Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

And they all lived…


It used to be I heard those words and immediately looked for cell animation and Technicolor. I don’t know about you, but 'Happily Ever After' in my mind is Disney movies and picture books, things I would read to my kid. Not YA or Adult fiction.

That was before I started reading fan fiction.

I’d been in this fandom a few months when it finally dawned on me what people meant when they asked if there was going to be a HEA. Yeah, I'll admit I was a little slow on the uptake, but honestly, I wasn’t thinking about how the stories I was reading were going to end. I wanted to enjoy the journey, not fixate on what happened once I got there. I didn't want to hear about whether or not it was an HEA, for in my mind, that would ruin the whole story.

Yeah, call me a loon, I like to be surprised.

They dynamic changed when I wrote my first story. I remember being on the fourth or fifth chapter and receiving a review that asked me if there was going to be an HEA because the reader wouldn’t be able to continue without it.

Say What???

I’ve come to realize that HEA, or 'Happily Ever After,' is a strange animal in the fan fic world. People have very different expectations about what is or is not a happy ending, and that preference dictates what they will or will not read. Some readers will even decide to stop reading (aka flounce) a story if a HEA is not guaranteed.

To be honest, who can blame them? Didn’t Stephenie Meyer give us the ultimate HEA? That bow couldn't have been tied any tighter if she tried. Well, some would say yes, others would say no, but that is a whole different subject.

Having my own distinct and very warped views on the topic, I decided to some leg work. I sent out emails, made posts on forums, and we even tweeted a survey with six simple questions:

  1. How do you define HEA?

  2. Do you prefer endings more nebulous or do you want it all mapped out - tied up so to speak?

  3. What was your favorite HEA (story) and why?

  4. Will you read a story if you know there will not be an HEA?

  5. Is there a difference in HEA for canon/au vs AH? If so, what and why?

  6. If you could request one thing from authors re HEA's, what would it be?

This, my friends, is the result of those findings…broken ultimately into to perspectives....Team Grimm, and Team Disney.

Breaking it Down, Snow White Style

To help level set, let me give you the difference between the two flavors of 'and they all lived happily ever after (queue fade to black. Sorry folks, in fairy tales, they rarely ever got any...)

The Grimm Brothers Ending:

The prince had the coffin carried to his castle, and had it placed in a room where he sat by it the whole day, never taking his eyes from it. Whenever he had to go out and was unable to see Snow-White, he became sad. And he could not eat a bite, unless the coffin was standing next to him. Now the servants who always had to carry the coffin to and fro became angry about this. One time one of them opened the coffin, lifted Snow-White upright, and said, "We are plagued the whole day long, just because of such a dead girl," and he hit her in the back with his hand. Then the terrible piece of apple that she had bitten off came out of her throat, and Snow-White came back to life.

She walked up to the prince, who was beside himself with joy to see his beloved Snow-White alive. They sat down together at the table and ate with joy.

Their wedding was set for the next day, and Snow-White's godless mother was invited as well. That morning she stepped before the mirror and said:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?
The mirror answered:
You, my queen, are fair; it is true.
But the young queen
Is a thousand times fairer than you.

She was horrified to hear this, and so overtaken with fear that she
could not say anything. Still, her jealousy drove her to go to the wedding and
see the young queen. When she arrived she saw that it was Snow-White. Then they
put a pair of iron shoes into the fire until they glowed, and she had to put
them on and dance in them. Her feet were terribly burned, and she could not stop
until she had danced herself to death.

The Disney Ending:

The Queen discovers that Snow White is still alive and disguises herself as a
hag. She finds Snow White in the dwarfs' cottage while they are out at the mines
and offers her a poisoned apple. After Snow White makes a wish, she bites in to
the apple and falls to the ground dropping it. The dwarfs arrive soon after and
are unable to save Snow White, but they chase the Queen up a cliff until she
falls to her death.

Unwilling to bury Snow White, because of her beauty, the dwarfs build a glass
coffin in which to lay her to rest. She is left in the woods, where the prince
from earlier finds her. He kisses her and she awakens. The two leave together to
presumably be married.

Same story, same concepts, but holy cow talk about radically different endings. Saved in irritation or by true love's kiss. Wicked Stepmother dancing to death at your wedding or jumping off a cliff and leaving you to ride off into the sunset without another backward thought. Sick with a dose of real world or saccharine sweet, take your pick.

In a way, you could say that, for the first four books of the saga, SM was trucking along as Team Grimm Lite (sorry Steph, can't grant you full Grimm status). Then Breaking Dawn was released and she jumped the shark to embrace Team Disney on Steriods. Slap a big pretty bow on that box and call it a day.

That, ladies and germs, is the one thing that most everyone surveyed agreed upon. Breaking Dawn changed the way this fandom looks at HEA forever. Or, as so eloquently put by Rameau in her response to the six questions:

Happily Ever After, a fairytale ending, Prince kisses the Princess and the curtain falls ending the show before things get really interesting. Or in Twilight, Bella becomes a vampire and gets to keep everything without making any sacrifices.

See? There is that pesky fade to black again. Jeez.

The big pretty bow concept is the consistent theme throughout the survey responses. While, for the most part, people didn't expect every last T crossed and every I dotted, they did want a consistent, logical ending to the story.

Note: Logical. Not perfect.

That doesn't mean 30 chapters of angst to be followed by a perfectly sunny epilogue, or some other bizarre left turn at the last minute. Be true to the story you create, and to the character's arc.

Sometimes what we think we want isn't always what is the best thing for us...I am ok with an ending leaving me with a few questions, but I need some resolution to the original arc. Alice Dances

Unfortunately, that doesn't always make the reader happy. It's always easiest to talk about what you know, so I stopped to look at the stories I've written over the past year. Only one was a 'tied up all neat and pretty' story, because it fit the characters and the overall arc. My others haven't followed that formula; it didn't suit the story or the characters. I like to leave something to the imagination, hoping that readers will be able to use their imagination to wonder about what could come after, for there is life after riding off into the sunset. Aw heck, screw the reader, I do it for me too. I lay in bed and wonder what if. I think it's half the fun.

But, just like I want to wonder what if, others prefer reassurance, I get that. The challenge, authors, is to do it the right way. That also means not buckling to pressure - just tell the story, okay?

I am getting so sick of people giving away the ends of their stories by letting me know half way through that there will be an HEA!!! YOU JUST KILLED THE JOURNEY! How am I supposed to feel worried if they are going to resolve their problems, or concern myself if they will survive a situation if you have already told me they will?! I want my stomach to be in knots and my heart to be in my throat when someone leaves or is a douche until the next time you update. I want to be scared out of my mind wondering if they will concur their addictions or survive another murderous or n'er do well James. All these assurances are SPOILERS! I don't want to know that Elizabeth will end up with Mr. Darcy. I don't want to know that Darth Vader is Luke's father. I don't want to know that the damn kid sees dead people. I don't want to know that Dumbledore dies!!! EJ Santy

There in lies the challenge. As readers we want hope; as writers, we want to tell a story. There in lies the age old question - how to balance the two.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Yeah, I still haven't quite figured that one out yet either.

So let's step away from the author vs writer conundrum, and talk for a moment about what people feel constitutes a great HEA.

When soliciting input, I watched in fascination as people defined their favorite HEA's. It's an incredibly personal concept, so the responses differed radically (it was like comparing apples and oranges at times). Note I did not use the word 'answer,' for 'answer' indicates there is a right and wrong. There isn't - it's all personal preference.

My favorite response (not because it cited my first collab with profmom) was from JeesieChreesie and hits how HEA can really cover two ends of the spectrum:

While many of the stories I read have HEA none are all that memorable, to be honest. The only one that particularly comes to mind is the Breakfast at Tiffany's Oneshot. While I loved the multichap, the poignancy of this vignette on a whirl wind affair was just beautiful. I could also perhaps say Jandco's Mutually Assured Destruction is a phenomenal example of the HEA being character specific. Holing up in a dirty apartment and throwing away your friendship to be in an obsessive relationship is not what most people would consider happily ever after, but I loved it.

From strawberry pop tarts to two people borderline obsessed and living in filth, the stories represent the two extremes of fic, yet in their own ways, both illustrate the extremes of HEA. How is that for frenetic?

Speaking of two ends of the spectrum, during the survey process, there was one fic cited over and over again as being the best HEA and the biggest huh moment. BrattyVamp was nice enough to go on record about her fic, The Best Man, to directly address the comments that swirled. If you haven't read it - lovely story - I'll say no more for fear of spoiling:

I can say that "shock value" was never considered when I began writing The Best Man. I knew the story from start to finish, before I started to type a single word of it. It was my intention to write a REAL story. I wanted it to be a LIFE story. Sometimes life throws things our way that we would never dream could happen. And sometimes it's the stuff of our nightmares. But I'm of the firm belief that everything that happens in life, does so for a reason. We have an opportunity to grow through any situation. And growth as an individual, growth in relationships, growth in community support, growth in faith.... all of those things can provide a happily ever after- even if the catalyst for growth is painful.

Oh no....yeah, you read right...real life. It's quite a mixed response in the fic world too. Some want to keep it real, and like the turmoil. Others see fic as an escape, a way to get away from real life. They don't want to read what they live. That in and of itself has a huge influence on what we will and won't read.

I could go on and on about people's expectations for HEA. What it comes down to is this:
  • Writers: be true to your characters. Follow the arc, and tie it up appropriate to your story. Don't give away the ending because you feel pressure.
  • Readers: have faith in where the story will lead you. Be open to different types of endings, and trust that the author won't steer you wrong (yes, I'll admit on occasion it does happen, but overall, it's rare).

I leave you with a wise piece of insight on how to wrap up a story with a fitting ending by our resident Carlisle expert, Giselle-LX

Practice closing a novel without tying everything up neatly--the characters had problems, and if their lives are at all realistic, those problems haven't entirely gone away. Let the hints of those things run through the end of your story, even if it technically is Happily Ever After. And just give us a foretaste of what the characters are doing at the end--a hint that probably, they are going to be together and happily so. There's no need to tell us every single detail of how they live out their HEA. Let the reader use her imagination.

My original intent in surveying was to try and create a single, pure definition of what constituted HEA. But doing so would be like pigeon holing people into boxes they don't always fit. We can be Team Edward and Team Jacob, Team Jasper or Team Emmett. We can also be Team Grimm or Team Disney. It's okay to want different endings. I just request that readers allow writers to weave their stories, and writers allow readers to stretch their imagination. Nine times out of ten, you'll get your HEA in spades.

The fun is in the adventure, not the end. Focus on that and everything else will fall into place.

For now, that's all I've got. I am saddling up my horse, and riding off into the sunset, where a tall dark haired man with killer dimples is waiting for me.

And he doesn't care that I am Team Grimm all the way. We'll still live happily ever after.

Fade to Black. The End.

Hmonster4 is currently entering cynics anonymous for treatment of her cold black heart. She welcomes the company and will happily share cupcakes during rainbow treatment and Barbie playtime.


  1. Wonderful essay. I think you really got to the heart of the whole HEA debate. I personally don't care for them, I prefer angst and tragic filled endings, but a well written and realistic HEA will catch my eye. My big problem with a lot of HEA's these days is that authors don't leave anything to the imagination. They tell you how many kids all the couples have, where they live, how many wrinkles Edward has now, etc. You get my drift??? They cookie cut every single detail of a fic till its all nice and neat. A very good example of a HEA in a fic that is realistic is Midnight Desire.

  2. Thank you x 1 zillion for this. there is nothing more annoying than an A/N at the start of a chapter that says 'i'm really not happy with this chapter', than an A/N at the end that says, 'remember, this is a Edward/Bella story with a guaranteed HEA...'


    so, txu, my dear Heather, for this gentle and careful reminder to let stories unfold how they will, both as readers and as writers, and withhold judgement on the ending until we've read it.

    xoox always. -SP

  3. If it isn't obvious, I'm Team Grimm...oh yes...definitely. Or maybe even Team Poe on occasion.

    Interesting analysis. A couple of things really struck me. 1. The idea of reading about reality versus escaping it. And then 2. The concept of the "journey".

    For me, I fall under both categories for 1. depending on my mood or just the story itself. But for 2. I'm purely "the journey" type of girl. In fact, on occasion, I'll stop reading a fic right before the final chapter simply because I've gotten what I wanted out of it and don't want to spoil my internal predictions and imagination with the "real" ending. BTW, 99% of the time, I don't read epi's at all.

    Your post makes me wonder what your responses would look like statistically (fine, geek me away). I question if opinions would vary by age or better said, life experiences. Humph.

    Well done and good advice for both authors and readers. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I think there are some really valid points here. I think, as an author, that it's really tough to remember you can't always please your whole audience. You want to wrap things up well enough that you don't get pm's every day begging you to write a sequel to a fic you feel had a concrete ending, BUT you also don't want to write a cheesy epilogue that sells your story short. I guess we should take it as a compliment that readers want every little detail and read fanfic to get a little break from reality. I think HMonster4 and Giselle_lx's advice is great- be true to your characters, give a little hint of overall happiness, and hope your audience trusts you!

    From a reader's standpoint- I think the major gripe comes in when you're thrown a curve ball at the end and someone dies or jumps ship and you're just left with this devastated emotion. I don't necessarily need the Disney ending, but I can't bear to read a fic where a main character dies or ends up with a non-canon pairing. Can't do it. I've been burned there before, and I at least want some assurance that E/B end up together and aren't in a truly disgusting relationship by the end.

    Great essay!

  5. Looks like I was wearing my ranting hat that day! *blush*

    Seriously, though, I am happy to be included in this article, because the joy of being a reader is taking the journey with the characters. There needs to be resolution, but all resolutions are happy. That's just life.

    Thanks for writing this very relevant essay.

  6. OOooohh! Thank you!!

    It never fails to astonish me how many readers seemingly want to keep reading the same basic story over and over! Not to mention their demands and reviews that a fic OUGHT to be a certain way!

    I guess the answer is: write your own!

    (I have to admit that my favorite received review is "that was mean and fucked up" - I never made any secret of my prefered ship, can't think what she was expecting!)

  7. I've been reading fanfic for about ten years, and have ploughed through maybe forty or so different fandoms. The sheer size of the Twilight fandom makes it impossible to say anything too assertive about it, but I'm fairly certain I would have clocked several tens of millions of words in Twifics by this point.

    The one thing that has always struck me about the Twilight fandom, more so than any other fandom I've ever read in, is the fact that the overwhelming majority of stories here are quite definitively HEA stories. There seems to be a real distaste amongst both readers and writers alike for endings that range from the dark and tragic, through to more grey areas. The other rather striking aspect of the Twilight fandom is the very conservative pairings that feature in stories. While most of the fandoms I've read in have a central pairing that reflects the dominant pairing of the canon text, there is often quite a substantial body of fics that feature alternative pairings. That's not to say there aren't alternative pairing stories in Twilight fanfic, but they seem to occupy a proportionally much smaller space than alternative pairing fics in other fandoms. Just compare the two largest English language mainstream media fandoms (to my knowledge) on Harry Potter and Twilight. If you look at the variety of pairings and of subject matter that appears in HP stories, versus the really strong trend towards E/B romance/dramas here in the Twilight camp you get an idea of what I'm trying to illustrate. Obviously, the intent and direction of the canon texts definitely influences this, and maybe the very nature and subject matter of the Twilight series tends to draw a particular kind of reader and/or writer.

    There is nothing inherently bad in having HEA, or traditional pairings, and many beautifully written, amazing fics have been written around these. But, I would love to see some more variety and adventurousness around this fandom. For all the writers who have plot bunnies bouncing around that deviate from the norm, I think there are more people than you might expect who would love to read your stories! For readers, like myself, I think it would be great to see exploration into more genres and different plot sturctures.

    For me, the great value of reading is to immerse myself in another world or another life- something that allows me to experience things that I wouldn't otherwise be able to within the narrow confines of my own life. I want to learn new things and new ways of thinking about the world I live in!

  8. I love reading epilogues for some stories, and others are like "BLEH." The Best Man was just amazing. The epilogue for that one was beautiful.

    I'm Team Grimm all the way. I find I never remember HEAs. I love bittersweet endings. And I rage when I read a sad ending, but in the long run, sad stories always become my favorite ones.

  9. This was such a well-written piece on a topic that I constantly discuss. My personal choices vary on a day to day basis it sometimes seems, going from "Please God let them not end up together because I will vomit from sweetness" all the way to "Please God tell me they didn't just break up for real! They're getting back together, right? RIGHT?!"

    A perfect example of this is Wide Awake. I loved the lack of convention, the very real possibility that they might not make it. Until it seemed very likely that weren't going to make it, and then I read like a demon, desperate to see them end up happy.

    The only thing I can say specifically about HEA is author's use of that knowledge. I NEVER want to know what's going to happen ahead of time. EVER. For me, the journey is the joy, and the ending, (whatever it may be), is the icing on the cake.

    Thanks for this wonderful post!

  10. Loved your post...

    Its an interesting situation. For me personally, I like HEA...whether its tied up in a neat bow or left to the imagination...i prefer a happy heart over a broken one when the story is over.

    Thats not to say I haven't appreciate or even loved tragedies before...whether classic and in another cases fanfics. But I do know i follow up the story with a feel good ending story.

    I understand that its a conflict for authors because I'm less likely to read a story if I know it's not HEA yet being told its HEA takes away suspense and the overall reading experience.

    I just read a novel that I thought was going to have a sad ending but surprised me with a went along with the storyline perfectly and I was so happy I wasnt given the impression that things would end favorably. In fact, you're given the impression that things end sad and lonely. I kept reading because the story was good and I was invested in the characters. I'm not revealing the novel because I don't want to spoil a story for anyone.

    This also happened in a fanfic I just finished. I was told the ending was sad and I read the epi first as a one shot. I was going to give myself a month before I went back to read the story with the idea that the epi was separate. However, when reading the story, I could see this as a proper ending to this version of E & B. I would have liked HEA very much because the characters were so rich but I at least understood this direction. It made me sad and I picked up something fluffy to cheer me up afterwards LOL.

    So I suppose all this analysis means authors should just stay true to their vision...their story that spoke to them. And as readers, we take a risk and decide whether or not to invest in the characters & the story not knowing if we'll get a HEA and not insisting we're told.

    Meyer didnt tell us her plans :)


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