Sunday, October 21, 2012

Happy Endings or Sad: When, if Ever, is Poor Writing Good?

by John B. Rosenman

In our writer’s group, we have a woman writing a chicklit novel. Basically it’s about four or five career girls/women scheming and conniving to meet Mr. Right, variously called “Mr. Success,” “Mr. Wallet,” “Mr. Hunk.” Their goals are clearly defined, pragmatic, predatory, and ruled by self-interest. After all, some of them are past thirty and their biological clocks are ticking. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. Getting a man, preferably a rich, successful, handsome man isn’t everything, however. A couple of the main characters want to cling to that man’s coattails to get promoted and climb the corporate ladder. Still, landing a winner is the main thing, as indicated by the novel’s title, which I will leave to your imagination.

This is the first novel of this kind I’ve read, and it’s been an eye-opening experience for me. Besides the efficient man-hunting plot, the writer (I’ll call her Laverne) is superb at describing cosmetics, furnishings, and the various bric-a-brac of these women’s daily existence. When I go to a party or enter a dining room, I rarely notice what the place settings are or what people are wearing. But Laverne is great at describing silverware and tablecloths, bathroom fixtures and shower jets, 900 different types of flowers and Dior Toffee eye shadow. I wouldn’t know peach highlighter from Mango Shine lipstick at gunpoint, but Laverne excels in such areas.

Now, I’m not putting Laverne down. Really. She is a highly competent writer, and the women, while often single-minded and mercenary, are brilliantly characterized and sometimes sympathetic. Laverne’s novel is professionally crafted, and if it didn’t violate the basic principle that Romance novels should focus on only one couple and one relationship, I have little doubt she would be able to sell it for significant bucks – something, by the way, which I find it hard to do.

So what’s my problem? Simply that in the last thirty pages of the novel’s first draft, events, in my opinion, took a wrong direction. After three hundred plus pages of Grey’s Anatomy, i.e., relationship problems, star-crossed lovers, SEX, financial problems, family problems, SEX, etc., everything resolved itself in a HAPPY or HEA ENDING. Okay, perhaps not everything, but enough to trouble me. Couples ironed out their problems and got together.  A case of possible breast cancer turned out to be benign. And most of the career girls who were fired, fell on their feet with new, better paying jobs. Most of the folks in my writer’s group liked the ending, whereas I saw it as implausible and as ruining the novel. I mean, life just doesn’t work out that way. Occasionally, one or two or three things will fall into place, but everybody can’t ride off into the sunset to the swell of violins, can they?  Or maybe they can.

Astute and insightful reader and/or writer, this is the main question I am submitting to you: IF READERS OF A PARTICULAR GENRE OR TYPE OF NOVEL EXPECT OR WANT SOMETHING, DOES THAT MAKE IT GOOD? I’ve always assumed that if there are 16 billion ways to write a short story or a novel, then only one of those 16 billion is the absolute best, and all the others are to be avoided, but perhaps I’m wrong. Whether in romantic novels or romantic movies, if folks want a happy ending, isn’t that the best way to end it?

By implication, questions might be asked about other areas. For example is the quality of an “extreme” horror novel directly proportional to the amount of gore, vomit, violence and dismemberment it contains? The higher the body count there is, the better?

I know this is a subject many of you are familiar with, and in various guises, it’s been discussed before. Heck, I’ve discussed and debated it before with intelligent romance writers who prefer HEA or at least HFN (Happy For Now) endings.  What makes it especially relevant to writers is that highly formulaic writing is often required in the marketplace. When it comes to Happy Endings, I can understand it – up to a point. When we read that thriller or suspense novel, that romance or western, usually we don’t want futility. We don’t want to see the good guys or gals stomped into a giant blot of gore on the horizon. In general such writing is not commercially successful, though there are exceptions. But a Happy Face for all or nearly all of the main (and some minor) characters runs the risk of being a cheat, no matter how superficially satisfying it might be.

A few years back, I wrote an essay for titled, “Editors are Irrational (And Publishers, Agents Too) ( . . . Mainly for Newer Writers)”. The premise was that many editors’/publishers’ requirements for stories and novels are based on “a highly subjective sniff test of personal preference” and often are “unreasonable,” “too quirky and idiosyncratic.” It can get to the point where a story can be rejected if a character wears a plaid shirt or appears to be gay. What I am talking about here, in this essay, is a broader, industry-wide set of requirements and expectations, what is sometimes called a “slant.” While many of us are aware of this concept (we have to be, in order to get published), I suspect we occasionally rail and grumble about the unreasonable strictures and requirements we face.

So, to the beginning writer, I urge you to do your homework. Whatever area you are writing in, whether SF, Romance, Horror, Western, or what have you, read a lot within it and find out what you can and cannot do. That way, if you do decide to break a rule or two, you can at least do it intelligently and with purpose. Learn the do’s and don’ts, the taboos and traditional tropes. Otherwise, you may face many years knocking on doors which no one opens.

Speaking of doors, I hope I’ve nudged one of my own ajar. I invite writers to contact me at, or leave a note at this blog, about creatively stultifying rules they’ve faced. Maybe it’s not the requisite Happy Ending or Excessive Sex/Gore/Violence, but something else, such as Tom Monteleone complaining years ago that horror publishers required skeletons or monsters on covers. Whatever the case, those rules made you feel you were lowering and betraying the quality of your work by adhering to stupid requirements you didn’t believe in. Perhaps you were told a particular rule was good, that it was established long ago by wiser heads than yours, but deep in your gut, you remained unconvinced.

C’mon, let’s hear your stories. I bet you’ll feel better getting them off your chest. And that in itself would be a happy ending.


  1. visiting here with a smile. take care.. have a nice day ~ =)

    Regards, (A Growing Teenager Diary) ..

  2. Thanks for the smiling comment! Happy October.

  3. Hi, John,

    A challenging blog post. Personally I think that it takes consummate skill to write well within the strictures of a genre. If a happy ending feels as contrived as the one you describe, then it really needs to be reworked.

    On the other hand, I think I'm more demanding of literary and artistic than many of readers. The vast bulk of romance readers (at least) seem to be concerned almost exclusively with the characters and their emotions. The quality of the writing (as long as it is comprehensible) seems to matter much less.

    You say: "I’ve always assumed that if there are 16 billion ways to write a short story or a novel, then only one of those 16 billion is the absolute best, and all the others are to be avoided". I'm not sure I agree with this. My take is that each of these sixteen billion ways is a DIFFERENT BOOK, but not necessarily better or worse. As an example, my erotic thriller EXPOSURE does not have a happy ending. The main character has lost her home to a fire set by the villains, and her trust in humanity. She does not unequivocally end up with her lover, though she's considering the question. I couldn't publish the book as erotic romance for this reason. On the other hand, I can imagine tweaking the book in relatively minor ways and having it fit within the genre rules without too much difficulty. Would the current book be "better" than the HEA version? Not necessarily. (I imagine the HEA version would garner more sales LOL.) It would quite simply be a different book.

    Very thought provoking essay!

  4. I think I'm with you - I do tend to find HEA endings contrived, because they're so often completely different from how real life behaves.

    But they sell. People like happy endings, at least in certain genres.

    Look at the whole of the 50 Shades trilogy (debacle, in my opinion). Here we have a classically abusive relationship, in which the woman is completely at the mercy of this other man, and yet...they stay together. And people ENVY their relationship.


    Give me horror/sci-fi any day - it's just a personal preference, but it does give me the flexibility to have more realistic endings... :)

    Nice post.

  5. Interesting post. Personally, as a reader I don't want to see contrived plots that gloss over problems -- or create problems -- merely to satisfy the exigencies of the genre.

    As a writer, I need to ask myself if the characters, plot, etc, fit into the genre I'm trying to stuff it into. Maybe the novel you mention wasn't meant to be a romance.

    One of the things I find most annoying as a reader is artificial problems between the two characters involved in the romance.

  6. Thanks for commenting, and some excellent comments.

    Lisabet, I especially like your suggestion that there are sixteen billion ways is a different book, but not necessarily any better. Hmm, I just don't think you could find sixteen billion equal ways to write a different book that aren't necessarily any better or worse. But I grant you that some widely different variations might not be any better, just different, or dependent on personal taste.

    I also think some genres have fewer strictures. Science fiction, for example.

    Leah, I encountered some romance writers who were four-square behind HEA endings, arguing there was considerable freedom about how you got there and all it involved. I toned down my rhetoric after a while because, well, frankly, I've never read the stuff so what do I know for sure. I suppose I should read a few romance novels so I can speak with more authority, but I can't see myself kicking back with 50 Shades.

    Margaret - I did find the writer's romance novel (if that's what it was) somewhat interesting despite its trivialization of women. In a way it was frank about it and had a sense of humor. But the problems were artificial. It would have been better if it had treated serious, goal-oriented women confronting a bureaucratic glass ceiling and struggling to overcome it.

  7. Late as usual, and I haven't taken the time to read the entire blog, either. My bad! I tend to like HEA endings, but I try not to make my stories end with everything and everyone happy. Then again, I am female and we do often try to "fix" the world and make things right, if only in fiction, I guess. Thanks for the interesting read!

  8. Hi, Charlotte, thanks for the comment. Could you write a story where I have a HEA ending with an endless line of bestsellers? :)

    Seriously, I too like happy folks now and then, including the heroes, but we can't all be winners, and that includes more than just the bad guys.