Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Beauty and the Beast: Constructing the HEA

To some people it may seem somewhat narrow minded that readers of Romance insist on the Happily Ever After ending.

After all, HEA is so unrealistic, a childish fantasy. Thus people who read Romance must have something wrong with them, which means Romance as a field is not to be taken seriously, which is a topic we've discussed at length in this blog.

I think those readers are missing something important about the novel as an artform. As writers, our job is to explain what they're missing in "show don't tell" technique.

Whatever type of novel you prefer reading, you read it for the satisfaction, the validation of your world view in the artform.

The Romance as an artform is not different, even (or especially) when you cast the Romance plot against an alien background or involve a non-human character in the main plot thread.

The worldview that the Romance HEA validates is something like "No Man Is An Island" or in modern psychological research, that happier, healthier longer lives are lived by those who have firm and dependable Relationships.

Here's a recent report in a long list of such reports on marriage and health:

March 5, 2009
Chicago -- Women in strained marriages are more likely than other wives to have high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease, researchers said today.
... and: The researchers found that women in marriages with high levels of strife were more prone to depression and metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms including thick waist, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and abnormal blood sugar that significantly raise the risk of heart disease.

Oh? HEA is unrealistic, eh?

If a relationship crystallizes solidly, settles into a supportive and low-strife paradigm, then (science is beginning to discover) AS A CONSEQUENCE the future course of the partners lives will be ENHANCED by good health and an assortment of miseries that are absent. That is they will live "happily ever after" because of the formation of this Relationship.

There have been other studies that showed how women are physically healthier than men because of the maintaining of relationships with other women, particularly that of the confidant. Relationships cause consequences -- and good Relationships cause HEA.

Of course, humans being human, while you're living an HEA arc of a life, you will find other reasons to make yourself miserable. You never think of all the diseases and disorders and dysfunctions you DON'T have in your life, so you can't see that you are happy.

People who have this kind of very real misery in their life might want to read horror or tragedy -- soap opera stories of unrelenting misery -- to stay aware of the troubles they don't have, troubles worse than theirs. It's a way of convincing yourself you are happy. And there's nothing wrong with that. It can motivate changes in relationships to raise the odds of an HEA in life. HEA endings can do that too - spark aspiration.

So how does a writer construct an HEA ending?

Well, it's an ENDING.

There are 3 points in The Novel that have to be nailed before you can outline the novel. Beginning. Middle. End. Determine any one of those, and the other two become determined.

If the END must be "happy" - an up-beat ending - then the MIDDLE must be the worst point in the main character's life (utter ruin; total hopelessness; conquered, captured, vanquished, left for dead, stood up at the altar).

With a low Middle and high End -- the Beginning has to be the ORIGIN of the problem that nearly kills the main character in the Middle and which he overcomes to triumph in the end.

Solve this one problem and all his life-troubles are over for good. There's HEA potential in every other genre, even or especially Horror.

Plot is driven by Conflict. To have a conflict, you have to have at least two elements that conflict. This vs. That. An urgent MUST vs an equally formidable CAN'T.

In the Romance, the urgent MUST is provided by the attraction to the other party. Science has revealed why we feel that MUST.


is an article on discoveries about brain chemistry and love. I think I've mentioned that here before, and on goodreads.com in SFRomance.

Add to that the subliminal awareness that our very lives depend on founding solid Relationships, and when a candidate for that Relationship appears it becomes an urgent emergency to "catch" that guy or gal.

Theory has it that it's the reproductive urge that drives us into Relationships. And that certainly seems reasonable -- BUT, if you don't live long enough to have and raise kids, reproduction becomes a moot point. I think we are aware in every cell of our bodies that our minute to minute existence depends on solid Relationships.

Mystically, the First Chakra (staying alive) always trumps the Second Chakra matters of reproduction. Our priorities are ordered for us on that basic a level. This premise lurks far in the background of my Sime~Gen novels.

The brain chemistry study shows us why we have the objective of establishing solid relationships. Relationships protect basic health so that we can reproduce.

Sothe URGENT MUST part of the conflict: "here is a POTENTIAL PARTNER; I must have this person or die!"

Your very life depends (literally) on reaching out to and securing that person in your life. That is not melodrama, it's science.

For all HEA Romances, that piece of the formula is established by the genre rules. The Urgent Must has to be an attraction to a partner and everything else is "complication" or background.

Now, the writer gets creative and the genre walls disappear into the distance. The writer can explore the universe finding things to prevent the attaining of this objective. What obstacles prevent people from forming partnerships?

The art of the romance novel lies in the variegated CAN'Ts writers have hurled at their characters.

What the CAN'T actually is does not matter as much as that it is just about equal to the MUST. To craft the HEA, there has to be a tangible chance that the Relationship won't gel.

But success has to be plausible, so the CAN'T has to have a "fatal flaw" that makes it believable that the two people do overcome this obstacle.

It is very possible that the low prestige of the Romance Novel (and particularly the Paranormal or SF Romance) comes from the choice of obstacle.

Some people may pick up Romances where the obstacle is fabricated, and in technical parlance, "contrived" so that it can be overcome. The "paper tiger" obstacle.

As a result, casual readers may judge all Romance to be "thin" -- a puppet show where the strings are visible.

Judging an entire genre by one or two novels is fairly common. Have you ever done that?

So, the Romance HEA is crafted from a scientificly verified array of MUSTS vs. artistically invented CAN'Ts. The HEA point is where the MUST overcomes the CAN'T -- i.e. the point where the conflict is resolved.

So tell me why all Romance isn't classed as Science Fiction Romance? If all Romance has the MUST part of the plot formula as a scientific premise, why isn't every Romance considered SFR?
The answer to this puzzle may be found by reading something outside the genre.

I have here a novel, a police procedural which raised the question of the HEA requirement again.

FLIPPING OUT by Marshall Karp. It's an April 2009 book I got from the amazon.com VINE program in ARC. It's copyright is held by a film company. I already posted my (4 star) review on amazon.

The intriguing premise is that a famous mystery writer is in a scheme to buy a run-down house, fix it up, write a murder mystery set in the house, then sell the house at auction on the day the book launches (complete with fictional murder victim's outline in tape on the bedroom floor).

It's set against the background of Hollywood. HUGE amount of money involved in the house flipping scheme -- very interesting background, like Columbo, a glimpse of the rich and famous.

It is a pretty good cut and dried, well turned and well written police procedural mystery with a nice clue-trail.

You can solve the mystery before the detectives do, but not TOO MUCH before, and the ending comes with a nice tricky TWIST shocker-scene, after which you get told what the detectives knew before you knew it. It's a good twist ending and provides a nice film moment for the climax. It's a good book.

Ah, BUT!!! There are many buts I didn't mention in my amazon review.

Reading this novel right in the midst of reading a sequence of fairly good fantasy novels, I found the contrast striking.

The mystery formula also requires an HEA ending. The mystery has to be SOLVED, and the reader has to feel satisfied that they could solve it as well or better than the detectives (but not a lot better because then it's too easy).

So while I'm thinking about the HEA reader requirement in Romance, I'm reading this mystery and second-guessing the detectives.

And I realized WHAT'S MISSING from FLIPPING OUT. It's a factor that I find very satisfying in say, Faye Kellerman's Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus series. And that is characterization. It's a reason I like Columbo and Murder She Wrote, too. The mystery and its solution hinge entirely on the psychology and relationships of the victims, suspects AND the detectives!!

FLIPPING OUT provides a huge, stark, high relief contrast to the psychological drama type mysteries that I love. The stringent absence of the psychology dimension makes for a dry, clean, stark, and austere reading experience (very much like old fashioned neck-up science fiction, I discussed last week) that is, no doubt, very satisfying to the reader looking for that simple puzzle without any psychological tangles.

FLIPPING OUT puts the emotional lives of the bereaved, terrified and frustrated characters in the background while the foreground focuses on the puzzle itself. That's what this genre is supposed to do.

So this book is perfect of its kind, but unsatisfying to me. Yet it has the perfect ending for a mystery. The detectives solve the case which is equivalent to the HEA where the gal gets her guy and vice-versa.

At the halfway point, the darkest hour, the detectives think they solved it -- everyone above them thinks it's solved. The perp was the last person in the world they'd suspect. They're crushed. Then they discover they're wrong, and the perp is actually someone even more last-person-in-the-world than they'd expect.

FLIPPING OUT is likely to be a best seller, very popular, might even make a movie. The author's other novels have garnered serious respect, the sort we'd love to see SFR get as a genre.
What does FLIPPING OUT have that Science Fiction Romance doesn't?

Could it lie in the CAN'T rather than in the MUST part of the conflict formula?

One really great Romance that did make it onto TV as a series is BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

This series spawned a plethora of fanfic on paper on on the web, and some really great fan novels, too. It grabbed the imagination of the SFR type reader-fan. But why did it fail on TV?

The premise stalled the plot.

The premise was that the couple could NEVER get together. That's not bad in itself. The CAN'T has to be formidable.

But the characters accepted the CAN'T. They didn't fight it. They didn't try scheme after scheme (like I LOVE LUCY plots). They didn't attempt to go public. They didn't plan to run away. Neither was willing to sacrifice to go live in the other's world.

Neither of the main characters was HEROIC about overcoming the plot premise CAN'T. And in the end, the writers tried to salvage that, change and evolve the premise by revealing that one of the characters was actually of non-human (alien from outer space) blood -- but by then the audience was losing interest.

They hadn't sold the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST series as SFR so the audience deserted them when they tried to turn it into SFR, making the problem solvable.

Why did the audience lose interest? Because the MUST didn't show any progress toward overcoming the CAN'T. The conflict was not moving to a resolution without breaking the original premise.

There couldn't be an HEA unless you changed the premise - which is of course what the fanfic writers did.

So contrast and compare FLIPPING OUT with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and think about it. Too little psychology and the actions and reactions don't seem plausible enough to make a story interesting even if the plot is fascinating. Too much psychology and the story stalls dead in its tracks because there isn't the gumption to pay the price for conflict resolution.

To create the HEA effect (in any genre), the trick is matching the MUST (and its motives, conscious and subconscious) with the CAN'T (and its motives, conscious and subconscious), in such a way as to challenge each of the characters to overcome some internal barrier, to CHANGE (or ARC in screenwriting parlance) in a way that opens the opportunity for the MUST to overcome the CAN'T.

In the Murder Mystery Police Procedural the Must, Can't and HEA in the foreground is the whole, logical why-done-it puzzle. It's who knows whom and follow the money for motivation. The angst, grieving widowers, and fear of discovery are all way in the background, told rather than shown.

In the Alien Science Fiction Romance, the affairs of state, plot puzzles, science and logic of brain biochemistry are in the background, told rather than shown, while the angst, grief, fears, hopes, dreams, and fantasies are in the foreground, shown rather than told.

What is in the foreground and what is in the background very often determines the audience that will most appreciate the work of art.

Or the fanfic writers will reverse foreground and background to tell each other new stories.

For more on those psychological and spiritual internal barriers and how to construct them for your characters out of the material inside your reader's mind see my blog post:


For a writing exercise related to setting up foreground and background and "worldbuilding" the background see my blog entry writing assignment and read the exercise posted as comments on


Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Jacqueline, you always shine new light on things that I am trying to wrap my mind around. Thanks.

  2. I saved this one to file. Thank you! Wish I could say more but I'm terribly busy gestating these days. Don't have much time on the computer anymore.

  3. Anonymous4:50 PM EDT

    This was a great post and I learned some very specific things from it. I, too, have filed it for future study. There was a great deal of information here, some very useful directional arrows.

    I don't remember, however, that even in the ruined 3rd Season of Beauty and the Beast, that the writers revealed Vincent as an alien, though obviously he was more than a man. 3rd Season was a travesty in my opinion, but devising a 'fix' certainly keeps me occupied.

  4. "I don't remember, however, that even in the ruined 3rd Season of Beauty and the Beast, that the writers revealed Vincent as an alien, though obviously he was more than a man."

    That's true. There was never any mention on the TV series of his being an alien. (Maybe Jacqueline was thinking of a fanfic story.) The only explanation ever given was that he'd clawed his way out of the womb of the evil professor's wife -- which turned out to be a lie.

    I love that series. It's no surprise that it didn't last long after Catherine's death. After all, the title was "Beauty and the Beast," not "Beast." I was so frustrated that they never got together, really. Fanfic can fix that. It can also rewrite to delete her death. I actually once saw a set of guidelines for a zine that said something like, "We publish only 'she's not dead' fiction."

  5. B&B -- yes, it's an INFERENCE that Vincent is an alien, alluded to rather than stated on-the-nose.

    I can't now reference the exact episode and scene, but at one time there was a vigorous discussion of the implications of it among fans.

    And yes, there are other possible interpretations -- especially because of the shroud of disinformation surrounding his identity.

    Regardless of his origin, though, the entire series faltered because they created a cul de sac, a story that COULD NOT advance, and the very premise was that it COULD NOT resolve.

    Which was my point in referencing it. CONFLICT is the essence of story, BUT it must be a conflict that can resolve, and the HEA resolution is not fantasy, absurd, or the taste of the weak-kneed.

    That HEA resolution is a biological imperative that has nothing to do with reproduction.

    Thus if Vincent is alien - my point is proven. The HEA resolution does not require the potential for reproduction.

    Something happens in intimate, sexual relationships that has nothing to do with reproduction and everything to do with long term, healthy survival.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg