Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, even in romance novels. If we’re going to talk about beginnings, what about the beginning of what comes after the story’s told?
This week’s topic comes from my deep and abiding love for the song, “Closing Time,” by Semisonic. The song itself (spoiler for those who don’t already know) isn’t so much about last call as it is about first call, specifically birth. While many romance novels do include the birth or adoption of very young people in their final chapters, or epilogues, it’s certainly not mandatory for every couple. In fact, there are a lot of roads our happy lovers might traverse after their HEA is sealed.
We’ll start with the obvious: babies. Lots of romances go this route, and especially historicals. Babies are a sure way to personify the couple’s love, and their bond, and, in long-running series, can keep the families going for the next generation, or even more. Some readers may find “babylogues,” as they are sometimes called, to be trite or cliché, but, for other readers, the tradition of the big, tough hero, faced with his heroine’s labor, is an essential part of the romance story. Same goes for same big, tough hero, utterly charmed by his offspring. If, especially in a historical, that offspring happens to be female, the thought of our hero turning into protective papa hints at adventures yet to come. If the girl takes after her headstrong mama, well, our hero’s future days aren’t going to be all that placid, are they?
There’s also those times when the ending isn’t really an ending at all. Especially prevalent in serialized stories, and those kissing cousins (pun intended) to romance, historical and cozy mysteries with romantic elements, as well as some New Adult, the couple’s story takes place over several installments. These are the stories where we have to wait for the very last book for the true HEA, because each new piece of the puzzle leaves us with a Happy For Now, and anything could happen before the next go-round. Even so, our lovers still clear a hurdle in their relationship, be that physical intimacy, engagement or marriage, learning each other’s deepest secret, resisting (or repenting not resisting) temptation, and, in some cases, adding to their family.
That’s only one sort of non-ending. With the popularity of series within many subgenres of romance, we may get to have a second-row seat to the HEAs of previous couples. While the couple in a serialized story keep the spotlight for their entire time on stage, couples in a non=serialized series, (try saying that ten times fast) rotate, so the leading players in book one may be supporting cast in book two, walk-ons in book three, and, for book four, oh look, there they are again, but this time, they’re in trouble. Since this is romance, after all, it’s a sure bet they’re going to patch up whatever rifts may have formed, but, in the hands of a skilled writer, we’re not entirely sure until we see it for ourselves. Watching our original couple get through their tough time may spur the current book’s leads to do what it takes to reach for their own happily ever after, and grab it before it’s too late.
Is it really ever too late in a romance novel? I’m thinking no. Heroes and heroines alike have to dig deep over the course of their novels, and find parts of themselves they didn’t know they had, or were afraid to face, to arrive at their happily ever after, with the person they love. They may have to fight society, enemy armies, a rapidly ticking clock, or their own worst fears. Otherwise, where’s the story? We love seeing t he black moment, not because we want to see the characters suffer, but because we know that, when things get at their absolute worst, the best is yet to come.
By the end of a romance novel, the enemy has been vanquished, the tide turned, and there is peace in the land at last. Or close to it, because this will often be part of a larger story that isn’t over yet. We love seeing the weddings of characters we’ve fallen in love with while they fell in love with each other. We love welcoming their babies, building their dream houses, even dancing with them on their enemies’ graves. At some point, though, the catering staff packs up, the DJ goes home, the nurse checks to make sure the right baby is going home with the right parents, the last visitor has left, and our couple (and any new family members they may have acquired) will turn in for the night. They’ll wake up the next morning, and then what?
Back when I started reading (and writing) romance, standalones were the norm, so it wasn’t always a given that we would see this same couple in the next book. For me, there really is nothing better than waving the happy couple off into the sunset and not knowing exactly what they’ll be facing next. I’m actually comfortable with that, rather than frustrated. I don’t have to know exactly what lies ahead of them, because I know, no matter what it is, they’ll be facing it together, and that’s what matters most.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Do you like imagining what lies ahead for the happy couple at the end of the book, or are you happy enough to wait and find out in the next installment? Where do you stand on serialized romances, or books with romantic elements, where there’s a bunch of HFNs before the ultimate HEA? Do you like seeing your favorite couples at future stages of life? Pull up a chair in the comments section and tell us all about it. If you’re done with a couple as soon as their story is over, we want to hear about that, too. There’s room for everybody at this table.