by | August 15, 2016 | General | 14 comments

By Bob Buckley

with a person’s emotions is a dangerous thing, but we writers do it all the
time, from the moment we seek to hook our reader with an opening paragraph that
piques their curiosity as well as, we hope, tweaks their libido. Then we string
them along, leading them down a path to a conclusion where we hope they say,

maybe they’ll just say, “Huh?”

the way to one conclusion or the other, our readers begin to wonder where our
tale is going. They can’t help it. They build up expectations: Will she sleep with him? Is he going to
leave her? Will they live happily ever after?

that last expectation – guaranteed if the story has been labeled romance –
still elicits a guess about how we’re going to get there – the HEA, that is. We
all do it as readers, after we’ve come to
care one way or the other about the characters. Sure we wonder what’s going to happen next, but we also anticipate, which is different – in effect, we try to get ahead of the story, writing our own in our head and seeing if it eventually matches up with the author’s plot. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, said at the end of a story or novel, “I knew that was going to happen,” or, “I saw that coming.”

– okay, cue up Carly Simon honking away with that nasally voice of hers.

of mysteries and thrillers craft their tales around readers’ anticipation and deliberately defy their expectations. It’s
called a plot twist. It throws you off the rails if it’s successfully executed,
if not, it might annoy the hell out of you. But for readers of these types of
stories, nothing is more satisfying than a twist, particularly the
twist-at-the-end. It’s then they realize they’ve been manipulated, deceived and
perhaps even disoriented. And they love it.

what if you’re writing a romantic, erotic story and yank the rug out from under
your reader by leading them to a place they didn’t expect to go? Well, if
you’ve achieved every writer’s goal of getting your readers to believe in your
characters and invest their emotions in them – they may end up hating you.

years ago I posted a story to ERWA about a pair of what my mother would have called “poor souls.” I wanted to explore why some people, men and women, go
through life alone and lonely, through no fault of their own.

main characters included a lonely guy who couldn’t get a woman to give him the
time of day. You know the type, a guy whose romantic history involves him being
aggressively overlooked. But like the Lonesome Loser of the song, “he
still keeps on tryin’.” He’s allowed himself to be set up in a series of
blind dates – none of which have panned out – by a good-intentioned friend. On
one of these arranged meetings, he’s introduced to a girl who has as sad a
romantic history as he does. And voila, they hit it off  and have a wonderful
night together that leads to some wonderful sex.

for them, I’m telling this story, and I decided from the beginning it was not
going to end with a HEA. While he wants to continue to see her, she rejects the
notion of them in a relationship. Though she likes him, she thinks
it would be tantamount to “settling.” She fears the world will look
at them as two losers who couldn’t land anyone better and she won’t give the
world that satisfaction.

it’s a stupid reason to toss away something magical. Have you ever heard of
anyone tossing happiness away for a good

ends with her out the door and him sitting on the banks of the Charles River in
utter bewilderment.

wasn’t quite prepared for the vehement reactions to the story, even though I
allowed that folks who love a HEA were going to be disappointed. Disappointed?
They were furious! Even some critics who, themselves, were into darker
explorations of the human heart were appalled.

responders demanded that I explain what it was about the male protag that made
him repulsive to women. Well, how should I know? Why do nice guys, or for that
matter, nice girls end up alone?

few suggested ways I could give it a happy ending. (In fact, I could have added
two short lines at the end and instantly turn it into a HEA.)

my sometimes morbid sense of humor, it tickled me to no end that some people
were angry at me for being a prick to my characters. I had struck a nerve.

The furious backlash told me I had gotten under the readers’ skins, manipulated
them into caring for and hoping for all the best for my characters. I can’t
blame them for being furious, but I’m glad they were.

it gives a writer pause, does it not?

you write, you’re playing with nitroglycerin … be careful.

Robert Buckley

Bob's stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, including multiple editions of Maxim Jakubowski's Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica.


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    You should probably be flattered that people identified so much with the characters that they were pissed off.

    However, I've encountered similar reactions. And all I can say is, not every story ends happily. I don't control this. (Well I could, as you could, but then it would be a different story.)

    Great initial post, Bob!

  2. Larry Archer

    Bob how about a link to the story so I can be pissed off also! LOL

    • Bob Buckley

      Sadly no link to it anywhere; and thus to all stories without happy endings. Besides, Larry, you probably get pissed off easily enough already.

  3. Rose B Thorny

    Hi, Bob,

    I seem to recall that story (I think…what was the title?). I've never quite understood why readers would make such a huge issue over how a writer crafts his/her story. I mean…wherever the writer is, whatever space he/she is in, the reader should accept the artistic expression however it's expressed. Unless you're writing genre romance, the ending doesn't *have* to be HEA or HFN. I think it's okay for the reader to be moved, one way or another, sad, happy, whatever, but to be "furious" with the writer for not ending a story the way the reader wants is just… well…dare I say immature?

    In some ways, I think it's good, in fiction, to show that sometimes things just don't work out the way we want them to. Sometimes life sucks. As the Stones sang, "You can't always get what you want." Sometimes, a story with a bitter ending, is what people need, whether they think they do, or not.

    In that particular story of yours, you made it clear that the girl sabotaged her own happiness for the sake of what "the world" might think. She hadn't yet learned that for the most part, the world doesn't really care. Clearly, though the fellow was bewildered, he was better off without someone who obviously believed that she would be "settling," if she stayed with him, because if she did love him, the idea of settling wouldn't even occur to her. Would readers really have been happier if she believed that she was "settling" and stayed with him anyway, like she felt sorry for him? Or if she settled for him and then later if someone "better" came along, she'd dump him? Really, if she sincerely believed she'd be settling, then just how shallow was she? I figure he'd be better off without someone who believed she was settling for him. She obviously had as low an opinion of him as he had of himself.

    Since the story wasn't written as a genre romance, then it actually fulfilled it's requirements for being a dramatic story and dramatic stories don't necessarily have sweet endings.

    I honestly can't imagine being furious or appalled if a writer's story didn't end the way I wanted it to. As a reader, you play the cards that are dealt by the writer and if the story is well-written, I don't understand the umbrage taken. If someone doesn't like the way a story ends, then they can write a story themselves with an ending they *do* like.

    I suppose I just don't believe it's up to me to second-guess what another artist chooses to do.

    Rose 😉

    • Bob Buckley

      Hey, Rose,

      The story was called "Scraping," as in scraping the bottom of the barrel. I don't blame readers for their reactions. When I was a kid I got pissed off at the ending of "Old Yeller." I wouldn't have seen the movie if I knew the dog was going to die. But then, I was just 5 years old. Yes, dangerous thing, this writing. Thanks for chiming in.

  4. Bob Buckley

    Thanks much, Lis

  5. Jean Roberta

    I vaguely remember several expressions of reader resentment on the ERWA lists, but not that particular reaction to the story. I agree with Rose. In general, if one person wants to leave, he/she should just go, and give the other person a chance to find a better choice. Some writers talk about an unwritten "contract" with the reader, which must not be broken, but IMO the only contract a writer has to uphold is a legal agreement with a publisher. 🙂

  6. Theophilia St. Claire

    Rose said it perfectly. Great post, Bob. And as a writer who has mixed feelings about writing HEAs and HFNs, this has given me something to think about.

    I especially loved the last line!

    And I have a question: What if the MC still gets a HEA, but just not the one readers want/expect?

    • Bob Buckley

      Thanks, Theophilia. I think "ya pays ya money, and ya takes ya chances." Unless one is picking up a clearly advertised Romance story, there ought to be no guarantee on the ending. I would like to think the reader would be, at the least, satisfied with how a story ended, or best, pleasantly surprised.

  7. Bob Buckley

    Hi, Jean. I know some calls require a HEA or HFN. Makes one wonder if it's built into the culture, sort of speak.

  8. Daddy X

    I've seen scores of people who never act in their own best interests. Some crave drama, and if not enough drama occurs, they're happy to create some. Our characters can sometimes fall into that category. If we claim to write realism, why does it have to be an HEA? Of course, if the turnaround is too out of pace with the rest of the story, I can understand the blip and the reaction to it.

    • Bob Buckley

      Yeah, like having aliens appear and … do whatever aliens do.

  9. Fiona McGier

    I've got a short story that I can't market anywhere. It happens to involve an alien, and there isn't really a HEA, per se. (Shrugs) Oh well. It came to me in a dream, as many of the kernels of my novels do. Maybe I'll expand on it someday, and it will see the light of day. Or maybe not.

    I agree with Lisabet, that you can be proud of yourself for creating fictional characters that people cared so much about, that they were crushed when there wasn't a HEA for them. Or at least for him. To grab your reader by the balls and hold on by the short hairs? I should be so lucky!

    • Bob Buckley

      Thanks much, Fiona. Best be careful what one grabs, though. Ouch!

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