The Writing Process 2015: Do We Need A Happily-Ever-After?

If you’re new to The Writing Process 2015, these posts are a chance to share my journey through my latest novel, starting at ground zero.

happily-ever-afterAs I head into the final section of When We Were Sisters, the ending is now clearly in view. I’m delighted something is clear because how I’m going to get there? Right now, the scenes leading up to the climax–which I can visualize–are hidden deep in fog.

Every novel is different. When I’m asked how I write, I can give a fair approximation for most books. I am a plotter, not a pantser (plotting by the seat of your pants). I like knowing where I’m going. I’ve been known to write outlines with each chapter carefully plotted. I find this the easiest way not to overwrite, and no, it’s not boring because–ta da–I’m the one who came up with the story! And figuring out how to portray it on paper demands enough creativity to keep me moving.

That said, I will repeat, every novel is different. When We Were Sisters began with:

  • An idea
  • Long character sketches, some of which I’ll share closer to the debut next June.
  • A carefully constructed timeline
  • Acres of research
  • A plot well-rounded enough to interest my editor
  • A brainstorming session with my friends

Notice the word outline doesn’t appear? Instead this book asked me not to outline, but to simply list scenes and revelations the characters must have. Then put them in some sort of order and let the characters do the rest.

This has worked out beautifully. Since the book is in first-person point of view what the characters think and know is primary and they’ve led me along like a puppy on a leash. I haven’t always been happy, but there was no way to escape.

Now,  I’m closing in on the end, and I will need an outline. There’s so much to accomplish I need to put scenes in order, figure out where and how they occur, and how my characters react. Otherwise we might need camel caravan to get this book to your door. We can’t have that.

As I was contemplating my ending this morning I found a comment about one of my other books on a previous blog. The comment’s author was unhappy that I hadn’t spelled out the happily-ever-after of Fox River.

Remember Fox River? It’s one of my favorites and Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review. I’d made sure my readers knew things were going to turn out well for Julia and Christian, the two major characters, and probably for Maisy, Julia’s mother, also major to the story. But I hadn’t shown every scene that followed.

Why hadn’t I? I trusted my readers to know what would happen. I wanted them to imagine the details of that happily-ever-after or at least an approximation.  By that point they knew the characters as well as I did. And what fun to imagine the goings-on after the book itself ended.

As writers we know that when our ending is achieved, we should bow out quickly. But knowing this, strongly believing this, I’m now faced with how much of the ending should I tell in my new book? I’d planned to end with a certain revelation. Then, as the book moved forward, I decided to add another. Now? Well, for the past week I’ve been wondering if I need to show a bit of my characters’ futures because maybe we all need to know what happens to them when life settled down a bit.

Genre fiction (think fiction that fits snugly in a certain section of your bookstore) usually ends with a satisfactory conclusion to the central conflict. We often call that the “happily-ever-after.” But how much “after” does a reader need? How much happily? Does every conflict need to be tied up neatly? Do the bad guys have to repent? Do the good guys have to find a winning lottery ticket in the final chapter? In a romance the couple must get together, but in women’s fiction–what we loosely call the novels I write–there are different kinds of conflicts, more characters, often more complicated plots. Must every aspect of the book end satisfactorily?

The answer, simply, is no. At a certain point too many happy endings in one story make my teeth ache. I want a little realism with my fantasy. But how much?

And how the heck do I get there?

Tune in next time to see if I’ve made any progress. Meantime, how much happily-ever-after do you need? Let us know.


  1. Lynn Ross on August 18, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    I need a lot of “Happily Ever Afters.” I’m a very serious and intense person (even though I love to laugh). I’m very empathetic to people who never seem to get a break. I need books that give me a world where everything works out happily with enough reality to make it believable. The physical world shows me enough sadness. However, you, Emilie, could never write a book that I wouldn’t love no matter how it ended, so you’re safe. 🙂

  2. Martha O'Quinn on August 19, 2015 at 8:17 am

    Good morning Emilie. I think, as a woman, that we have an innate wish for happily ever after endings. I do enjoy those, but I’ve noticed that when books, or even poetry, does not end the way I think it should, the non-happy ending forces me into a deep reflection of the reasons it could end as it did and I usually come out okay with the ending after all; a self-therapy session you might say.

    • Emilie Richards on August 19, 2015 at 8:33 am

      I love “self-therapy session.” I’ve had to do those a few times, too. But how much less appealing would books like Gone With the Wind be if every loose end had been tied up neatly? And how much self-therapy did generations of women have to do with that one?

      • Martha O'Quinn on August 19, 2015 at 8:45 am

        …and probably still do today. I just finished “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee and I find myself faced with more self-therapy sessions! To me, the book is an open-ended one and we each have to write our own ending.

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