Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Plausible Path To Happily Ever After by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Plausible Path To Happily Ever After
 Jacqueline Lichtenberg 

A good part of the target readership for Romance (and all its sub-genres) just can not see the Happily Ever After endings that we favor as realistic.

We have discussed the "realistic" Happily Ever After previously:

But how does a writer craft a plot and a story that bring the reader to experience an HEA that the reader simply does not consider possible -- and perhaps does not consider desirable?

If the fiction lacks sufficient realism to be convincing, if it is too implausible even for a fantasy, or if it is a fantasy the readership scorns as unhealthy (which is how Science Fiction has been regarded), then the vital life lessons of Romance fiction will be lost.

Readers want to be convinced, but without giving up current beliefs.

Today, because of the condition of the world we live in, the Happily EVER After concept seems childish, and reading HEA style fiction seems mentally and emotionally unhealthy.  HFN, Happily For Now, seems far-fetched.

So there are several questions a writer has to answer for herself.  Most of the answers do not belong in the fiction being written -- but they must be woven into the worldbuilding behind the fiction, and then not mentioned.

These answers become the Characters' beliefs, the convictions the Characters won't change despite evidence to the contrary.

The HEA is the target that the "arrow" of the book must hit.

The most excited new fans of your work who will talk about it incessantly to their friends are the ones who "discover" the plausible, real-world, path to the HEA by reading your novel.

That won't happen if you set out to convince them that the HEA is real.  People don't read fiction to be "set straight" about their misconceptions.

A novel is not an argument with your readers.  It is, however, a "quest" -- a search, and a trail of breadcrumbs, clues about what questions to ask.

Fiction is not the mechanism to convey your answers to Life's Big Questions.

Fiction is the mechanism to pose Questions About Life.

Fiction questions reality.

As I've noted in previous entries here, writers write because they are bursting with something to say -- and writers write a specific genre because they have to say it to certain people.

That "bursting" point often comes when a new answer to an age-old question comes clear.  The writer has a new truth to impart to others.  But having a truth, and saying it, are not the same thing.

Novels are a conversation, often between a group of readers and a group of writers -- very much like a panel discussion at a Convention where writers answer questions from the audience and argue with the other writers while the audience is jumping up and down.

One signature trait of writers -- we all argue for a hobby.

But the trick to arguing is to direct your energies away from "winning" (e.g. changing the other person's mind to agree with yours) and toward posing questions that may (or may not) lead the other person to rethink their positions.  Of course, in the process, you might come to question your own position.  Thinking can be the most dangerous thing a human can do.

What if there really is no such thing as a Happily Ever After?

What if Happiness is not achievable? Remember: "What if..." is one of the key ingredients in science fiction, and this blog is about science fiction romance.

As noted previously in these entries, many times you can't change someone's mind on a subject because that someone did not ever make up his own mind.  Rather, people (having no energy to waste) adopt the opinions of others.  Once adopted, an opinion and whatever factoid is the excuse for holding the opinion, will lie unquestioned and unquestionable.

We discussed some of this here:

Where we cited research published in early 2017 confirming the psychological traits delineated by research in the early 1970's.

Speculation in Psychology is that human reasoning processes developed to facilitate the ability to "blend in" with the tribe or group, to keep domestic peace and direct energies toward fending off enemies, not fighting among ourselves.  Thus we adopt protective coloration of opinion -- and come to solemnly believe opinions that are not our own -- and come to resist to the death any "facts" that contradict the "opinion" that keeps our allies fighting for us, not against us.

This could be a good description of the old fashioned nuclear family.

I've said previously that family is rooted in privacy -- what happens in this house stays in this house.  The Family presents a united front to the community.  Don't air your dirty laundry in public.

See this article in the New Yorker Magazine:


The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

In a new book, “The Enigma of Reason” (Harvard), the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber take a stab at answering this question. Mercier, who works at a French research institute in Lyon, and Sperber, now based at the Central European University, in Budapest, point out that reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context.

Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.

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Read the whole article and ponder this perspective when considering the nearly panic stricken rejection of the Happily Ever After ending by such a broad spectrum of the general public.

The threat of Happiness is somehow alarming.

Applying this research to the question of why Happiness would be a threat, you can see that being the ONLY happy couple in a sea of abject misery would make you (and your children) a target of resentment, rejection, and eventually ejection from the Group.

The miserable, or Happy Only Temporarily (HFN or Happy For Now) couples might number among them a majority of jealous types who might think the Happy Couple is happy because of "things" (nice house, car, job) that couple has that others don't have.

Perhaps the Happy Couple would be seen as having happiness they don't deserve.

QUESTION: what can a human do to "deserve" happiness?

There's a Romance Plot in that question -- depict a Couple doing what it takes (regardless of personal cost) to earn Happiness and then actually getting what they think they earned.

Perhaps the majority of the miserable couples would believe the Happy Couple is happy because of what they own.  But, "You Didn't Build That" -- you  have success only by utilizing the hard, sweaty, miserable work of the vast majority who actually pay for the roads and bridges, electricity generating dams, and other infrastructure.  Therefore, what you earn is not yours but belongs to everyone.

QUESTION: Is the emotion of "happiness" a consequence of possessions?

There's a Romance plot in that.  The US Constitution is predicated on the idea that humans, by right of being human, are entitled to PURSUE Happiness, but not necessarily to attain it.  It's the theory of "equality of opportunity" but not "equality of outcome."  A great moral argument lies in that -- the sort that can make or break marriages.

Think again about that scientific research about human cognition.  It exists to allow us to blend in, to adopt others opinions and assumptions, to knuckle under, to avoid conflict with those we depend upon by never (ever) changing our minds.

To discard the opinion of the Group (because of a newly discovered fact) is literally suicidal -- unthinkable to a sane person.  There's too much at stake - spouse, kids, career, social standing, entre to higher circles.  Facts are nothing but false information.  True information reinforces alliances with the Group.

Hard facts, the "Cold Equations" of reality do not figure into beliefs, unless the one person ("Leader" maybe, or priest or pundit) who calls the tune actually takes hard facts into account.

QUESTION: Does being that "Leader" of thought guarantee Happiness, or Happily Ever After?

There's a Romance Plot in that: consider a Couple that first met inside a Cult (like, for example, the Manson Cult) and saw it was headed for suicide.  Suppose that Happy Couple managed to escape.  Would the Cult Leader who lost that Couple, and all of his followers, still be "Happy?"  Were they ever Happy?  Could the Couple reach a "Happily Ever After" by having escaped?  Can they find a community where almost all the Couples are "Happily Ever After" achievers?

There's the problem the modern Romance writer faces.  We are writing for a readership living alone, disconnected, among a vast sea of troubled and dysfunctional couples with children. Many readers are teens feeling trapped in a dysfunctional family, having never encountered a functional family.

There is a huge percentage of people who do not have experience of observing a family being functional.  They don't have a mental model of what functional families feel and sound like.  "Leave It To Beaver" and "The Brady Bunch" did a disservice in that functionality was depicted as a bit too "rosy."

The bliss promised at the wedding is never sustained through children, school, extracurricular carpooling, job layoffs, skyrocketing bills and decreasing income.

We discussed that at some length here:


And also in the context of the Wedding itself in Why Do We Cry At Weddings, which is two parts inside the larger Theme-Symbolism Integration series?



So again, think of that fully functional, Happily Ever After Family embedded in a community of miserable or broken families mired in dysfunctionality.

Do you, as a writer, have in your real life a "model" -- real life people -- who are currently living a Happily Ever After life?  Do you know a family where the elders are dying off after having lived a Happily Ever After (Norman Rockwell painting style) perfect life?  Do you know a family where the elders are dying off and the younger generation and its children are carrying on the tradition of the Happily Ever After perfect life?

Is that family living alone amidst a sea of miserable families and family-fragments?

Given that cognitive research cited above, I rather imagine that the only environment where you will find HAPPILY EVER AFTER families is one where the vast majority of families in the community are also living happily ever after.

Why would that be?

Birds of a feather flock together?  (OK, you all know how I just love cliche).

It's not enough (for humans -- Aliens is a different discussion) for one, single, lonely family to live "Happily Ever After."  Either they move away to join a happy community, or they create one around themselves -- or they make it to Happily For Now and no further.

That's right, real Romance fiction has to come in long series of long novels, like Gini Koch's ALIEN series.  Life is crafted one step at a time, and the more beautiful and happy the goal of those steps may be, the more fierce the opposition, just as Gini Koch has depicted.

Gini has her Characters at the stage of married with two children, and building a Family By Choice.  The married couple adopts, then fosters, then allies with other couples with children, until their community numbers in the dozens -- possibly hundreds.

If the goal of the Romance experience, (finding a love interest, cultivating a Relationship, maybe living with each other, planning a future) is to reach the Happily Ever After steady state of life, then the goal of Romance is Family.

Usually, the Romance novel ends at "I love you," or "Will you marry me?" or perhaps at the Wedding and all the relatives crying at the wedding, dancing the night away and eating chocolate cake with white frosting.

We get a glimpse of the potential future where nothing goes wrong.

Usually, the concept of children is just an abstraction, and the idea of raising children is pictured without screaming, feverish nights, teething, sibling rivalry, or one having to give up a career to follow the other to a better paying job.

Most young people looking for that first serious Romantic Encounter would not have in mind the image of such a strife-ridden Family, torn this way and that by finances and illness, sagging under the burdens of pregnancy and armfuls of infants when thinking of Happiness.

Young people don't regard a long life dotted with brief moments of contentment as Happily Ever After.

Our culture does not now provide an image of Happiness amidst challenges, adversity, or the long-long haul of endurance necessary to build something lasting -- a family dynasty that produces productive and industrious people who know how to be happy in circumstances that most people would view as inherently miserable.

As we looked at the singular Family that is Happily Ever After embedded in a community of misery, we noted how some people view possessions or financial circumstances as the root source of happiness.  This view is reinforced and encouraged by modern media and currently published Romance novels (of all mixed genre types).

Get some physical thing, or a job or income level, title, prestige, social position, -- garner the admiration of others for your art, or whatever you pride yourself on -- and your entire inner self will switch from dark misery to bright joy.

The Commercial Establishment encourages this with things like "Mother's Day" and "Father's Day" both holidays created and sustained by mercantile interests.  Buy something = Make Someone Happy.  Christmas likewise = Buy A Child A Toy And MAKE them happy.  MAKE being the operative word.

The grain of truth behind the connection between material wealth and happiness is what makes it possible to found an entire culture on this assumption.

Now put together this Material Things Make Happiness cultural assumption with the psychological studies indicating the purpose and point of human cognition and fact-free opinion forming.

Once convinced that finding the RIGHT GIFT will force someone who is miserable to become happy -- no fact will change that opinion.

It becomes an opinion upon which life itself hangs.  We must give children gifts on Christmas or they will be scarred for life.  Likewise material gifts at birthdays, back to school, etc become a habit to give and a habit to receive.

How is it even remotely possible to conceptualize an entire LIFE lived "Happily Ever After" if "happiness" is absolutely dependent on material objects owned?

The TV News is filled with images of tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes etc wiping out entire houses, villages, families.  War slaughters so many, how can the bereaved emerge "happy" (never mind ever after).

TV News is full of Great People -- people with multiple Titles, heads of corporations, towering prize winners, toppled from grace by an injudicious email or phone call.

Given this tangible vision of how fragile possessions and position are in this life, how can "Ever After" have any meaning?

How is it possible to life Happily Ever After when at any moment the entire life built with such arduous effort can be just wiped out?

In a group culture that "believes" happiness is caused by things, and given human nature is to resist to the death allowing facts to alter beliefs, where are you going to find readers to accept (nevermind believe in) the HEA and thus Romance that is not just sexual lust run amok?

Think about that and maybe you can see why Science Fiction is the right genre to "cross" into Romance to depict the Happily Ever After.

Science Fiction is the Literature of Ideas, and the core Idea common to almost all science fiction is "Suspension of Disbelief."

Right now, the majority readership of Romance disbelieves in the HEA.

Add science fiction to Romance, and suspend their Disbelief.

Then ask some of those pesky questions about human nature and the construct we call reality.  Show (don't tell) a Character noticing a Functional Family embedded in a community of miserable families.  Ferret out that happy family's secret, the thing that makes them different, the Idea that lets them experience "happiness" amidst misery.

A war-torn city is one setting that lends itself to this investigation.

A drug-saturated Inner City that's Gang Dominated is another such setting.

Or as Gini Koch chose, Washington DC and the duplicitous swamp works well as a backdrop for a functional family.

Fiction is an art form like all others that depends on contrast to become vividly memorable.

Let contrast between emotional tenor of the foreground Characters and the tangled, dark threat/misery of the background setting rev up the power of your novels.

Why do we cry at weddings? Is it because we see all the sadness to come?  Or is it because we can't tolerate the brightness of real happiness?

Perhaps the disbelief in the Happily Ever After is rooted in the Idea that the physical body (all Romance Leading Females are "beautiful" and all males "Handsome") is a material possession.  We live in a culture of body building and weight loss Icons -- as if the shape and form of your physical body is something you get to CHOOSE.

We see the physical body as the source of Happiness.  You have to have the right shape, and the right clothes (or absence thereof), the right hair in length and color, and the right "moves" in grace and power.

The physical body is a thing you acquire by hard work (starving, exercise, expensive face "work" and capped teeth.)

With this focus on the appearance of the body delineating the place in the Group, in society, in career, it is small wonder that "Happiness" is regarded as arising from the physical appearance.

Here is another "read" on our current culture as of Spring 2017 by none other than a Rasmussen poll.


Fewer Americans see motherhood as a woman's most important role.  Also note the birthrate is alarmingly low in the United States.

Today, career is more important even than pregnancy (despite research showing a pregnant woman's stress level adversely affects fetus) -- but some companies are hiring pregnant employees some help.  This means mothers are not only out-sourcing infant care and childhood education ( day nurses, and daycare) but now also out-sourcing decision making about pregnancy itself.


In 2014, we had 1.86 live births per woman - that is a fast shrinking population. 2.0/woman would be break-even, not growth.  The population is still growing because of longevity, but at about the rate the economy is growing.  Anyone who understands the dynamics of these connections, and who equates happiness with material possessions, will see a bleak future, not a happily ever after one.

Here is an interactive graph with loads of information on population growth.


And if you believe the cultural assumption that the material body is the source of happiness and that motherhood is not the woman's most important role, it is obvious that the fleeting appeasement of the sexual appetite is the correct model for the achievement of Happiness.

It is clear why an entire culture has adopted (eagerly) the equating of Romance with Great Sex.

Great Sex equals Happiness.

And since Great Sex is a truly fleeting experience, then likewise the only possibility for happiness is the HFN.  If something else doesn't go wrong in the bedroom, then age will wipe out, or at least reduce, the Great Sex.  You have to be careful not to have children because crying infants tend to reduce the frequency of Great Sex, so then you won't be happy.  

QUESTION: What if sexual satisfaction has no relationship whatsoever to Happiness?  Would the Happily Ever After ending then make sense?

There's a Romance plot in that question.  What sort of Romance can the severely wounded war veteran have if sexuality is eliminated?

Or flip that around, and use the "Arranged Marriage" scenario where two complete strangers share a wedding night -- and dutifully have sex to produce a pregnancy and an heir.  What could ignite Romance between them?

There are many novels on the market today that explore love (and hate) that grows after an arranged marriage -- but many more about escaping an arranged marriage for the arms of Romance.

Also marriages that are "for convenience" - a business deal - form the basis of many Romances.

Arranged Marriages usually involve aristocracy, often Monarchy.  So the details focus on a unique couple with unique problems -- as the scenario discussed above where the happy couple lives amidst miserable families.

But what if all the marriages of everyone the couple knows have been arranged?  And what if the norm, the vast majority, of those families are indeed happy, stable amidst challenges, losses, bereavements, and attacks by hostiles?

Suppose this community is the last shred of humanity alive in this galaxy, and the marriages are arranged by an A.I. -- maybe not the single power running the whole show, but an A.I. specialist in choosing humans to mate both for genetics and for happiness.  Could an A.I. pair Soul Mates?

To use that artistic trick of contrast, you would have to tell the story of that one miserable family amidst a sea of happiness, and the temptation would be to tell the story of how all those happy couples are really victims of horrendous misery, tricked into a dull and manipulated life.

To turn that story to science fiction, you have to reverse that situation and convince your readers that all those A.I. dominated human families actually ARE happy, and living happily ever after.  You have to show don't tell how the single miserable family is outcast because they don't "buy into" whatever belief system is sustaining the culture's happiness (according to the psychological research cited above).

The writer's temptation is to prove that the miserable family is correct and to break that culture out of its A.I. domination.

But first imagine what you'd have to build into their world that would bring the miserable family into the HEA all the other families are living?  Then try to develop a way to sell that entire concept to a modern readership.  How could you get today's readers to root for the miserable couple to join the happy majority instead of exposing their happiness as a fraud?

How could you make that miserable family's journey to happiness seem so plausible and so desirable that the modern reader would be rooting for their success and then be satisfied with the ending?

There are two ways to do this.  Either choose a story and find a readership for it, or choose a readership and craft a story that expresses their most dearly held beliefs.

Who believes in the HEA?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. Yes, happiness means contentment and overall satisfaction; it doesn't mean feeling cheerful all the time. When couples enter marriage thinking every negative experience or feeling means they aren't "happy" anymore, marriages tend not to last.

    I don't know about Father's Day, but Mother's Day was invented by a particular woman in honor of her mother. Later in her life, when the holiday was shanghaied by "mercantile interests," she repudiated and campaigned against it.