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Is a book labelled "romance" expected to a have a happy ending?

I've heard advice that "romance" novels are meant to satisfy, well, a desire for romance, and so an ending without a "happily ever after" disqualifies a book from the genre. And indeed, it's hard for me to recall a "straight" romance that doesn't end well.

On the other hand, romance is a rich genre with lots of character attention; I could see a well-written "unhappy" ending being tragic, but satisfying. And I've just read several YA books (Every Day by David Levithan and The Fault In Our Stars by John Green) which are almost entirely about one romantic relationship, but have sad endings. (Is it possible these aren't romances? If not romances, what are they?)

Genre boundaries are pretty important for marketing purposes, telling the reader what to expect. That's why it's important for me to understand whether "unhappy ending" falls within the "typical" boundaries of the romance genres, or not.

  • This question is part of our Genre Q&A Contest, running through December 8th! – Standback Nov 30 '13 at 21:20
  • Are you actually asking whether happy endings make more money? Otherwise, isn't this up to your artistic preference? – Blessed Geek Dec 1 '13 at 8:13
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    @BlessedGeek: Genre boundaries are pretty important for marketing purposes, for finding the right audience. It tells readers what to expect. So, if unhappy romances are unheard of, then romance readers might be very upset when they reach the end of the book. In that case, it might be better not to label the book as a romance in the first place. – Standback Dec 1 '13 at 8:31
  • But yeah, as I wrote in the question, I'm not really sure what I would label the book in cases like this. – Standback Dec 1 '13 at 8:31
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    I have three words at the moment: "Romeo and Juliet". Not every romance has a happy end and if you look at Romeo and Juliet it is oftenly declared as THE romance story ever. And there is no happy end. I think romance doesn't include a happy end. Maybe people stife for happy ends, but they are not neccicary. – Pawana Apr 6 '18 at 6:32
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Do you want to piss your readers off? No? Then call a tragedy a tragedy, a drama a drama and a romance a romance.

This question is all about customers' expectations. You can call your story a romance and end it in disaster. But be prepared to disappoint a lot of readers (also be prepared for their reviews).

Of course not all readers expect a romance to end happily. But I think it's safe to say, that most readers do. To start with an opposite view, let me cite the script lab:

Whether the end is happy or tragic, Romance film aims to evoke strong emotions in the audience.

"Happy or tragic", ok, we get it. But it's about movie scripts, not novels. Does that make a difference? I'm not sure. But in my opinion if it ends tragically, why don't you call it a tragedy?

The Romance Writers of America define the basic elements of a romance:

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.

Happy end! Must-have according to the Romance Writers (whoever they are).

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan define the "basic formula" of a romance as "deceptively simple":

Boy meets girl.
Holy crap, shit happens!
Eventually, the boy gets the girl back.
They live Happily Ever After.

"Happily Ever After" is written uppercase in the book, no typo from my side. Maybe they want to make a point. (Oh, and they are talking about heterosexual romances only here, where the main audience are women. Maybe it's different for gay romance. I do not know.)

So you can Happily name your tragedy a romance and live Ever After with the angry mob tearing apart your book on Amazon, or ...

As I said, it's all about readers' expectations.

  • Very clear, and yay for great references :) – Standback Dec 2 '13 at 8:11
  • So "Romeo and Juliet" would not qualify as a "romance" under this definition? – Tom Au Dec 9 '17 at 20:56
  • Re uppercasing of "Happily Ever After" -- I believe the reason they did this is that many romance authors use the abbreviation HEA to refer to a happy ending, and they capitalised it here as a way of subtly introducing that abbreviation so people will get it when they see it later. – Jules Sep 9 '18 at 9:01
  • @TomAu - well, the top selling edition on amazon.com has these genre tags: Books > Literature & Fiction > British & Irish > Shakespeare > Works, Books > Literature & Fiction > Poetry > Love Poems, Books > Literature & Fiction > Poetry > Themes & Styles ... so clearly they don't think so, otherwise it would have had Books > Romance. – Jules Sep 9 '18 at 9:09
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I am German. You will soon understand why I state this up front. In German cultural theory a difference is made between so called 'serious' literature, music, painting and so on, and 'entertaining' literature, music etc. 'Serious' works are 'art'; 'entertaining' literature is called 'trivial literature'.

'Entertaining' or 'trivial' literature are all genre works: crime, SF, romance, western, horror etc. They follow genre rules, such as the happy end, or consciously play with and break them.

Depending on your concept of art, 'serious' literature, or literature as 'art', might attempt to capture the sublime, represent reality, deconstruct a discourse, or something like that. There are no rules for the creation of art, although, again depending on your concept of art, they might reflect Aristotle's rules of the comedy (not funny!) or some other poetics.

In my eyes this is a useful distinction. You examples would be 'art' or 'serious' literature. They do not aim at entertainment, but at developing the personality of the reader.

  • hogwash, some of the best written, thought inspiring, character building literature is genre work. For an example of a romance with a tragic end look at the princess bride (the book, the movie has a happy end) – hildred Nov 30 '13 at 23:42
  • I did not even mention the quality of the writing, its ability to inspire thoughts or the quality of "character building". Genre fiction can be "good" in all of these ways, and art can fail. The distinction lies in the presence of genre rules. And I already mentioned that they can be broken, and of course a regular tendency to break genre rules or genre "crossovers" lead to new (sub)genres with new rules, such as urban fantasy, zombie western etc. Goldmann's novel Princess Bride, btw, is described as "an ironic mixture of fairy tale and cloak-and-dagger-movie". A crossover, if there is one. – user5645 Dec 1 '13 at 18:28
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    My objection is to the characterization this is art or this is popular. It can be both. It can be neither. – hildred Dec 1 '13 at 20:42
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In my opinion, literary genres are not defined in terms of “your story must have A and B, but not C, in order to belong to genre X”. Rather, they are defined by “A, B, and C, are exemplars of genre X”. So even if contemporary category romances all have happy endings, your story can run against that trend as long as it resembles the classics of the genre in other respects.

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"Love Story" by Erich Segal. (Book and movie)

"The Way We Were" (movie only)

"Gone With the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell (book and movie)

"Romeo and Juliet" by...really, I could have just led with this!

Do I need to go on?

  • “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger – Seth Gordon Dec 1 '13 at 12:40
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    Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, not a romance. I guess same is true for the other three, but I haven't read/seen them. – John Smithers Dec 1 '13 at 22:04
  • @JohnSmithers: Depends on how one defines "romance." Certainly many people consider these works romantic. I agree, though, that they'd probably not be found in most bookstores' "romance novel" sections. – dmm Dec 2 '13 at 2:56
  • I've read all these books and enjoyed them immensely (well, I didn't care for R&J that much but I acknowledge that it is an important work of literary history) but I wouldn't consider any of them romances. They have very romantic moments, but are not, IMO, "romances" as readers define romances. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Sep 25 '18 at 15:13
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As an amateur writer I'm writing my first novel and this question came up when I was searching on writing tips on how to end my novel and I posed that same question which is how I got here.

Breaking the boundaries of what is romance and what is other genres like Drama, Thriller or Crime can be blended to create your story if you remain true to your goals and the eventual story being told. This can play out in series like many contemporary romance/drama authors, there's a wealth of them out there that end the book on a serious note, enticing you into buying the next in the series. You capture the readers attention with the love story, throw in drama, maybe a crime or thriller situation and then end it alluding to the next book continuing the hero/heroines story.

I believe that you should write to your soul and not worry, if you want to publish your work and no firm wants it, self publish, there's plenty of us readers and avid novelists out there who read all types of genres many of them self published.

Life like literature and writing in general, is not always about happy endings, break the boundaries and find what works and write, its not about what others think in the end, you have to be proud of your work.

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It's entirely possible to write a successful, acclaimed book that satisfies some genre expectations, yet violates (important) other expectations. However, such a book is not likely to be primarily bought by, marketed to, or enjoyed by the core fans of the genre that inspired the book. If it is a success, it will probably be one as a "crossover hit", that picks up a portion of the genre audience, and a portion of the mainstream audience.

With that said, it's worth noting that "romantic tragedy" is itself its own, longstanding, well-established subgenre.

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I am an amateur writer and I thought before I published the romance: this book will be successful for sure. It does not have a happy end. I know, the most of the readers want happy end. 10 days after launch I got my first review: 1 star. The sentence began: "Are you kidding me?..." I still love my romance but I will never ever write a romance without happy end.

  • Hi Iralkis, welcome to Writing.SE. That is a funny anecdote, but unlikely to be helpful as such. Some suggestions on how to improve your answer: How many reviews do you have so far? How many arenegative about your ending? Could have you written your story in a way that the unhappy ending would have satisfied more readers? Etc... – NofP Jul 15 at 14:46
  • Hi, I have one review, the negative one. Here is the complete text: "Are you kidding me? If you are looking for a happy ending please do not read this book. I have no idea why the author would kill off Mayla after everything they went through to be together, so disappointing" I don't know how I could write a sad ending (someone dies) like that, so people aren't disappointed. The fact is that most people want a happy ending. They want to be entertained, I didn't think about that. – Iraklis Wasiliou Jul 16 at 15:37

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