Is there any phrase more contentious when it comes to fiction than “Happily Ever After,” and the idea of the perfect ending, usually involving a reconciled and/or burgeoning romance? Talk to some people, and they’ll tell you they always have to root for the happily ever after ending. It’s hardwired in their worldview. They are optimists at heart, or perhaps they believe the real world comes with so many problems that it’s nice to envision and escape into a scenario where perfect love exists. Other people will scoff at the idea, claiming it’s not believable at all. It just doesn’t happen in life, and it’s fake and cheap to put it in a novel.
Personally, I think Happily Ever After can work all right, given the proper set-up. The problem with HEA is that so often it can feel contrived. This can be for any number of reasons: perhaps barriers miraculously disappear, or a stroke of fortune feels a bit too fortunate. Perhaps the HEA necessitates a change of heart on the part of a rival that doesn’t feel genuine. I can only speak for myself, of course, but here are some things I have found that help make HEA seem possible after all! There’s nothing wrong with writing a HEA scenario, but remember that if you do so:
- THE SHREK PRINCIPLE. To be clear, I have never read the book, and I’ve heard that it’s very, very different from the film; I’m writing about the movie (which I adore!) The reason HEA works in Shrek (SPOILER ALERT!) is that Shrek maintains the heart and feel of HEA by removing the fairy tale “we’re rich and beautiful and in love and have everything we could ever want” aspect that so often works against tales of true love. Fiona and Shrek don’t end up beautiful living in Duloc’s castle. No, “true love’s first kiss” solidifies Fiona’s form as an ogre to match Shrek, and they live together… in his swamp. It’s sweet and wonderful and beautiful, and we buy it precisely because it’s NOT perfect. The exterior components of life don’t have to be ideal because the nature of love is to appreciate the parts of life that are, in fact, blessings, no matter how the rest of life looks and feels: the nature of love is to appreciate things like being with the one who you feel completes you and makes you a better person, even if you’re both ogres. For me, the Shrek Principle of HEA means to keep some exterior irritations–perhaps major irritations–in play as crucial aspects your HEA ending, to make HEA not only more believable, but also to remind yourself and your readers that the bitter parts of bittersweet help us to appreciate the sweetness all the more.
- HEA MUST BE FUNDAMENTALLY ATTAINABLE ACCORDING TO THE TONE AND THE SET-UP YOU’VE GIVEN YOURSELF TO WORK WITH. If the plot, or the characters, or the culture where the characters live make HEA too difficult, too much of a stretch, then your HEA ending will feel forced and unreal. Instead of the peace and happiness you’re hoping to evoke in the mind of your reader, you’ll leave frustration and confusion, perhaps even irritation. (What, you expected me to fall for this? How dumb do you suppose I am? It would never work out this way!) Sometimes an ending that’s not perfect–perhaps one that’s not even what you and the readers would want–rings truer, is truer, and will carry a great story with a force all its own. Shrek and Fiona’s HEA would not be conceivable at all in Duloc, given the hatred and fear humans have displayed for ogres throughout the entire film. But for them to live their in the swamp…. that makes sense. It’s realistic given the world the characters inhabit.
- REMEMBER OPPORTUNITY COST. I think the only useful thing I learned in my undergrad economics class was the concept of opportunity cost. Nothing comes free. Whenever you choose to do something, you are sacrificing the time you could be using to do something else. Whenever you allot resources to one project, you’re removing them from another one. Applying this to HEA: there is always going to be an opportunity cost for that HEA. It might be a job, it might be a rival love, it might be living apart from family, it might be a sacrifice someone else made to make your protagonist’s HEA possible. Don’t ignore that opportunity cost. Embracing it, acknowledging it, and recognizing that although the cost may be worth it in the end, it nonetheless is real…. That goes a long way to making HEA ring true instead of fake. This is another thing Shrek embraces: Fiona sacrifices being human and her dreams of marrying Prince Charming to live her HEA as an ogress. In a swamp.