For a long time there has been debate about what makes a book fit into the romance genre, and a large part of that has been predicated on the idea of happy endings. This has always fascinated me because I do love happy endings, but I find myself struggling with them as I’ve gotten older. I don’t think I’m alone. In my lifetime I have participated in over ten different workshops for writing in all genres, and in my recent observations of what people write and enjoy there is something happening. As a social scientist and part-time psychologist I have begun to notice that ,on average, happy endings seem more acceptable and believable to older members of a workshop. However people who would be classified as Millennials (or perhaps more broadly people younger than 33) tend to give more critical opinions on stories that are tied up with a neat little bow. Oddly enough millennials can readily defend and understand why those endings happen, and generally speaking they do defend them (unless a person is a stereotypical ThatGuyinYourMFA type). There can be debate, understanding, and even agreement on the ending. However the reaction from those under 33 tends to be one of disenchantment. It is as though the happy ending just doesn’t convince those readers to embrace it, accept it, and believe in it no matter how they love it. I can’t help but wonder if there is a change in our perception of happy endings based on how we see our own potential happy ending and that of those we relate to. If so then this can’t be ignored.
My theory is that happy endings do feel false to a lot of people who went through and were affected by the recession and the economic downturns of the last 15 years in the U.S. Much like the Great Depression the affects of going from relative stability, even immense wealth, to instability leave lingering affects. Younger people have a deeper skepticism of capitalism, and in much the same way after the Great Depression many young adults redefined capitalism(because they assumed socialism was bad) or drifted towards socialism in order to get worker protections. Whether it was unionizing, demanding fair work hours, or demanding better pay and insurance these ideas became accepted as common place in many minds. The national perspective accepted ideas that ensured stability even if they were considered “red” by redefining them as simply worker rights, status quo. Regardless of how you feel about that the fact is people changed. Death of a Salesman is an American play that reflects a lot of those changes. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof does just about the same in different ways. These aren’t just plays, they reflect the life and times of their author and thus the world. Why? When society experiences a trauma, or perhaps a general wide spread disappointment, it manifests in what we make. As authors we should be aware of how it manifests in how we, and others read.
What manifests in our response to love stories, to happy endings, and everything being tied up in a neat little bow may be our disbelief in that being possible anymore. My mother moved out on her own at 19 and got a job. She got a soundproof apartment, a car in her mid twenties(she lived in a city so didn’t really need one), took regular vacations, and had a large group of friends who did the same with ease. That isn’t possible anymore unless you get a great job and/or come from a family where you have high inheritance(parents can help pay bills, buy you a car, keep you on insurance, buy your kids clothes, can watch your kids, etc.).
The world we are moving through and the experiences we have disconnects us from characters who may be 25 with a sprawling one bedroom loft, working as an assistant to a CEO, who then meets the perfect man. She’s never had to really worry about rent. Chances are she’s never had to worry about much of anything beyond her personal relationships. I can’t even buy myself a car, so how much can I believe in love always winning? How much of a positive response can I give you in our writing workshop when I’m a barista with a degree in clinical psychology? With all those things how can I respond to your book without a voice going ‘That’s just not possible anymore. Its not realistic and I don’t believe it’? As writers this may very well be what we’re fighting and it isn’t the readers being self-centered. This mindset is about the readers believing in your story and the possibilities within. If they do not they will question it, not with the knowing and loving laugh many women have given romance books for generations, but with world weary and jaded skepticism.
It isn’t that millennials have gotten weak or weaker than people in the past. Every single person in every generation thought that about the next generation. You and your parents aren’t unique if you’re rolling your eyes at this article. That whole reaction serves evolution. If you think a bit less of youngsters then it encourages you to do everything you can to help them move forward and get stronger. Unfortunately, people use this excuse to get upset over the fact that young people are sick of pretending everything is fine all the time. We care less about decorum, formality, and more about facts, honesty regardless of consequence(not inherently good), and wanting to change the status quo. It isn’t that more people have anxiety per se. No, we probably have the exact same levels of anxiety post-depression young people had combined with national war fatigue. Why do you think so many people are invested in what was once considered nerd crap? It is all escapism. In fact I suspect that many of the stories that ended happily that my peers call unrelatable wouldn’t get that comment if they were transported to the future or an Adventure Time like landscape. In a world of super humans a well executed story of love triumphing no matter what may just be believable because happy endings may just be super natural to us normal humans in a world of divorce.
Let’s Get Real
Books provide a level of escapism, but there caveats. There may be a stipulation that things don’t feel ‘real’ once you turn your brain on, and that’s what all authors should want because if I think about your book I’m going to talk about your book. What do I mean by feel ‘real’? Well, I mean your story doesn’t always feel relatable even if the story was over all satisfying. Even if your goal is to put up a bit of wall, or dabble in the surreal there has to be a certain level of penetrability in your book. For romance stories it 100% has to be there.
From home ownership to student loans there is a sense of immobility in my generation that is often baffling to those who are outside of my generation. While some people feel we need to go back to a mythical golden age others simply have stopped believing that doing your best and being good enough means anything. Truth is my generation followed every step we were told. We finished school in record rates, went to college in record rates, and then found ourselves underemployed and called lazy whiners for asking why. We’re disenchanted.
Are Young People Just Jaded?
It is possible that younger people overall are more drawn to angst or cynicism? Truthfully, I believe that is the case. As you become more of an adult you realize, if you have lived a relatively stable life, that the adults around you don’t know everything, can lie, and are just trying to live their lives as best they can.That is very jarring and before you accept that you begin to question and distrust everything people told you to be true. However that doesn’t explain how dramatic the difference from what I can see. Essentially you realize adults are people and change is inevitable. So sad endings, angst, ambiguity, and stories that end with melancholy become more relatable as you navigate the world. They become expected and relatable resulting with you connecting with those stories.
The Importance of Telegraphing Your Love
One of the most important things to do in writing is telegraphing. You have to subtly and carefully telegraph the happy ending and fluffy side of stories ahead of time. The possibility of the theory that young people have pulled away from romantic happy endings due to experiencing the recession, loan debt, educational shifts, and current economic shifts being true makes subtly telegraphing your stories possible directions even more important.
I will be the first to say that I could be completely wrong in suggesting a feeling of disconnect exists between one generation and the concept of happy endings. Maybe the response from people my age is how we respond to different character relationships in different stories. I’ve heard from different writers that some people respond AGGRESSIVELY to characters not getting together. That isn’t an age restricted thing because when a story doesn’t do what you believed it would or doesn’t do it well the story doesn’t feel successful to you. As writers we have to do everything we can to make sure as many people as possible find our stories successful. If it doesn’t work out some people completely decide the book they otherwise adored basically betrayed them. That isn’t something I do, but you can’t deny it is a disappointment.
Sometimes it is because they believe all romance stories should end happily because that is just what the genre does. Sometimes it is because they believe this romance story was moving towards a particular happy ending. I don’t think it is a matter of the author deceiving the reader, but ultimately everything I’ve spoken about is expectations. People want what they want, and you have to make sure they know they’re going to get, or that their not getting what they want will make sense.
Plenty of stories I see in workshops that end happily set the reader up for one or two endings. The thing that always makes or breaks a story is how well an author sets up the conclusion they choose. You can end a story anyway you want, but you damn well better make sure that you make that ending make sense. If two characters commit the ultimate betrayal they can’t just get over it because it is convenient. The ending of The Graduate isn’t a legend because it is sad. It works because it understands expectations, and ends the romance with the reality the film built towards: “How can this story end happily?” you wonder throughout the film, and the director nods and says “It can’t. Not really”.
How Do Expectations Work?
The trick is that expectations don’t just start with a book, but with the author and the world they live in. How many times have you assumed an character was the same gender as the author? How many times have you avoided an erotica novel by a man? All of those things affect our expectations. Numerous times I’ve been told by non-black people that my characters didn’t seem black or that they didn’t realize a character was black because they broke expectations. That is my intention, but when something like that happens with the plot we have to understand why. What expectations are people bringing to our stories, to your stories? How can you begin using those expectations and subverting them?
Caroline B. Cooney’s Janey Series has a long woven love story throughout, and **SPOILER** in the third book(I believe), The Voice On the Radio, the protagonist’s love interest betrays her trust by taking the intimate details of her life and using them for fodder on his college radio show. The core of this is also that she expects people to know that being separated from a partner due to college is added stress to a relationship. It isn’t out of character for him, we have that expectation, and their relationship came about and flourished under stress but ,now, her life is consumed by that stress. The themes of the series are about the angst, the lies people tell young people, and deceptions we make ourselves believe. So when we get to book three his turn is well telegraphed, and not unexpected. So you don’t necessarily begin to root for their relationship to work out. After all the actions they take constantly keep you from believing a full fledged happy ending is possible. The reason this book still works over a decade later is that it like many well loved stories builds an expectation…and concludes the lover story on neutral ground. What keeps this love story from becoming the romance book of the series isn’t the greater mystery elements, but those expectations .
Idolizing Love as an Alternative to Reality.
Now, I do think feeling social, economic, political, or basic life pressure can in some circumstances spark a very strong gravitation towards happy endings and ideals. When you examine rap lyrics from different eras you find a glorification of an ideal life style. Violence isn’t just tied to feelings of alienation and telling where people came from. Just as often violence isn’t itself the object of admiration. What is the subject of admiration is power and freedom which is paralleled in the sound and lyrics of heavy metal. The often superficial notions of money(not wealth), cars(not quality), women(not relationships), loyalty and acceptance reflect a strong desire for an ideal. When we look at romance novels, films, and even poetry we often see an idealize state and narrative. The latter is that “Love conquers all, all we need is love, and when we have each other we have everything” and the state is “Happily Ever After”. In the black community there is a strong gravitation towards romance novels because they promise us a look at Black people being in love, and living that narrative. People often don’t realize that until fairly recently black people holding hands inspired thoughts of sex, sin, and immorality, because we were, and to a certain extent still are, interpreted as hyper sexual. In part because of that the idea of a loving black relationship, especially due to welfare reforms in the ’70s that essentially pushed black men out of the household, isn’t seen as normal on its own. Reading those stories provides a look into hope, into vicariously living through characters we come to love in situations that are far more interesting and dramatic then our every day lives.
So What Does This Mean?
I don’t know. I really wish I did. At the moment my feeling is that we’re between a rock and a hard place. Escapism and happily ever afters will always draw people in. I’m not saying those things are going to go away, in fact they may become more prominent, but how your readers interpret and respond to those things may happen in ways we can only begin to expect and understand. Those are things we have to think about. Things that may affect the entire meaning of what we write. As I said I don’t claim this to be 100% the truth nor the truth for everyone everywhere, but my experiences in workshop, my own life, and that of those around me lead me to these conclusions. When we write romance we should keep this in mind regardless of the genre because not only does this impact our writing, but it does say something about where an entire generation of people are emotionally and how they may perceive the world.
Now what do you guys think? **If I made any editing errors please politely inform me. I only got one set of eyes…two with my glasses. Have a great one readers!