Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Bell Curve of the HEA

The other day I was pondering why some books work better for me than others; why some books leave me dissatisfied at the end, even when they meet the genre conventions of the HEA.  Perhaps I'd had too much pizza but I came up with what I like to call "the bell curve of the HEA".  (*I'm aware that it's not actually a bell curve, but it is a curve and it sounds good so I'm keeping it.  Also, maths isn't my strong suit.  Go with me here.)

It isn't an absolute answer, but it does go toward explaining why some books don't work for me.

In most romance novels (perhaps this is true of other genres also but I'm sticking with what I know), the "happiness graph" might look something like this:

For my theory to make any sense at all be easily understood, let us take only three points: the start, the black moment and the HEA.  And, let us draw a curving line through those points to make a nice pretty picture which I am going to persist in calling a bell curve (even though I know it actually isn't.  I failed a parabola in school - I just drew random "U"s and hoped for the best.  But, I digress...)

In the example below, you will see that Point A (the beginning) is at a lower point than Point C (the HEA), thus the book is more likely to be satisfying to me because the character is better off at the end of the book than at the beginning.

For the above graph, I used Dare You To by Katie McGarry. Beth begins the book in a pretty shitty home life and at risk all the time due to her alcoholic mother's violent boyfriend.  She has a loving friendship with Isaiah but she isn't in love with him and Isaiah doesn't challenge her to do better, not the way Ryan does (once they  meet).  By the end of the book, *spoiler alert*  Beth has found a safe home, new friends, more self confidence and she has settled her relationship with Isaiah (this is bad for Isaiah but he's getting his own book and his HEA is coming) AND she has Ryan.   Or, take Ryan: at the start he is estranged from his brother, he has a difficult relationship with his father and he's conflicted about what he wants to do when he finishes high school  By the end of the book, he has reconciled with his brother, he has stood against his father and made his own decision about his future AND he has Beth.

In the next example, the reverse is true.  Notwithstanding that the guy has won the girl, objectively, he is worse off at the end than at the beginning and hence, even though genre conventions are met, Kaetrin is unhappy.  In True by Erin McCarthy (upon which the graph below is based), Tyler starts the book having nearly finished his EMT studies. Once he graduates, he will easily be able to find work and have a steady career with a reliable income, with which he will be able to help support his younger brothers.   By the end of the book, *spoiler alert*, Tyler has dropped out of college, with no chance of ever becoming an EMT as he now has a criminal record for drug offences (for which he was not actually guilty, just to rub salt into the wound) - no-one is going to let him anywhere near medications so bye-bye EMT career.  Rory's studies are going well and her career plans are still on the rise.  But Tyler's are in ruins.  He is no longer in school and is working a casual construction job (which isn't inherently a bad thing of course, but in this case, I argue, it is) and hanging around his girlfriend who is successful and who is going to leave him in her dust eventually.  By my lights, this makes Tyler worse off than he was at the start of the book.  This meant that even though Rory and Tyler ended up together, I was dissatisfied by the ending.   (*Rory's graph would look more like Beth's or Ryan's, but Tyler got a raw deal, in my opinion).

(Yes, I know they are both curves and they look quite similar except that one goes up more at the end.  I said I wasn't good at maths.)

There is more to a HEA than just the girl and the guy being together (or the guy and the guy or the girl and the girl etc, etc).  For a truly happy ending, the characters have also usually improved their lot in life in various other ways also - they have successfully completed their education, or have changed jobs for the better, they have become more financially secure, or they have found contentment in themselves, etc, etc, AS WELL AS getting the girl/guy.  (Sometimes, even though the couple ends up together, a reader will think that one character was such a jerk (I use that word in the gender-free sense) that the very fact of a HEA indicates that character is worse off than when the book started. But that's a different graph and I'm only drawing 3 today.)

If, for example, a character ends up homeless, penniless BUT happily coupled, that's not going to make me a happy camper.  The bell curve has to be higher at the end or I'm not going to be satisfied, no matter how much I like the main characters.

I should probably stop doing anything involving maths now... *whistles*


Phyl said...

My math brain must be much like yours. This made perfect sense. I love it!

Liz Mc2 said...

Oh, I love this.

I agree that the black moment has to be "lower" than the start, at least emotionally--otherwise, there's nothing at stake, the loss of the other person would be no big deal.

And I'm with you on the end. I don't necessarily need everything to be better (e.g. in terms of money, job, family relationships) but I need the protagonists to feel better about things, to know something about who they are. I like a romance where they help each other be their best selves, or better selves, where they free each other to be their real selves.

I read the spoilers for True's ending and it sounded like it would bug me too--because it didn't seem like he had a new sense of direction or anything really OK in his life besides her. Having someone totally depend on me to be the happiness in their life is not a fantasy I have or a recipe for a good lasting romance (maybe it's not the way the book is at all, but the descriptions made me wary). If one character gives up too much and the romance becomes their whole life, it's a warning bell to me. Maybe I'm just not an escapist enough reader.

Great post!

Tam said...

That makes good sense. I never thought of it that way. If I end up HOPING that one of the characters comes to their senses and gets the hell out of the relationship, not good. And I've read a few where I just thought there is no realistic way this can end well. I'm not sure where they started off hand, usually somewhere middling or lower and a loving relationship SHOULD make your life better, not be the thing that makes it worse. And worse, the whole "love is all you need" thing. Um. No. Food, shelter, Maslow's hierarchy of needs. (I was better at psychology than math. LOL)

Kaetrin said...

@Phyl - So pleased to meet another mathematically challenged person. :) We are not alone!

Kaetrin said...

@Liz Mc2 I think in a lighter hearted book perhaps the black moment need not be so black, but I haven't given it a lot of thought. My default is that it should be lower than everything else - especially in romances where there is a sacrifice for the MCs to be together and then they are not - well it makes all those sacrifices wasted unless they get their HEA, no?

I had mixed feelings about True. I liked it quite a bit up until the bit with Tyler being arrested. The injustice of his situation (while possibly accurate) hurt my romance loving heart. Him ending up with Rory who had everything going on, well it seemed to me it must be like lemon juice on a cut and I don't think that would bode well for a successful long term relationship.

In True, Rory, or "love" wasn't responsible for his downfall at least, that would have sucked donkey's balls. But I do feel that the characters need to be better off over all at the end than at the beginning.

Kaetrin said...

@Tam - Inorite? Love should make things better but it can't feed you or put a roof over your head. If the rest of the character's life sucks, then I'm questioning the HEA for sure! :)

azteclady said...

It makes lots of sense--and the differential between where they both start and where they end should be pretty significant for me to believe in the future happiness of the couple.

I don't have anything against "happy for now" endings myself, but I prefer it when, at the end of the story, I can believe these two have what it takes to handle whatever life throws at them and stay together through it.

Kaetrin said...

@AztecLady Hmmm. I haven't really thought how the HFN ending fits into the theory. But just giving a quick thought now, I think it still holds - there may be challenges ahead or all questions may not have been answered, but the pair (assuming there are only 2!) should be better off at the end than at the beginning.

Then if you have a continuing series, you might start from a place of happy, have challenges and another black moment, but end up at a slightly happier place than the beginning - or at least, the same level of happiness. If the happiness is lower at the end than the beginning, I think I'd be dissatisfied.

Merrian said...

I have to believe at the end of the story that not only have the overcome events but are more able to live a good life that has possibilities for more. Just being together at the end isn't enough that is too much like musical chairs and the last ones standing win. The seeds for a good life don't lie in that but in the possibilities that are open because they are together

Kaetrin said...

@Merrian - Yes! In True, Tyler was worse off in so many areas and I didn't see his relationship with Rory as providing him with any opportunities to really change that. He had a permanent criminal record for drug offences - they don't go away because of tru lurrve (TM).