a scene that both my editor and readers have told me worried them, because they weren’t sure how far I’d go.”

    Uh, if you’re prone to such plots it’d probably be good to have your romance writing philosophy posted prominently on your website. “I, insert-your-name, believe in happy endings and pledge not to kill off previous heroes or heroines.” 😀 I’ve referred to such statements for reassurance before. Really. Yes, I am a wimp. 😉

  10. I’m so glad to hear that people (generally) think that it’s okay to stress out a married couple–and that, in a sense, it’s an opportunity for another victory.

    Keira–trust me, neither of the other couples gets much screen time in the later books. It’s not about them any longer.

    Mary, there is a resolution to the unhappiness. But you are totally right at the underlying cause of this. Yes, this has a lot to do with the fact that I read CryoBurn. I think that the Cordelia/Aral relationship is phenomenal. And perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about, as a romance/sequel, is Barrayar–which to this date is, I think, one of Bujold’s finest books.

  11. I was going to go on and on and on… and then read Meljean’s comment: “To me, a happily-ever-after doesn’t mean that everything is sunshine and roses; it means that they are going to get through everything they have to face together.

    And another conflict for them to face means another victory, IMO — and a reaffirmation of that love. They don’t just get the HEA in their book; they get to face another challenge and make it through in another. How can that not be awesome?”

    What she said.

  12. Sometimes…I even hesitate to read the epilogue of a romance because too much happiness and fecundity (dude, I have never typed that word before) ruins my high from the satisfying conclusion I just read. I am anti-twee.

    So, yes, please keep the characters real. And interesting.

  13. It would absolutely NOT ruin the couples previous happy ending. In fact I would welcome a love story that grew and evolved and faced problems, but they weathered the storm together. That’s everlasting love and makes their story even more endearing and rich. I’m looking forward to Trial by Desire even more now:)

  14. Courtney, I think I love you a little bit. One thing that has always irritated me a little bit about HEA endings is the implication that the couple will never face the realistic issues of life. I don’t want them to be crushed by them, but I do want an acknowledgement that they are human and thus subject to hardships. So yeah.

  15. Oh. I have not read it but have been apprehensive. Now you go and make third heroine very unhappy. Am scared.

  16. I’m for showing the ups and downs of a relationship in marriage because it is realistic, so I like the fact that you address the issue. No, I wouldn’t feel that it would ruin the couple’s HEA ending, but give it an aftermath of the couple working through their issues and becoming stronger as time goes on. How else are we to learn and grow if there isn’t something to test us? Naturally, that’s the balance of how things not only work in relationships, but also in ourselves individually.

    Like what was mentioned in one of the comments before me, however, I don’t believe in HEA as simply a perfect schematic of events in the epilogue, but rather that couple going through the motions together come what may – they live together, they feel together, they stumble together, they experience life together. And that’s worth sharing in any story.

  17. Courtney, all you’ve said just made me even more eager (if that’s at all possible) to read your upcoming books NOW.

    I love seeing snippets of previous characters (though I agree–should not be so overwhelming that they overshadow the current story). But I recently read a series (several siblings, each of whom got their own story) where life was apparently so good for the previous characters the author didn’t even mention the husband of the one sister. I think it was because the total lack of conflict made it difficult to come up with an exucse to squeeze him in (granted these were category romances with very limted word counts). But I felt almost a little cheated. I wanted to know that the previous characters were growing toether as a couple, maturing and loving, that they won’t fall apart as soon as the first signs of trouble appear on the horizon.

    Why are you still reading this? Go and write so we can read the new books! Haha!

  18. For the most part, I don’t agree. I think most romance implies that the HEA is MORE than just a happy ending. Isn’t it part of the fantasy that the ever after will be nearly paradisical? I suppose it’s realistic to show that it isn’t, but in a way, doing that somehow makes the prior romance less than what the prior HEA promised, doesn’t it?

  19. @dick I think it depends. :) If the HEA includes miracle cures and world peace (Not that I’m against either one, but when you can predict them? Come on now.), then it does invoke the Paradise-EA. Those are the ones that can be problematic, I think, when the characters appear in sequels because they’re obviously there to check in not to further the plot.

  20. @MaryK: I’m not certain I’m following what you write, but I don’t think it’s only miracle cures that make the HEA more than merely a happy ending, although certainly Putney’s One Perfect Rose or even her Dearly Beloved, in a way, suggest it’s possible. Others have managed, I think, to include persons from prior books in subsequent ones and make them integral to the plot–e.g. Lauren’s Cynsters–and at the same time, retain the more than happy ever after element from the prior books. As I’ve already stated, it’s certainly more realistic to demonstrate that the HEA remains happy despite Adam’s bite from the apple, but I think it has to question the validity of the prior HEA when it is done. What I write, of course, is premised on my conviction that the HEA in romance fiction implies a degree of happiness beyond what reality suggests is possible, just as romance fiction implies that the love of the H/h is greater than the mundane and usual. Isn’t that what allows us to put the term “romance” in front of fiction?

  21. Dick–I guess it depends how you define paradise. I think one thing this discussion has done for me is to demonstrate that paradise means different things for different people.

    Ultimately, I don’t think I write books where the degree of happiness is beyond what reality suggests is “possible.” I write books where the degree of triumph over bad circumstances is as high as possible. In my own mind, that’s indicative of a much, much stronger romance than one where the hero and heroine are unable to take any future challenges to their marriage.

    And no, I don’t think that an unrealistic view of love and marriage and the future is required by romance fiction. I firmly believe that the level of happiness achieved by my hero and heroine are attainable by many people. I believe that people can have real life happy endings. I believe that regular people can have romance for fifty years of their lives. I believe that nobody needs to settle for mundane and usual, and I think that nobody needs to shortchange themselves.

    Also: I don’t think that I am writing “fantasy” for my readers, although that is a blog post for another day.

    Obviously, you disagree–as I know some people must. And so I’m really curious as to the numbers of people who disagree.

  22. @dick “Isn’t that what allows us to put the term “romance” in front of fiction?”

    No, “romance” as it’s currently used means a successful romantic relationship is the focus of the book as opposed to “women’s” fiction which might include a romantic relationship but is primarily about the heroine and her life struggles or “literary” fiction which might include a romantic relationship but is primarily about some philosophical idea.

  23. Count me as another vote for continued complexity and conflict for HEA couples–as long as they’re not being outright nasty/cold/indifferent to each other as their standard married MO.

    Much as I love and adore Mary Balogh, she has a tendency to trot out blissfully happy prior couples showing off their blissfulness in a way that makes them ALL SEEM IDENTICAL to one another. Unrealistic, and leeches all the personality from the couple. I have to squint my way through those passages.

  24. I usually don’t get back to discussions quite this quickly, but I’m having trouble with IE8 and am revisiting all the sites I went to today to make certain I’ve solved the problem.

    @Ms. Milan: Yes, we do differ; I hope that doesn’t offend. IMO, romance is, by its very nature, beyond the real, just as the premise on which it rests–i.e. that love conquers all–is beyond the real. Other things, such as pride, greed, envy, and sheer cussedness conquer just as often. But those things cannot succeed in romance, because for them to do so would prevent the required HEA; the H/h cannot, by the end, have succumbed to anything but love. That authors can inject a great amount of reality into their writings, as you evidently do, doesn’t, I think, change that necessity. I do agree, though, that real people can care enough for one another to remain successfully married for many years–as my wife and I have managed to do–but that is achieved by other things than romance, I think. “Romance” in most people’s minds, even in real life, is something beyond the daily. Even in real life, romance is fanciful; we set aside bills, dishes, vacuum cleaners, and the workaday world and arrange for flowers, candlelight, and a baby-sitter. I think most people read romance fiction with the same mind set.

    I do, however, look forward to reading one of your books.

  25. dick: no offense at all with disagreement!

    And I do have to say, I don’t think that my books rest upon the premise that love conquers all. In fact, I pretty much hate that statement. There are a lot of things that love doesn’t conquer or make easy, and I’ve loved before and discovered that love doesn’t conquer.

    Instead, I think that love makes you bigger: stronger, more capable.

    I think you and I differ on romance itself. Neither the mundane nor the flowers are what I think of as romance. For me, the essence of romance is knowing that Mr. Milan has my back, and that with him, my life will be richer, more meaningful, and filled with experiences I would never have without him.

  26. Chiming in late here…

    Conflict in the future would not ruin a book/previous HEA for me, and in fact would probably enrich it if I was allowed to see the resolution as well. It feels more meaningful than glimpses of a beautiful, happy couple having beautiful, happy sex and producing beautiful, happy children to complete their beautiful, happy lives. That gets a bit much, and I generally don’t complain if I don’t get too many of those glimpses in related books.

    There’s a line though. Certain things that *would* ruin the HEA–and I think you named most of them. I’d probably add a couple more, such as the death of a child. That type of grief is usually corrosive to marriages, because you need something for the pain, something to help you become “you” again, and even the happiest of happy endings cannot guarantee the spouse is the one to help you do that. Or at least, that’s what I think and so something like that would completely ruin a book for me; I’d feel very burned by that author.

  27. The most-often iterated reason for reading romance is that the reader can be certain of the HEA. It seems to me that the story about the couple after the first HEA is but another romance with a different conflict. In order to reach the HEA for that second story, the same strictures apply. Nothing can occur in the story which makes the HEA an impossibility, just as was true in the first story. Only the starting point has changed a bit. When one reads the second story, the expectation is the same. If, however, one were to read the second story and follow it with the first story, the HEA of the first would have to be compromised to some degree.
    As a case in point, I would reference Laurens’ “The Promise in a Kiss”; a situation in books written earlier seriously compromised the HEA for “The Promise in a Kiss” and readers decried it.

  28. “As a case in point, I would reference Laurens’ “The Promise in a Kiss”; a situation in books written earlier seriously compromised the HEA for “The Promise in a Kiss” and readers decried it.”

    But there’s a difference, I think, between a book like that and what Courtney seems to be talking about. There’s trouble and there’s TROUBLE.

    Laurens’ book tells the story of a couple who founded a dynasty. Unfortunately, this is a couple whose marriage was compromised by a later misdeed of the hero in question. In fact, the very obvious evidence of said misdeed is presented to the heroine in book three of the series. This sort of misdeed is not really the sort of problem that a hero and heroine can work through. Rather, it is the overly forgiving nature of this particular book’s heroine that allows this marriage to continue. As a result, it’s hard for a reader to genuinely believe in the HEA of this particular prequel…when faced with such overwhelming evidence to the contrary. That is TROUBLE.

    But there are, of course, numerous sorts of acts that will not by nature compromise a marriage. It is this sort of trouble that Courtney speaks of. I can definitely foresee all sorts of potential issues that will affect a married couple after their hea that will not alter my ability to believe in the hea they achieved. Financial issues, family issues, all sorts of problems, up to and including pre-marital illegitimate children. Make a list 😉

    But problems that by nature compromise a HEA to the point that Laurens’ hero eventually did? (and no I did not say what he did for those of us who aren’t familiar with the series…) That, I think, is where I draw the line and why the Laurens book was so infamous.

  29. I find the epilogues/sequels where the couples are trotted out with their perfectly happy lives and perfect happy children to be annoying. Seeing that they are still together and still love each other and still can overcome troubles and obstacles while living in the same grubby world as the rest of us–now, that’s happy ever after.

    When my grandfather died, we found in his basement workshop a small wooden plaque he’d been working on right before he got too weak to go downstairs. It was his name, a heart, and the first 2 letters of my grandmother’s name.

    I don’t mind an epilogue like that.

  30. Actually, if you’ve ever read Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody series, you’ll read about a romantic relationship across the whole series. There’s even one book where the hero (Emerson) has amnesia and Amelia has to woo him again.

  31. I’m of two minds about this question. In theory I agree. I do not like the carebear epilogues and as a childless person I really get annoyed that EVERYBODY seems to feel having rugrats is necessary to their happiness and the implied assumption that there’s something wrong with me for not wanting any.

    On the other hand, knowing that in book 4 bad things happen to the couple (heroine) of book 3 might make a difference in how I read book 3. In this particular case, I think I might have preferred not knowing about book 4 going into book 3.

    So, in theory, I think showing a marriage surviving after an unhappy crisis is attractive, but I’d prefer not knowing about it before I ever get to their book. Although I totally understand where you came from asking about this…

  32. Louise, I’ve read the first book in the series, and have the second on my TBR. The series that made me think of this was Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, which starts with the romance between Aral and Cordelia, who subsequently live happily ever after, despite surviving planetary revolutions, a crippled son suffering from teratogenic birth defects who incidentally does not lower their stress level by taking an easy desk job, and another son that they didn’t expect showing up out of the blue.

    Among other things that I won’t mention.

    nystacey, I have never read the book that you mention, but I have to say that cheating is… it’s just not an option for me. I would never, ever believe in the HEA if he said he loved her, you believed it, and then he cheated. That is on my list of things to do.

    And GrowlyCub–I’m sorry! Forget I ever said anything. I’m not talking about murder and mayhem, or death, or anything like that. I’m not talking about children dying.

    In modern parlance, and without giving away any spoilers: it is more along the lines of “embarrassing relatives come to visit and stay too long and you have to finally kick them to the curb,” and less along the lines of “their dog dies and they lose the family home in a huge fire and then someone steals her identity on the Internet and ruins her credit.”

    And it is certainly not along the lines of “her husband cheats on her,” because I’m sorry, my heroes just do not DO that.

    The book is still about the couple in #4, and so the problems for couple #3 will be tertiary to the book itself–which means that they just won’t be that bad.

    Or… or… or… forget I said anything. :)

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