The number one rule for romance novels is that the hero and heroine must have a HEA. What does that mean? The couple must live happily ever after.
If the writer wants to write a romance, she must craft a happy ending otherwise it’s something else, women’s fiction maybe or literary fiction. And this is because romance readers buy romances for the experience of seeing a relationship work out. There’s no point in reading an entire novel about a couple only to see them not get together at the end and live happily.
But is this true for all genres? Do readers want to read only books with happy endings?
I guess it depends on how you define happy ending.
Readers Must Be Satisfied at The End
When readers reach THE END they want to be satisfied. They want to feel that the effort and money they put into reading your story was worth it. It might mean that, yes the couple gets together at the end, or the detective catches the evil villain, or the executive gets the big account and promotion.
But it can also mean that the hero realizes that the goal he wanted at the beginning of the story is not what is best for him, and his goal changes. He does not get what he most wanted, but he gets what he most needed.
In the John Grisham book and movie, The Firm, the hero Mitch at the end of the movie (spoiler but this story is super old, so I assume people are familiar with it) leaves the firm and his goal of becoming a wealthy superstar lawyer at a large firm is not going to happen. He failed.
The firm worked for the mob and when Mitch is approached by a government agent to spy on the firm and turn over evidence, he realizes his dream is over. He either cooperates with the government, putting his life and career in danger. Or he doesn’t cooperate and is complicit in the firm’s illegal dealings, meaning eventually his life and career is over.
The story is about how he gets out of this situation. But he doesn’t get the happily ever after he wanted — money, status, power. He does get a…