Writing a Series

This week we have a guest post from Beth Overmyer, author of The Goblets Immortal, mentioned in our last episode.  The sequel to Goblets hits the stands on February 16.  It’s thus a timely moment to take a look at the special complications of writing a series.

Take it away, Beth!

Writing a Series — Beth Overmyer

There are many things to take into consideration when writing a series. Will it be two books (a duology)?  Or maybe it’s going to be a serial, books that pick up right after one another and could be slapped together as a single volume (The Lord of the Rings, anyone?)  How do I keep track of all my information?  Where do I even get started?

Let’s start at the end . . . of the first two books in a trilogy, that is.

Endings

The Goblets Immortal, coverSome writers advocate that it’s important to know where your book/series is headed.  If you aim at nothing, they reason, that’s what you’ll get.  Knowing the ending of the series before you pen page one of book one can be helpful and gives you something to reach toward.  When I was writing The Goblets Immortal books, however, I had only a distant idea of what I was aiming toward.  Not necessarily a clear target, but an emotional note I wanted to end on.

There are different types of endings, and each book in the series might have a different one.  Book one might be a HEA (happily ever after) or a HFN (happy for now), while book two might be a cliffhanger, and the final book might end in a tragedy.  I don’t necessarily recommend this path, however.  Despite liking surprises, readers also tend to want consistency from the author.

And I don’t recommend making every book a cliffhanger.  A lot of readers don’t like them.  A cliffhanger, of course, leaves the characters in a crisis.  The reader might be frustrated that they have to wait a whole year (or more!) to find out what’s going to happen next.  Also remember your genre’s expectations.  Fantasy endings can vary, but a romance or F&SF romance needs a HEA or a HFN.

Let’s take a look at the endings of one series’ first and second installments.

Star Wars, Episode IV:  A New Hope

The end of the story sees the episode’s main conflict resolved (the Death Star is blown up), but there are enough loose ends (Vader’s alive, the Emperor’s out there, Imperial Troops abound) left to keep things open for future installments.  Yet this movie could very much be a standalone.  Many Book Ones wrap things up to a greater degree than Book Two.

Star Wars, Episode V:  The Empire Strikes Back

The near-end offers up a few surprises, but the very end (Han is spirited away on a bounty hunter’s ship) sets up the opening conflict for the next movie.  This movie is less of a standalone, but it could be watched and understood without watching the first movie.

Series Bible

“But how do I keep track of all my information?” I hear you ask.  A very good question.  One simple way to solve this:  reread the first book/s in your series before you write the next installment.  Not only will this give you a refresher course on the details of the story, it will put you back in that world and remind you of the voice you’re writing in.

Series bible for The Goblets ImmortalAnother way to keep track of information is to make a series bible.

It’s impossible to keep every detail about every character (appearance, personality, catchphrases, etc.), location, event, and timeline in your head . . . especially if you’re a pantser or plantser and haven’t written all the details out.  Once book one’s been written, it might be a good idea to put together what is known as a series bible.  In fact, it might be better to develop one as you go along.

A series bible is a document full of details from the books in a series. When you have a question about a character’s appearance, flip back to their page and look it up. Forget the name of a town? Flip back to the locations section of your bible.

When I started writing book two in The Goblets Immortal series, I already had notes on each Goblet Immortal, what that Goblet did, where it originated, where it was at the end of book one, and other important details.  I also had a few character notes.

Getting Started

We’ve looked at endings and keeping track of details.  But how does a writer even get started with a series?

Let me start by giving you permission:  you are allowed to write out of order.  If you have an idea for a scene later down the road, jot down notes or go right ahead and write.  You can always revise it Holes in the Veil, coverto fit your opening better later on.

As with writing any other book, follow your preferred method.  Are you a plotter?  Write an outline for book one, and jot down notes for the books that will follow.  Are you a pantser?  Roll up your sleeves and dig in.  Plantser (a mix of a plotter and a pantser)—jot down some notes and get started writing.

The best thing to do, besides getting some experience under your belt, is to read and study other series.  What did you like about your favorite trilogy?  What made you stop reading your least favorite one?  Don’t make their mistakes, but emulate their triumphs—without outright copying, that is.

Another word of advice: keep a running list of questions that need to be answered in later books.  If a missing magical knife is mentioned in book one but is not referenced again in book two, remind your audience of it before its grand appearance in book three.  I have a document titled “Loose Ends,” and I highlight things in green once I’ve taken care of them.  Things I’ve mostly taken care of, I highlight in yellow.  Things that I’ve decided to let go of, I cross out.

Conclusion

So, there you have it. There are some good resources out there on series writing, though not as many as you would think. For your reading pleasure, might I suggest trying:  How to Write A Series:  A Guide to Series Types and Structure plus Troubleshooting Tips and Marketing Tactics (Genre Fiction How To Book 2) by Sara Roset, and Writing the Fiction Series:  The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas by Karen S. Wiesner.

Thanks, Rick, for hosting me!

Keep your nose in a book and your pen on the page,
Beth Overmyer
Beth’s Web Site

Tangled in Sequels

So, okay, I gave in and signed up for Disney+.  It’s not as if I needed the streaming service to see the Disney fairy tales, or Star Wars, or the Marvel movies; I have those on disc.  But there were these other things.  First, I wanted to see the Hamilton movie (just as impressive as it’s cracked up to be).  Then, since I was already subscribed for a month, I figured I’d check out The Mandalorian, if only to keep up my geek cred—it had taken me a while just to figure out where all the “Baby Yoda” memes were coming from.

By the end of the first month, I’d scanned the offerings and marked down a bunch of other things that I’d sort of wanted to see, or that I hadn’t known about but looked interesting, and now could get without paying more than I already was.  And I was off and streaming . . .

One of the unanticipated things I turned up was a set of ancillary videos related to the 2010 fairy-tale adaptation Tangled, Disney’s version of the Rapunzel story.  And thereby hangs a blog post.

A Tangle of Sequels

I’ve always been fond of the Tangled movie.  But the continuing story also turned out to be remarkably good.  As a rule, sequels to Disney princess movies tend to be humdrum affairs dashed off to exploit the movie’s popularity—though I must admit that I say this without having seen very many of them; ventures like The Little Mermaid II or Cinderella II:  Dreams Come True never seemed to deserve even a look.  (Frozen II is a decided exception.)

But the Tangled folks managed to pull off some impressive work in the follow-up media.  To discuss it in detail, of course, I’m going to have to deploy detailed spoilers.

Spoiler Alert!

In 2012 Disney released a six-minute cartoon, Tangled Ever After, which is basically a comic bit about the exploits of the animal characters during the wedding of Rapunzel and her romantic interest, Eugene Fitzherbert (who previously used the name of legendary rogue-hero “Flynn Rider”).  Nothing of interest there.

Rapunzel and the black rocks

However, in 2017 the Disney Channel debuted a 55-minute short film, Tangled:  Before Ever After.  As the title indicates, this story takes place before the wedding sequence.  The day before Rapunzel’s coronation, her lady-in-waiting, a tough-minded and capable girl named Cassandra, helps her sneak out beyond the kingdom’s walls to get away from the stress and chaos of the preparations.  At the site of the magic flower that originally gave Rapunzel’s hair its healing powers, they find a stand of mysterious pointed black rocks.  When Rapunzel touches one, more rocks suddenly sprout from the ground, forcing them to flee.  But Rapunzel’s hair, which was cut short and returned to its natural brown in the original movie, suddenly turns blonde again and reverts to its 70-foot tower length.

This business with the black rocks is the story’s “One Ring,” the MacGuffin that links the old story to the new and provides the plot driver going forward.  It isn’t explained or resolved in Before Ever After, but serves as the hook for the three-season TV series (2016-2020) that followed.  The series was initially labeled “Tangled:  The Series,” but in its second season was rechristened Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure.  Season 1 follows Rapunzel’s experiences in her parents’ kingdom; Seasons 2 and 3 take her and her companions on the road on a long-running quest.  Wikipedia has a handy list of the episodes.

Rapunzel's Tangled Adventures, opening graphic

The series is where most of the plot and character development occurs.  It concluded in March 2020.  At this point it’s pretty clear that no further follow-ons are necessary, though one can’t rule out the possibility (“never say never again”).  There’s also a stage musical (a version of the movie) and a video game, which I haven’t seen and assume are not in the continuity.  Wikipedia’s convenient overall reference for the Tangled franchise is here.

Opening Out the Ever After

The first challenge in making a sequel to a fairy-tale movie is what to do about the ending.  Traditionally, these stories end in a romantic happily-ever-after.  If the main characters marry at the end (or immediately afterward), we’ve resolved the romantic tension.  In addition, it may be hard to reconcile the vague vision of enduring happiness with the kinds of perilous adventures that would give life to a sequel.

The “before ever after” notion is thus productive.  The characters can have further adventures even before their happiness is, as it were, sealed.  We can stave off the fairy-tale ending, without subverting it entirely.  To ruin the romance would be opprobrious, diminishing the appeal of the original story; but there’s no reason it has to come to fruition (presumably in a wedding) at once.

It’s particularly easy to take advantage of this idea if the couple hasn’t actually become engaged in the original story (even though the audience knows perfectly well that’s going to happen).  Some reduced degree of romantic tension remains if the character still has to work up the nerve to propose, though the issue becomes more comical than dramatic.  (A similar tactic was used in Frozen II.)

Eugene proposes to Rapunzel

Thus, Eugene proposes to Rapunzel several times in the course of the sequels.  She doesn’t accept at once.  She wants to marry Eugene, but she isn’t quite ready yet.  This brings out the familiar “moral” that a girl’s future is not solely bound up in marriage.  It also makes psychological sense—and this is one of the ways in which the Tangled sequels intelligently carry forward the original storyline.  As other characters point out, Rapunzel has spent almost all her life locked up in a tower, never meeting another human being but her “mother” captor.  It seems hardly appropriate to expect her immediately to enter into a marriage.

Of course, Rapunzel could marry and still have adventures.  The story thus plays around with the notion that “happily ever after” means the end of adventures and of our interest in the characters—a notion I’ve criticized elsewhere.  It both dodges, and runs into, that trap.

The World and the Plot

Varian, alchemist with goggles
Varian

 

Since the continuing story takes Rapunzel into new territory, both within and later beyond the Kingdom of Corona (which turned out to be a somewhat infelicitous name for this year, however appropriate for a princess), it was also necessary to expand the world.  The writers carry out this worldbuilding exercise with enough novelty to earn some credit.  For example, one of the new secondary characters is a young alchemist named Varian.  Although his alchemy is technically magic, he firmly takes the position that it’s science, not fantasy.  He thus adds a sort of steampunk vibe to the whole business.

Picture of Adira
Adira

 

The second season of the series introduces a secret society of crack warriors who are in some way protecting or defending the source of the black rocks.  An enigmatic woman named Adira provides them with clues, along with ominous nonspecific warnings, and occasionally ends up sparring with the suspicious Cassandra.  She and other members of the “Brotherhood of the Dark Kingdom” sometimes end up opposing or challenging the main characters, though they are basically on the same side.  This secret society’s stance is reminiscent of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The most striking element of the plot is the long-running plot arc, which begins with the black-rock episode in Before Ever After and isn’t completed until the final episode of the series.  The black rocks are tied in with the “sundrop flower” that originally gave Rapunzel her powers, so they link back neatly into the original movie.  Keeping such an über-plot going over sixty episodes is a challenge, and the writers lay in enough complications and reversals to make it work.

This long-term development isn’t perfectly uniform.  There are one-off episodes sandwiched in, often with throwaway plots (Max the noble steed is threatened by a competing evil horse!  The queen’s annoying sister shows up for a visit!).  Nor do the “side quest” episodes always make sense.  In one show (Season 2 Episode 6), Rapunzel and Eugene decide to go off on a “date” while the group is encamped on the road in the middle of nowhere.  (Butterbur in The Lord of the Rings:  “Well, you do want looking after and no mistake:  your party might be on a holiday!”)  At the same time, these one-offs do sometimes have a point.  The “date” introduces some characters who eventually turn out to be crucial to the plot.  For another example, in a primarily silly episode (S2 E18) which turns most of the characters into toddlers, we get a fairly interesting lecture on parenting styles, courtesy of Rapunzel and Eugene.

The metaphysics, the “theory of magic,” is somewhat murky.  Rapunzel’s “sundrop” and the “Moonstone” source of the black rocks have a sort of yin-yang relationship, but the Moonstone power is sometimes presented as evil, and sometimes as merely complementary.  Rapunzel’s long hair, as restored in Before Ever After, has lost its power to heal, but has now arbitrarily become invulnerable—uncuttable—just like the black rocks.  The conclusion of the story does make some degree of sense, though, so this particular worldbuilding weakness isn’t fatal.

Captain Quaid and citizens in Vardaros
Captain Quaid’s return

 

The story is willing to deal with serious issues.  For example, the story introduces some genuine moral dilemmas, as when Rapunzel has to break a promise to Varian in S1 E16, which leads to no end of trouble for everyone.  Some cogent sociopolitical points are raised, unlikely though that seems in a cartoon, in the second and third episodes of Season 2.  Rapunzel and her followers want to reform the city of Vardaros, whose citizens have collapsed into a state of mutual distrust and predation.  Rapunzel’s effort to use sheer niceness to show the inhabitants a better way doesn’t work:  the locals don’t trust these strangers.  Instead, Rapunzel and company have to convince the former “sheriff” everyone trusted to come back out of retirement and lead the reform.  The success of this strategy is still a bit cut-and-dried, but for two 24-minute episodes, it’s handled pretty well.

Other character developments can also be surprisingly sophisticated.  The scheming girl Eugene was supposed to marry ends up being reformed—but she still steals the party’s money; she doesn’t suddenly become sweetness and light.  An entire episode (S1 E2) is devoted to showing that, even though Rapunzel is so adorable that everyone loves her, there’s one old guy in Corona who doesn’t—and he’s a good guy, respected by everyone, kind and helpful; he just doesn’t especially care for Rapunzel.  And the moral of this story is that you don’t have to make everyone like you—a good thing for a young viewer (or even an older one) to recognize.

The sequels are thoroughly genre-savvy—a good platform for ringing new changes on the stock fairy-tale conventions.  In S2 E 23, the characters are threatened by “…lethal, inescapable traps.”  An array of nasty spikes springs up—and immediately crumble into ruin.  “They’re old,” one character remarks, pinpointing one of the silly aspects of Indiana Jones-type adventures where centuries-old mechanical devices work perfectly without deterioration.  And at the end of the second season, the characters walk into a whole series of classic Star Wars and Lord of the Rings tropes in succession—surely on purpose.

Carrying On the Characters:  Rapunzel

The most interesting aspect of the Tangled sequels is the treatment of Rapunzel herself.

Rapunzel’s role in the movie is that of a “fish out of water” character—the naïve newcomer to the world, to whom everything is new and fascinating.  That’s one of the things I like about the movie.  Another is that she faces this brave new world outside the tower with kindness and wonder, though not without a sensible caution that’s sometimes deployed against the wrong targets, for comic effect.  It isn’t by accident that Eugene calls her “Sunshine.”

Although she has to deal with progressively more fearsome and even heartbreaking problems as the series goes on, Rapunzel doesn’t lose that essential innocence.  Yet, imperceptibly—and that’s the artistry—through the second and third seasons, she develops into the genuine leader of the group.  She becomes capable of making difficult decisions.  She isn’t intimidated by threats.  When she has to take over governance of the kingdom, she falters at first, but later on becomes perfectly capable of running things without her parents.  The changes are highlighted in the “dream trap” episode, S2 E19, where the matured Rapunzel speaks with her earlier self.

Rapunzel on horseback, brandishing hair

She even becomes a capable fighter in her own right.  Rapunzel uses her long, indestructible hair like Indiana Jones’ whip, as both a weapon and a tool.  Of course, this is cartoon physics.  This slender girl hurls around what’s essentially a 70-foot rope without any issues of strength or leverage; it catches onto things and releases them just as she wishes, like Indy’s whip.  The hair only gets in her way, or is used against her, when the plot requires it.  It never frizzes or becomes unruly (fortunately for everyone nearby).  Nonetheless, her trademark feature, which seems a romantic beauty mark at first glance, transforms her into a melee fighter, who can hold her own in a scrap.

While Rapunzel is no longer a magical healer, she does gain the ability to use ‘sundrop power’ over time.  This power is erratic and not dependable, but it does rise to cosmic levels at the point where she can blow up an entire landscape at the end of Season 2.  TV Tropes rightly cites her under the Films–Animation section of Badass Adorable.

The really remarkable thing about this maturing process is that Rapunzel is not altered out of recognition.  She retains that essential sweetness of character that made her so likable in the movie.  To depict a character who is both powerful and “nice” is difficult, and rare.  When we have a chance to see the character visibly grow into that maturity, with both continuity and change, the writers’ achievement is noteworthy.

Carrying On the Characters:  Others

Not all the other characters fare as well.

Romantic interest Eugene, in the sequels, gets somewhat dumbed down or, in TV Tropes’ term, “Flanderized”:  turned into a caricature of himself.  His vanity, a nicely balanced flaw in the movie, becomes tiresome when played out in every episode.  His capability is uneven:  sometimes he’s clever, sometimes clueless; sometimes he’s a formidable fighter, sometimes ineffective—as the plot may require.  This is a classic problem in a continuing series, where different writers may produce inconsistent characterization.

Rapunzel’s parents, also, are not too well managed.  In the movie, they’re merely props:  the welcoming family to which Rapunzel can finally return at the end.  In the series, we’re told that her mother, Queen Arianna, was once a sort of adventurer herself—but we see little of that.  Her father, King Frederic (what a promising name!), tends to play the overbearing, irrationally restrictive father, generally as an obstacle to Rapunzel’s self-assertion.  The two of them tend to fade out almost entirely toward the end of the series to give Rapunzel sole center stage.

Cassandra
Cassandra

 

The great prize among the new characters is Cassandra.  Her edgy but loyal personality makes her a perfect foil for the sunny Rapunzel.  That same sardonic cynicism makes it plausible when she veers from the path of righteousness and aligns herself with the enemies at the end of Season 2, a development that is carefully shaped over much of that season.  In particular, she highlights an aspect of hero-stories that doesn’t get much attention.  What happens if you’re not the Chosen One?  If the whole motion of the plot is toward Rapunzel’s destiny, how does the henchperson feel whose role is simply to support the main character?  Doesn’t she have a destiny too?

The series as a whole shows a certain bias toward what we might call the “Arthas Effect,” a plot staple in the World of Warcraft game:  an initially good character becomes corrupted and turns into a major villain.  The two most prominent secondary characters, Cassandra and Varian, are both subject to this kind of transformation at different times.  The basically positive tone of the Tangled story is borne out by the fact that each eventually repents and returns to the side of good.  But the “turn to the Dark Side” motif helps keep the tale from becoming too optimistic or Pollyanna-ish.

The Romance

The Tangled sequels honor the original movie’s romance.  We see from the very beginning that Rapunzel and Eugene do get married eventually.  But that aspect is sidelined in such a way that the impetus of the romantic interest is largely lost.

During the entire first season, Rapunzel and Eugene hang around the castle, waiting for—what?  We noted above that Rapunzel puts off the wedding, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But her reasons remain rather vague, and we don’t see much of the longing or attraction I’d expect from a couple of young people who are very much in love.  It’s as if the writers every now and then remember that there’s supposed to be a love affair going on, but mostly take that to be understood.

The diverging development of the two characters also creates a somewhat unsatisfying disparity.  While Rapunzel develops in power, competence, and maturity, Eugene has no comparable character arc.  As a result, by the end we may ask ourselves whether he’s really sufficient for her.  The lovers are “unevenly matched,” a problem I’ve noted before.

Rapunzel with Eugene and Cassandra

Conclusion

The key theme of the extended Tangled story, as I see it, is that power and innocence are compatible.  You can be a consummately nice, caring, pretty, cheerful sort—and still have the determination, endurance, capability, and courage to fight what needs fighting.

Rapunzel is not the only example of such a seemingly-paradoxical character.  But the writers were able to take advantage of the extended development of the TV series to showcase in detail how a person can grow to take on that mantle.  It’s something we always need to see more of.

Happily Ever After

Six weeks ago I complained about the lack of happily-ever-after romances in the Star Wars series.  It occurred to me that it would be useful to take a look at what exactly makes for a “happy ever after” ending (“HEA” in genre romance code).  What do we really mean by that, anyway?

The Thrill of the Chase

All the world loves a lover.”  We enjoy seeing stories about people falling in love, whether it’s with someone they’ve just met or by discovering someone who was always “right before my eyes.”  (Unless, of course, we’re too cynical to give any credence to so vulgar and sentimental an idea; in which case it’s the trope we love to hate.)  I’d call it the courtship phase of a relationship, if that term weren’t so archaic.  But “courtship” does express in a useful way the stage I’m referring to, when the lovers-to-be are maneuvering around each other, trying to figure each other out, and (almost invariably, in fiction) overcoming initial obstacles to their mutual attraction.

Couple silhouetted against sunset

“Forever Mine” by welshdragon at DeviantArt

It’s not hard to see why this is.  The courtship phase includes a lot of fun stuff.  We get to see the thrill of discovery, the novelty, the tentative reaching-out and missing connections, the achievement of initially establishing a base of trust and affection.  There’s uncertainty and thus suspense in those first contacts.  The process reminds me of the “handshaking” by which communications systems establish a protocol for exchange of information (anybody remember that windy ‘modem connecting’ sound on a dial-up connection?).

And this process is both tricky and essential.  The relationship can’t move forward until the common foundation is established.  I’ve quoted Lois McMaster Bujold before:

The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one’s work!) is not “Do these two people get together?” but rather “Can I trust you?”  Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.  (Response to a reader question on Goodreads (10/30/2017).)

And the relationship does have to move forward.  Courtship is only a prelude.  It inherently looks forward to something else:  a life together.  (Even to “forever,” but that’s another subject.)  We feel something is missing in a case like that of Romeo and Juliet, where circumstances cheat the lovers of that opportunity.

Falling in love is fun to watch.  But if that’s all a character is interested in, we get the self-centered thrill addict who keeps wanting to have the same experience over and over again—as if they wanted to relive high school graduation repeatedly, Groundhog Day-style.  We can’t fall in love indefinitely; eventually we have to land somewhere.  Whether the story ends with a wedding or just a commitment, there has to be a conclusion.

Yet the conclusion itself is only the kickoff for the real relationship—the HEA.  “Each happy ending’s a brand new beginning.”

What It Isn’t

“Happily ever after” doesn’t mean the initial thrill of falling in love lasts forever.  That simply isn’t possible; human emotions can’t remain at that fever pitch.  At some point, the “dizzy dancing way you feel” is going to ebb.  If we expect to feel the same way always, as I’ve just noted, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and unnecessary disillusion.  On the other hand, that thrill can always reappear from time to time.  Wise couples will take steps to encourage and renew that early glamour throughout their marriage.

Couple dancing, from Dancing in the Minefields music videoNor does HEA mean freedom from all troubles.  We can put this aside momentarily to celebrate a wedding, visualizing only a life of unimpeded bliss; but real lives invariably encounter problems and difficulties.  We may even want to remind ourselves of this on the occasion of union itself.  When I ran across Emily Hearn’s wedding video online, I was struck by the fact that the first piece of music set to the video was Andrew Peterson’s “Dancing in the Minefields”:  “And it was harder than we dreamed / But I believe that’s what the promise is for.”

Even the vision of a couple facing adversity staunchly side by side isn’t always going to be valid.  We’re told that even healthy couples have their arguments and disagreements.  Indeed, a couple that never disagrees may be harboring unresolved issues under the surface.

It seems to me that all these flaws or troubles can still be accommodated in the “happily ever after” archetype.  Couples can recover from adversity; it can make them stronger.  Even crises in a lifelong love affair can be healed or overcome.  It’s the overall trend or direction, and the overall tenor of the romance, that leads us to call it “happy.”  Of course, when we wish someone happiness forever, we hope that their troubles will be relatively few and their recoveries maximally joyous.  But a life together need not be perfect to be “happy.”

What It Is

If the ever-after need not be perpetual bliss to count as HEA, what is it made up of?  I am hardly so wise as to prescribe sure-fire ingredients for a happy marriage.  But if we think about what we’d expect to see in a story that depicted a happy couple, we can point to a few things.

Carly Simon singing The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of at Martha's Vineyard

Carly Simon sings “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of”

If it’s going to compete with the initial falling in love, being in love has to gain in depth and resonance what it loses in surface intensity and thrill.  It’s “the slow and steady fire.”

What can a couple that’s been together a while do that lovers who’ve just met can’t?  Consider the cumulative pleasures and joys of two people who know each other well and have learned how to please and help each other.  If they continue faithful to each other and to their union, their mutual trust will grow and deepen.  And the more they trust each other, the more each can express their individual strengths (and admit their individual weaknesses).

Since loving someone doesn’t consist only in having a feeling about them, but in enacting love for them, we can learn to love someone better through experience and attentive learning.  I may start by giving you a gift I would like—but eventually I learn how to give you the gift you would like.  Meanwhile, the sharing of memories and experiences, families, running jokes, can enrich and strengthen the bond.

All these things are compatible with the imperfections and difficulties noted above.  They make up what we’d expect to see, down the road, in a story that goes beyond the courtship—a happy-ever-after.

How We Tell the Story

Because the HEA lacks the surface glitter of the falling-in-love story, we see far fewer stories depicting it.  But for purposes of example and illumination, it’s very useful to see depictions of ongoing marriages.

Such mature romances can crop up in odd places.  For example, in a series that goes on beyond the resolution of initial relationships, or perhaps longer than the author expected, we may see the original lovers ‘age out’ of the focus, but still have the chance to watch them practice the art of love.

Shards of Honor coverExhibit A is Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga.  The first two books in the main sequence, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, deal with Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith, whose son, Miles, is the principal character in most of the stories.  So we see Cordelia and Aral fall in love—but then we see them continue through a whole series of other tales as both parents and political prime movers on Miles’ homeworld of Barrayar.  We get to see them working together in common causes, both personal and cosmic.  We see their continuing affection and evident harmony.  Each is so distinctive a personality that we never think of either Aral or Cordelia as merely an extension of the other; rather, they provide an ongoing example of the kind of relationship we wanted to see in their initial stories—and to which Miles aspires for himself, having that example always before him.

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern give us another example.  In the first book (as published, not chronologically), Dragonflight, we see the rocky road of the strong-willed main characters, Lessa and F’lar, to love.  Both of them are so stubborn and willful that it’s hard to picture them in a peaceful marriage.  And indeed, on Pern, nothing is ever entirely peaceful for long.  But as more couples come and go through the long series of sequels, F’lar and Lessa remain onstage a good bit of the time.  Neither is ever tamed, though they both mellow a bit.  The scrappy young Lessa becomes a little steadier and more mature as she gets older and has a child, but she still retains the original fire.

I frequently refer to the classic Lensman series, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that the final novel, Children of the Lens, shows us the lovers whose activities dominated the three middle books, Kim Kinnison and Clarissa MacDougall, as middle-aged parents a generation later.  The story is so action-oriented that we don’t get to see much of the family in peace, but what we do see gives us the satisfaction of knowing that Kim and Cris have lived a happy life together (and will continue to do so).  And since the surclimax (if I may invent a word for a secondary climax occurring after the main one) involves Clarissa’s use of the power of their mutual love to retrieve Kim from an otherwise unsolvable trap, it’s clear that the romantic connection consummated at the wedding in the previous volume (twenty years earlier) has not lost its fire.

Second Spring coverAndrew Greeley wrote a whole series of novels in which the romance is generally about falling in love.  But in his O’Malley family saga, in which the titles all refer to seasons (of life), he continues the story of one such couple from the post-WWII era right through their “Golden Years.”  The young lovers of A Midwinter’s Tale have to grapple with some pretty serious psychological issues themselves, as well as family drama, over the course of years.  But the “crazy O’Malleys” emerge stronger from their troubles as they go on, giving us a picture of people who are always becoming more themselves as they adjust to changing circumstances.

God is an Englishman coverThere is a subgenre of family sagas—the kinds of long-running, multicharacter stories that always make me think of TV mini-series—and some of these also give us extended looks at maturing romances.  In some such stories, the conflicts arise from the dysfunctionality of the family itself; Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna novels are a case in point.  But in others, we can see a couple holding strong.  I recently reread R.F. Delderfield’s God Is An Englishman, the first book of his “Swann saga.”  His central couple, Adam and Henrietta, grow in significant ways over the course of the story.  Their love waxes and wanes, but after it wanes, it always comes back.  I’d count that as a HEA.

The novella I’m just finishing up, Time Signature, takes place in the Deerbourne Inn common setting created by the Wild Rose Press.  This gave me the chance to show how a secondary couple who were engaged in Amber Daulton’s Lyrical Embrace was getting along, a little later.  While their appearance is brief, I enjoyed the opportunity to represent a growing post-courtship romance, even in its early years.

Real Life

For purposes of inspiration and example, of course it’s even more helpful to be acquainted with real-life successful relationships.  My parents, for instance, lived long and happy lives, and despite religious and political differences, they always remained in harmony.  Though they argued about many subjects, they never, so far as I know, quarreled.  While their lives could not be said to be untroubled (after all, I was one of their children), I’d say they qualified as a happy-ever-after.  I’m privileged to know a number of other couples whose romances have flourished over many years, on whom I’d be glad to bestow the accolade of HEA.

The accumulation of such real and fictional examples gives us the wherewithal to refute those who scoff at the happily-ever-after ending.  None of the characters of our favorite romances will have perfect later lives unmarred by any suffering or any down times in their love affairs.  But if we’re willing to accept that solid happiness can be consistent with life’s inevitable troubles, we can look forward with hope to a satisfactory ending for those couples who approach their lives with both realism and love.