Masterplots Theater: H is for Happily-Ever-After

HEA Masterplots Theater

Welcome back to Masterplots Theater!  So far we’ve covered:
A is for Adventure
B is for Buddy Love
C is for Chosen One
D is for Dystopia
E is for Escape
F is for Fool Triumphant
G is for Gothic

And today we’re discussing Happily-Ever-After stories. Do you like happy endings? According to this article, most people do. And since authors often write what they like, that means there’s a good chance you’re writing an HEA.

Happily-Ever-After Plot Notes: 

Obviously, the defining element of this masterplot is a happy ending. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the protagonist achieved their goal or got exactly what they wanted, it simply means they are happy with the outcome and expect to be happy from now on because of it.

When people hear the term “happily-ever-after” they usually think of a love story or fairy tale, but really any genre can be a HEA as long as the protagonist attains happiness in the end.

A true HEA starts with the hero in an unhappy place, emotionally and/or physically. The more miserable the hero, the more rewarding the happy ending.

Obstacles are necessary in every story, but especially in the HEA. It’s no fun for the reader if it’s obvious from the start that the hero will win the game, or the couple will end up together, or the secret agent will save the world. So pile on the challenges and really torture the hero, make it worse and worse and worse, tease us with a bit of hope, and then make it worse again! The situation must become so miserable and hopeless that when the happily-ever-after happens, we feel relief and joy along with the hero. 

Example to Study:

The nature of this masterplot is kind of a spoiler, but hey, as long as I don’t tell you how the ending came about, that’s okay, right?

BookCover-CinderAlso, I realized as I was going through my reading list that I don’t read a lot of true HEAs. So I’ve turned to a classic fairy tale retelling to illustrate the HEA masterplot: THE LUNAR CHRONICLES by Marissa Meyer.

· ENDING: Yes, Cindar gets the prince! Plus the whole kingdom. And all her friends are happy too. Win!

· GENRE: This is a retelling of Cinderella, so fairy tale is at the core of this story, but otherwise it’s very much an epic adventure (Hero’s Journey) with a dash of romance.

· UNHAPPY PLACE: Cindar is an orphan whose evil stepmother forces her to work and pay the rest of the family’s bills. No one loves her except her little stepsister, but then the sister dies. Cindar’s only friend is an android. Oh, and she’s a cyborg so the rest of the world discriminates against her. She’s basically resigned to a life of misery before this story kicks into action.

· OBSTACLES: Four books worth! Yes, this HEA takes almost 3000 pages to achieve! There are villains and monsters and mechanical failures and political conspiracies and cold-blooded murderers… so many obstacles to happiness that when it finally happens, the reader is practically cheering with relief.

Future Research:

Books: THE LUNAR CHRONICLES by Marissa Meyer, HOW TO SAVE A LIFE by Sara Zarr, THE LORD OF THE RINGS by Tolken, PRIDE & PREJUDICE by Jane Austen

Films: JERRY MAGUIRE, UP, THE FULL MONTY, GOOD WILL HUNTING, BACK TO THE FUTURE, and many, many more. Movies love happy endings.

Thank you for joining us today. We hope you enjoyed H is for Happily-Ever-After and we invite you back on Monday for our next installment of Masterplots Theater, I is for Institutionalized.

Please share your own favorite happy ending titles and tips below.

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

28 thoughts on “Masterplots Theater: H is for Happily-Ever-After”

  1. Hi. I think endings can be unhappy but also satisfying if there is a certain sense of hope things might change for the better over time, which is more like life. People change and so do circumstances!

  2. I enjoy a happy ending as long as it is not contrived or overly shallow. Like you point out, some endings should not be happy due to the very nature of the story. I know many people don’t think like I do about this, but I also sometimes like ambiguous endings where what happens is left to the imagination of the reader.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

    1. I think that’s the great challenge for authors – to make an HEA realistic. Like I noted above, happy endings must be earned, otherwise they feel like a cheat and that doesn’t make the reader happy. Thanks for the comment, Sheila!

  3. The HEA is the pay-off for going through all the pain and grief the character had to go through. The Lunar Chronicles look interesting, I’ll add them to my TBR 🙂 Good luck with the rest of the AtoZchallenge.

    1. Thanks! Yes, if The Lunar Chronicles had NOT had a happy ending, I would have been like, “Why did you put me through all that pain? Life is meaningless!!!” which is generally not the outlook YA books are going for. 😉

  4. Your post really got me thinking about this. I’ve decided that while HEA are popular, I tend to think more about those non-HEA tales, finding my mind returning to them. I do hope to report a HEA ending for my life though 🙂

    1. That’s nice to hear! And an interesting observation. I ruminate on both HEA and non-HEA endings equally – for me, it’s more about whether the ending was unpredictable. But that’s a whole other post. 😉

  5. My favorite happily-ever-afters are ones in which the protagonists don’t get what they think they want. They get something better that they either rejected at first, or never thought to want in the first place.

  6. Well, I do love when stories end in a good way. They are not necessarily HEA stories, I’m actually not very keen on those, but I do want everything to turn out in at least a positive way. I hate when stories end in a bad way, even when it makes sense. Worst of all, I hate it when the hero dies. I mean, it’s like: excuse me, why did I read this?

    The Old Shelter – Jazz Age Jazz

    1. Admittedly, I’m defining the HEA story very loosely. I think happy endings are what the characters make of it. And not getting what they originally wanted isn’t necessarily unhappy. But I’m with you – stories that are pure downers leave me unsatisfied and wondering why I went through that experience just to feel miserable.

  7. I’m guessing more novels are HEA than not, but short stories are different. There is not the same level of emersion/commitment so the author can get away with an unhappy ending. At least I save my unhappy endings for short stories only.

    1. That is true. In a short story it’s more about an end twist or reveal that packs a punch, rather than wrapping everything up with a happy ending. Thanks for the comment, Tamara!

    1. I think the most important thing is that the ending makes sense! I’ve been ticked off by many a happy ending that was not earned. If the characters don’t earn it, I’d rather the story not end happy. That said, I’m also a fan of a bittersweet ending – some happy, some sad.

      Thanks for the comment, Lissa!

We love comments and questions.

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