Does your romance need a happy ending?

While speaking with quite a few authors recently the topic of romance and what defines romance has come up multiple times. I feel like I’m getting beat over the head with the concept “Romance MUST have an HEA.” In fact I’m pretty sure I have bruises from the blundegoning this particular vehemency has left on me. Despite trying to beat this into me – I still don’t get it.

Why does romance REQUIRE a happy ending?


I read a lot in a wide variety of genres so I understand the difference between romantic elements and romance. In fact I would wager that a great many books within the m/m genre are other genres with romantic elements. The fact remains that m/m is still synonymous with erotic romance even if the books within are actually much more broad. And while the happy ending – or even happy for now ending – are by far the most common, they are still books without happy endings.

Now before I hear from everyone that they prefer happy endings, let me state that I, too, like happy endings. If I’m going to read through all the suffering, emotional torture, hand wringing, horrible miscommunications, and so on then I want them to work out in the end and I can pretend that tru wuv exists.



That’s not really the point of this post though. Yes, readers want happy endings. I get it. That said, why does a book REQUIRE a happy ending? That is what I’m getting at because I don’t think it should be a necessity.

To me a romance story is defined by the relationship between two or more people that dominates the story and pushes the plot forward. Without the relationship, there would be no story. By this definition there are numerous m/m books that would exist quite well without the romantic elements. They definitely enhance the story in many ways but the main plot and drive would exist without the romantic relationship. In fact many stories also include a happy for now between a couple that you just know is never going to work out, despite how much you may want them to.


So I ask again – is the happy ending a deal breaker?

Does it have to be there in romance books when so much of “romance” goes beyond the scope of the genre?

While we all may like happy endings, is it a requirement before you read a book that contains a relationship? Explain please!

27 thoughts on “Does your romance need a happy ending?

  1. ingrid2009 says:

    It is not a requirement per se but I do like a happy ending. Dreamspinner has the bitter sweet line. I must admit I almost never buy a book of that line.
    It doesn’t appeal to me to buy a book that I know before hand will leave me in a sad/bad mood. I do read for pleasure.

    • See the whole bitter sweet line gives me the creeps. I’m ok to go where the story wants to take me but I agree with you that it gives a bad vibe from the beginning. I may not appreciate that a story ends badly but perhaps I was so into it that I loved it anyway? I would never know if I got it from a line thinking I’d probably be sad at the end. I think it sets low expectations.

  2. Sirius says:

    Hi Kassa – actually the only definition requirement for genre Romance is happy/hopeful ending . So yes, if the book is billed as being part of such genre it better have such ending. I am posting from my phone so it is hard to post a link but I think it is RWA definition and it is easy to find. I do think that mm umbrella includes books that may only have romantic elements and I totally love reading say gay mysteries where the only mention of love story is that main hero has a partner at home for example. But if you are presenting your story as Romance which I actually think is a genre that sells better than even most other genres ( cannot be sure but I think so), follow the only requirement such genre has, don’t lie to me. Do I prefer happy endings? Sure, but if I pick up a lit fic I don’t expect it and I do read lit fic. But when I get a romance book I need to know it won’t disappoint me in that regard. Anyway you did not ask about personal preference but I hope my first part answered your question. It needs to have a happy or hopeful ending because that’s what genre Romance requires.


    • I guess it depends on where the definition of romance genre comes from. You’re right in that RWA defines romance has having … [quote]Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”[/quote]

      However, up until recently RWA would not let LGBTQ authors into the organization so clearly they are not the only authority on the matter. Or at least I have no interest in listening to such an organization tell me what’s acceptable given their rather limited view.

      I don’t think the definition has to be that narrow because RWA says so. I do think setting up expectations or perhaps that’s not the right way to say it.. fulfilling expectations(?) is important. I prefer happy endings when I read romance definitely but I’d also prefer not to have “the big misunderstanding” and will never know until I get into the book. I think because there’s no way to tell how a story will go other than the blurb that the happy ending is not a necessity. Almost always there yes (and I’m personally thankful for it) but not a must – IMO.

      I don’t want to get into the bigger world of romance but I was thinking more of our own small m/m world where m/m usually means romance but it is not entirely romance by the RWA definition. Perhaps because the stories without the obligatory happy ending are touted as series or something similar. Does that matter then?

      • Sirius says:

        Ah well then I don’t know how to answer – I mean it, because while I certainly do not have big love for RWA they are pretty big authority on the matter. Also while I totally see how lots of stories under mm definition are not necessarily romances , lots of them are. Boy meets boy, obstacles, brief happiness, mandatory separation, HEA. If the books are touted as series then I don’t need hea in the first book but I need to know it is coming. Are you talking about creating a new genre for mm stories? I am just curious because I don’t quite understand. Gay mysteries are still mysteries and pretty much follow the formula of the regular mysteries – just main character is gay. m/m romances should not? Sorry I just don’t quite understand . Could you clarify?

        • Sirius says:

          All right so topic interests me, can’t you tell? I guess my question is that rather than inventing the wheel if you want to write a love story without happy ending isn’t it just much easier not to call it a romance? Bill it under gay fiction, love story?

          • Oh and I personally don’t care what it’s called. I don’t think we need to invent a new genre IMO but I do know that other genres don’t sell as much right? So I can see why authors would want to slap the romance label on something where the romance is the main theme even without the happy ending. I’m just curious if that’s cheating readers.

        • Sorry I guess I wasn’t clear. I wasn’t talking about creating a new genre or even labeling system. I also wasn’t talking about what RWA or another organization calls romance.

          I was talking about what you – as a reader of romance – define romance to be. After all, aren’t all genres dictated by reader wants? So do you, a random but pervasive reader of romance, do you consider a book to be romance if it doesn’t have a happy ending? If you pick up a book you think is romance and doesn’t have a happy ending, do you feel cheated?

          I think it’s clear that you would. I’m not entirely sure I disagree with that either. When I pick up a romance I’m usually 99% sure they’ll end happily somewhere, somehow. Even if it’s weak.

          I’m just curious if for readers – it’s a requirement. Like you read a romance book and the couple break up at the end and you think… “holy shit I want my money back!”

          Although I expect happy endings, if I liked the book I personally probably wouldn’t complain if the couple broke up at the end if it made sense – romance genre or not.

          Does that explain it better?

  3. Sirius says:

    Oh one more thing in support of my point – recently Lisa Henry announced on her blog that they are self publishing their new book with JA Rock. She also said that it is mm, but not Romance. That to me is an obvious code for – no happy ending. I appreciate the warning and will most likely pass on the book at least till somebody else reads it and tells me if there are main characters’ deaths. If the book is not a Romance I am fine with them not being together but will still avoid it if the characters are dead at the end. The bottom line I appreciated the warning.

    • Well death of a character is very different kind of unhappy ending. I was thinking more along the lines of a couple not working out or perhaps their disagreement is not resolved within the context of the pages/story. Not necessarily death of a character, though that would be included no doubt.

      • Sirius says:

        I understand – I was just rambling about personal preference but yeah even couple not staying together does not fall under genre Romance IMO because it is not a hopeful ending for them.

      • ingrid2009 says:

        Death of character that reminds me of the Infected books by Andrea Speed. That is one the few books that you know that will end badly. I still don’t like Roan’s new boyfriend.

        Lisa Henry is an autobuy for me so I will read it despite it not being romance. One can ask if her books are really romance as they can be rather harsh.

  4. Amanda says:

    I think if I buy a book that is labeled romance I want a feeling that they are at least heading in a good direction relationship wise by the end of the book. I think rightly or wrongly that I would feel cheated otherwise. However if it is in a different genre like a urban fantasy with romantic elements I don’t think there needs to be a HEA at all. I may want there to be a HEA or HFN but I in no way expect to be a given. Part of the problem is if its labeled m/m people automatically think romance ending.

    • Thanks! That’s exactly what I wanted to know.

      That’s also a great point and very true. I think m/m is an umbrella genre that is used incorrectly. It should be synonymous with gay literature but not necessarily romance or erotic romance. It can be anything. I also think because of that it leads to even more labeling problems because now we have to have “bitter sweet” or “love story” which I don’t really mind but I think they’re superfluous and kind of signal “you’ll hate this story” when in fact you may not.

      • ingrid2009 says:

        Gay literature equals bad endings for me. If I remember well every Mary Renault book ends badly either by characters that die or the couple splits up.

  5. Tam says:

    Well, I am pretty generic on the HEA, it does have to have an upbeat ending. I don’t want to watch them break-up after becoming invested in them and then seeing it fall apart. However I have written and enjoy reading books with young protagonists. And certainly there are cases of people who fell in love at 18 and were together 65 years. Of course there are, but with a divorce rate of 50% I’m thinking those young true-lovers are the exception, not the rule. So when two college freshmen fall in love, I don’t REALLY think it’s likely they went on to get married, buy a dog and adopt three adorable babies. But then again, I don’t want to read a sequel with them breaking up either. Just let me leave them where they were and move on. I don’t need to SEE the demise of the relationship, although in my mind, I’m pretty sure it will happen.

    I actually read a book where I got invested in couple A and the sequel… had them breaking up and one guy moving on. Why did they break up? A very human reason of they just grew apart but seriously, I was so ticked off that I didn’t finish it and didn’t read the next book. While I may not be sure they live HEA, unless one of them is a total asshole, I don’t want to read about it. It’s different when you start a book and a couple breaks up, because I have no vested interest in them as a couple.

    And if you are writing a mostly mystery and you date or it’s clear you are gay and have relationships, even one night stands, I’m okay with that. I’m not expecting anything more than a mystery with gay characters. However I don’t want one dead gay stories, or painful break-ups if I’ve become invested in you as a couple. I don’t want to watch good friends break up in person, nor do I want to watch characters I like break up in pretend life. 🙂 So I think my version of HEA is pretty loose but still a “pleasant” ending is one of my requisites. Whatever that entails.

    • Randomly – I was looking for your rant on Goodreads but couldn’t find it there or on your blog. Did I miss a big explosion? (Answer – probably). But if you’re ranting I no doubt agree. Fight the power!

      Yea I’m kind of along the same lines as you now, mostly. I used to -require- a happy ending. It better have one or I’m ranting! I even posted about it but I’ve mellowed and come a long way in my reading tastes. Or more accurately my tastes have just changed so I don’t really need it that much anymore. I certainly prefer it but I can read romance without it. That said, I usually prefer to have it because as you said I invest in a couple and I want to believe they’ll live together 80 years madly in love. I don’t really think that’s going to happen but I can pretend.

      Also if a couple is going break up, that’s ok but I want it to be explosive. End with a bang, not a whimper please.

      • Tam says:

        Rules of the Chef, my review. Nothing to do with HEA, just a crap book, but I should have been prepared given the pub.

        • I read your review…very well said IMO. Those kinds of things would have annoyed the crap out of me. You were actually generous.

          I shouldn’t hate on a pub but damn they so rarely are worth anything.

  6. Definitely a deal breaker for me. Romance = central love story and HEA/HFN and if there isn’t a HEA/HFN, then it’s a wallbanger.

    Even in genre books that aren’t romance I still want a ‘happy’ ending – in a crime novel that is that the crime is solved and justice winning, in a SFF book that’s the quest being achieved (this might take a few books to do but if it doesn’t happen: wallbanger – eg if Frodo had gotten killed and Sauron had won? then LOTR would be a sucky series IMO). In a thriller, it’s the world being saved from imminent destruction (usually). If there’s a romance in those books, I don’t necessarily expect a HEA/HFN (although I may hope for one). But I’m very clear going in that they’re not romance books so I adjust my expectations accordingly.

    But, if it’s marketed as romance that means HEA/HFN and if I don’t get it I get stabby.

    Romantic stories such as Gone with the Wind (wallbanger) aren’t romance because they have crappy endings. (Every Nicholas Sparks novel ever written is similarly not a romance. LOL.)

    I rely on the labels publishers/marketers/authors give their books and if it’s saying it’s romance, that means HEA/HFN. If the book doesn’t deliver on its promise? STABBY.

    • You’re certainly not the only one. In fact I’d wager you are the majority. I’ll be sure to stay away from you and sharp objects while you’re reading just in case, hehe.

      I think the examples you gave are wonderful too because I think of Nicholas Sparks as a romance writer on par with Nora Roberts but the endings are vastly different. I’m really enjoying getting others’ views on the topic. It seems most want the happy ending and some even will get angry if they don’t get it. I guess that speaks to the desire to believe in HEA no matter what.

      • LOL – usually I am very careful to only read genre romance (or if I read outside the genre, to know what I’m in for). But I listened to a book recently which nearly made me break my iPod with rage at the end. It was a YA Fantasy and ok, that genre doesn’t promise a romantic HEA but the first two books in the series both had romantic HEAs as well as a satisfactory ending. In fact, the romance was such a big part of both books that I would classify them as YA Fantasy Romance. But the third book: no HEA (and no bang either definitely a whimper!) and I felt so betrayed. I spoiled myself about halfway through because I had a bad feeling but the rest of the book was so amazingly good that my disappointment in the no HEA was exponentially magnified. I believed the author was clever and savvy enough to have written the book so as to have a HEA but she didn’t and after the first two books, I felt like it was a reasonable expectation to think there would be HEA for the third. Now, I won’t read her again until I’m definitely sure there is a HEA. *sobs* I was scarred for life I tell you!!

        (BTW, the books were Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue by Kristen Cashore and the third one was APTLY NAMED!!).

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