Beyond “Happily Ever After”

With bestselling author, Emily Nagoski

According to the technical definition, a “romance” story has two elements: a central love story, and an optimistic, emotionally satisfying ending – also known as the “happily ever after.”

Okay, let’s pause there.

Some writers express contempt for the idea of a guaranteed happily-ever-after. They call romance “formulaic,” ignoring the vast range of stories possible within those broad definitions. With those two defining characteristics in place, your romance can be set in any period in history, any land of fantasy, any dystopian future. Your main characters can be any ages, any genders, and any degree of mortality. They can be ordinary humans or magical, they can be werewolves or honey badgers or dinosaurs – those are all real romances that exist and are beloved within their micro-sub-genres. Not all of these stories are for me, but they might be for you, and you know what? You do you. Everyone deserves happily-ever-afters.

Romance is also an enormously feminist space – a genre written primarily by women, primarily for women, primarily about women’s sexual and relational satisfaction. Romance is a place to find celebration of women’s autonomy, unparalleled in any other genre – maybe especially compared to “literary” fiction. I have stopped trying to read literary fiction these days. The odds of encountering some unexamined white-dude misogyny is too high. Why bother, when I can encounter unexamined misogyny every day on the news? Misogyny isn’t better when it’s expressed more artfully.

But the happily-ever-after of a romance is bigger than just “satisfaction” plus the opportunity to resist the patriarchy. A really good cheeseburger can do that, too. What romance gives its readers and its writers is a soul-deep, cell-deep sense of safety, of meaning and purpose, of the basic promise we make to ourselves that the world does indeed make some kind of sense. That is what connection does for humans.

MacArthur Genius Award-winning educator Vivian Paley says: “So many of the stories young children tell have to do with an animal or a little girl or boy being lonely, walking into the woods, and finding someone to play with.” And even if you tell the same story over and over, kids still say, “More. Tell us again that when you’re lonely, someone’s going to come up and say, I’ll play with you.’”

To hold a romance novel in your hands is to hold that promise, that when you are lonely, someone will come and say, ‘I’ll play with you.’” To write a romance is to make that promise to your readers.

So I’m writing a romance about coronavirus. It’s a story about the ways being separated from the one we love reveals to us the walls we have maintained between ourselves and our beloved – and of course it’s about how we smash those walls and find a way to grow closer. It follows Rumi, who wrote, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find within yourself all the barriers you have built against it.”

If you want to write feminist, emotionally satisfying stories about some people who fall in love, overcome obstacles, and find their way to joy in the face of terrible odds, you are my people. Join me for a romance writing workshop online. Let’s make more joy.

Emily Nagoski is the award-winning  author of the New York Times bestseller, Come As You Are: the surprising new science that will transform your sex life and Burnout, released March 26, 2019. She is a world-renowned sex educator and public speaker, and publishes romance novels under the pen-name Emily Foster. Join her for her online morning workshop, Writing Romance, on Saturday, May 9!

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