The Writer’s Dilemma: HEA or HFN?

In the writing world, there’s always a controversy blowin’ in the wind. Recently, I read about one called HEA v. HFN or Happy Ever After or Happy for Now. This question, on whether romance readers prefer a romance’s ending to be “and they lived happily ever after,” or “They were happy for now,” seems pretty equally divided, as far as I can tell.
Writing Tip for Today: Romances are driven by the quest for relationship/marriage, and so they depend on the ending to tell the reader this goal has been achieved. For all novelists, whether your novel’s ending is happy or not so much, here are a few things to think about:

  • The 5 Endings. There are only 5 ending possibilities: the main character gets what she wants and is happy, gets what she wants and isn’t as happy as she thought she’d be, doesn’t meet the story goal–but is happy anyway, doesn’t get the goal and isn’t happy about it, or doesn’t give a rip either way. This last one isn’t usually recommended–hardly any reader wants to end a story not caring.
  • Make that Character Grow. Most readers, while not demanding a perfect ending, want some sort of satisfaction at the end. This usually entails growth of the main character, redemption from some evil or unwise choice, forgiveness and reunion, or some combination of these things. In some genres, readers don’t mind (too much) a sad ending, but they demand the character be older and wiser. In romances, readers demand a commitment by the two principals. This can be either implied “ever after” happy, or more subdued “for now” kind of happy. 
  • Climax Scene Test. Whether you tend toward idealizing characters ala sweet romance stories, or you’re more realistic as in mainstream, women’s or literary fiction, it might help you to experiment with two different climax scenes. Write these as if the character wins, and then as the same character loses. This can help you deepen your characters and your story, learn which is more true to your way of writing things and even help you decide what kind of fiction suits you best. I’ve been trying to learn to write romance, but it isn’t easy for me, and I have to practice a lot. How about you? Are you are HEA or a HFN type writer/reader?

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “The Writer’s Dilemma: HEA or HFN?

  1. There is one famous author whose books have been made into movies and is wildly successful. His books are usually good, but many of them stop when he reaches a certain page count with no resolution and several questions about what will happen. If the books were a series, where things eventually work out, that would be fine, but they aren’t. No one wants to read a book where you are just left wondering what happens to the characters. I’m not saying it has to always be happily ever after, but some sort of resolution is good. Otherwise you feel like someone ripped the last chapter out of the book and rather cheated.

  2. I agree. When I was a kid I had a sci-fi book with the last few pages literally ripped out (probably why it had been in the school library’s discard box). I took it home and read it dozens of times, changing the ending to suit me.It was fun, but I would be angry if I bought a book like that.
    ~Linda

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