Monday, 5 August 2013

Romantic Storytelling

This is not going to be a post about love, marriage, hearts and/or flowers.  The kind of romanticism I’m talking about is the kind you find in most fictional stories.

The hero wins, the villain gets what they deserve, good triumphs over evil and love conquers all. This kind of romantic ideal is why we read stories. We have a picture of the way the world should be, but it stubbornly refuses to live up to our expectations. So we create our own worlds where things turn out right.

That said, things can go too far the other way. When everything comes up smelling of roses and all dreams come true it can feel a bit too much like wishful thinking.

However, sometimes we need the good guy to get the girl, save the galaxy, win a medal and take home a lightsaber. And the worse things get in the real world, the more attractive fictional perfection becomes.

So then why write anything other than that? If everyone loves a Hollywood ending, why not just stick to what works?

Mainly, I think, because eventually perfection becomes unconvincing. And then it becomes annoying.

Happily ever after? Really? Just because you hook up with the person you pined after doesn’t guarantee a lifetime of bliss (or even seven minutes in some cases). Killing dragons doesn’t mean it won’t rain tomorrow. Catching a serial killer doesn’t stop the bus stop down the road being vandalised.

In fact the bigger and more all encompassing you make the happy ending, the less believable it feels. We just can’t stop the harsh truths of real life from creeping into our fantasies.

Escapism, it turns out, isn’t quite as satisfying when the hero rides off into the sunset and you’re still sitting on the sofa with bills to pay and dishes to wash. There’s a limited kind of happiness you can get from reading about how it all turned out great for someone who isn’t you.

A really satisfying story, I think, isn’t one where the hero wins it all and loses nothing, it’s one where someone who tries hard gets something out of it. Not necessarily what they were hoping for, or without sacrifice, but something that made it worthwhile.

Because in the end you can work hard and be good and do your best and there’s no guarantee it will work out for you. I think anyone over the age of 12 probably understands that. But there should be hope that it could, that it might, that other people also think it should.

So that while stories where characters get everything they could possibly hope for and an impossibly bright future to boot are fun to read and pleasantly distracting, it’s the stories that have characters who struggle but never give up and end up in a place better than the one where they started, that enable us to go back to our awkward, annoying, exhausting lives with a smile and a belief it can and will get better.

Mind you that’s just how I see it, and I’ve always been a bit of a romantic.
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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Not necessarily what they were hoping for, or without sacrifice - those are the best. And hopefully that's how my stories play out as well.

mooderino said...

@Alex - I much prefer a happy ending i didn't see coming.

Lydia Kang said...

I think this is why most of the time, I have trouble enjoying many happily ever afters. They can be too pat!

Alex said...

I am always wary of the happy ending... it is what readers expect and sometimes authors have to contort in order to reach it. If it is there (and earned) go for it! But if all signs point to a different ending, then the happy one -- however romantically satisfying -- wont' suffice.

J E Oneil said...

Happy endings have to make sense. I hate books where literally every problem, even ones that aren't a major influence on the plot, are solved just because the hero needs to have everything super awesome. A sad ending that's appropriate for a story is much better than a happy ending that is just dumb.

Denise Covey said...

Good one Moody. Most stories are more satisfying with a romantic element, but that doesn't necessarily mean the HEA romance. But most readers in the world buy the HEA romance over anything else, showing that escapism is alive and well. Even the Harlequin-type romances are not quite so pat these days.

Murees Dupè said...

I think you are so right. A happy ending, but not always the perfect ending is what is required. I am not afraid to show the ugly side of love in my fantasy stories and though the good guys always win, it is never in the way you expected. Great post.

Unknown said...

I like a happy ending now and then but you are right about it getting tired and old. Maybe that's why Nicholas Spars does so well with his his stories.

Unknown said...

A perfect ending is one that feels good to me for that story, not necessarily one that ends like all others. :)

Anonymous said...

In YA books, there has been a strong trend toward romantic heroes/heroines who have obvious flaws. My favorite of these recently-released books is Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park. This book is a five-star read, partly because of the characters. Largely because of the writer's true talent.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I wrote a fantasy book that is unpublished that has strong romantic elements. I channeled my inner Stephanie.

mooderino said...

@Lydia - the older you get the harder it is to accept the perfect ending, I think.

@Alex - for a lot of people I think it will, which is why Hollywood skews that way so often (usually after the original ending tested poorly)

@JE - dumb and fun is not going anywhere anytime soon, I'm guessing.

@Denise - we do have a lot to escape from these days.

@Murees - thanks.

mooderino said...

@Theresa - you can still get the happy ending without having it be perfect, I feel.

@Diane - I agree!

@EE - it's the romantic heroes without flaws I find annoyng.

@Mike - Hope you can channel her inner bank balance.

Tara Tyler said...

suffering is a part of life that makes the good feel that much better, in stories too. yay for a story with endurance thru hardships and a happy ending!

and congrats again on your short story getting published!

Unknown said...

Oh this post is so timely. I'm umming and aaahing over my final chapter: shall I make it HEA? I think, from the comments here, the best is a satisfying ending (where the characters have grown). That's the one I'm going for!!!!! Thank you :-D

Cathy said...

Stories capture a moment in time. Romances always have a deservedly happy ending, but I don't think anyone ever believes that the couple will never face another challenge. But they should've shown, by the things they worked through, that they should be able to meet the coming challenges without breaking up over them.

mooderino said...

@Tara - thanks.

@Susan - Glad to help.

@Cathy - they should but rarely do.

PK HREZO said...

Agreed! I think of stories like the move Rudy. We don't always get what we want, but life has a way of working out. And that's the truth people want in their fiction. That's the lesson we all learn in real life.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

I'm a hopeless romantic as well and I love pure escapism. But you are right, it's the journey, the struggles, the never giving up, that really captures our hearts in a story.

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Unknown said...

Your thoughts are oh-so-true! The key point you make is that even when you get what you thought you wanted -- and struggled to get -- it is rarely what you expect. So life is about the journey, not the destination. Happily ever after to me means that, having reached the destination, you're done. The journey is much more interesting.

Gina Gao said...

Sometimes perfect endings just don't make sense, and it totally ruins the purpose.

Shah Wharton said...

I'm not a huge romance fan for the very reason of their predictability. I enjoy happy endings, but I don't want to begin a book knowing the ending. Great post... I'm leaving here, thinking. That's always a good thing, right? :)

Shah X

mooderino said...

@Pk - When life feels hard I think people look for the more escapist stuff. And things have been hard for the last few years so I can see the appeal.

@Lynda - you have to be willing to take a few blows to get the rewards, both in life and in fiction.

@ainaa - thanks (even if it is spam).

@Mary - it's a weird thing to proclaim life effectively over in those sorts of stories.

@Gina - sometimes people just want to hear everything's going to turn out okay, I guess.

@Shah - Thinking is apparently very good for you. They have special caps and hats for it.

Jay Noel said...

I've found endings where the hero wins by failing a nice little twist. Had the hero achieved the goal, it would have been a bad thing anyway.

mooderino said...

@Jay - I only wish that would happen more in real life.

Dr. Ellis L. (Skip) Knox said...

"My back to the wall, a victim of laughing chance.
This is for me the essence of true romance."
-- Steely Dan

Ever since I first heard the line, I though it was the best statement made on the subject.

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