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*