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March 7, 2019

More Than a Happy Ending: What Makes a Story Uplifting?

Sun ray peeking through tree branches at sunset with text: How Can We Make Our Story Uplifting?

A couple of months ago, I wrote about “aspirational stories” and how our hopes and goals are sometimes reflected in the stories we read or write. Today, I want to talk more about the aspirational nature of some stories because this concept is part of why I love the romance genre so much.

As I mentioned before, according to Google, aspiration is “a hope or ambition of achieving something.” Most of us hope for or want to achieve something in our lives, but that doesn’t mean every story we choose to read will be aspirational.

That said, whatever our usual favored genres, we might sometimes be in the mood for an uplifting story. Happy endings usually create that sense, but happiness is subjective.

Many a romance novel has gotten bad reviews—despite the supposed “happy” ending—because readers didn’t like how the story played out. It didn’t feel happy to them.

That’s a clue that other elements likely factor into whether a story counts as uplifting. If we understand the elements that make a story positive, uplifting, or aspirational, we might have more success in matching our preferences to stories, whatever our mood—whether we’re a writer or a reader.

At First Glance: The Romance Genre

Let’s first look at the romance genre. The genre is all about happy endings, so that’s obviously one reason why the genre is the most closely associated with the label of aspirational. We probably all aspire to experience more happiness in our lives.

Beyond that basic reason, however, the naysayers of the genre spout other assumptions of why the aspirational label is applied to the genre:

  • Readers aspire to be with the hero.
  • Readers aspire to be the heroine.

Um… No and no.

While some readers might relate to those assumptions, many romance readers are quite happy in their life and relationships. Instead, we just want to see the characters happy—like we want to see any friends happy. Plus, in addition to assuming that romance readers are miserable and lonely, these assumptions ignore male readers, non-cis/hetero readers, and non-hetero relationships in the stories.

So what does make the romance genre aspirational? And what can identifying these elements tell us about aspirational stories in other genres?

Aspirational Element #1: Indirect Character Traits

As I mentioned in the article linked at the top of this post, the aspirational connection between readers and characters is usually less direct than the assumptions above.

Readers might connect to characters through their hopes and goals such as:

  • to be as respected or successful
  • to be as happy or fulfilled
  • to be as healthy or confident
  • to be as brave or talented
  • to be as loved or appreciated
  • etc., etc.

None of those example traits are limited to the romance genre. Readers might aspire to be James Bond or Hermione Granger for being supremely competent or a role model just as strongly. But the way characters are written in the genre does encourage strong reader/character connections.

How can a character's traits help create an uplifting story? Click To TweetModern stories in the romance genre are written in a deep point-of-view style, and most include scenes from each participant of the relationship. Getting insights into characters from multiple points of view can deepen readers’ understanding of the struggles and issues the characters face. Readers end the story feeling like they truly know the characters.

Whether we’re reading or writing a book, if we’re in the mood for an uplifting story, in addition to a happy ending, we can also focus on characters with traits we admire, especially if the writing style encourages strong connections between readers and the characters.

Aspirational Element #2: Experiences

Another aspect that makes the romance genre aspirational is that readers might long to share some of the experiences of the stories. For stories on the spicier side of the genre, obviously that can include hot, satisfying sex. *grin*

But beyond that narrow example, experiences can encompass many different things:

  • to have friends as loyal and involved
  • to have family as caring and supportive
  • to have a job as cool or respected
  • to have the same opportunities, freedoms, and rights
  • to have relationships as filled with love or desire
  • etc., etc.

Again, these examples can be found far beyond the romance genre. Only one even focuses on romantic relationships. So we’re not limited to romance when looking for uplifting stories with this element.

How do a story's experiences help make it aspirational for readers? Click To TweetIn fact, when it comes to the last bullet point about relationships, it can be harder to create aspirational experiences around romantic relationships in the romance genre than in any other genre. In the romance genre, readers want to root for the characters to get together—that’s the whole point of the story.

But if readers don’t hope for the characters to get together—maybe because one character is an undeserving jerk—that issue destroys any aspirational aspects of the whole story. This problem is often at the root of failed “happy” endings in the genre, as readers root against the relationship, thinking it a bad idea.

If we’re in the mood for an uplifting story, we can look for experiences we want to share.

Aspirational Element #3: Character Growth

The last element I want to talk about is my favorite: character growth. On my blog, I talk a lot about character arcs and how characters overcome their wounds and false beliefs to live up to their potential.

How can a character's arc inspire readers to improve their lives? Click To TweetBut that style of character storytelling is a positive arc, one where the character learns and improves their life. Other stories and genres can feature flat arcs (where the protagonist doesn’t change much but confronts the world around them) or negative arcs (where the character fails).

The romance genre is more character-focused than plot-focused, so stories in the genre always feature a positive arc, one with growth. (Obviously, other genres can also feature positive arcs, but they don’t need to the way the romance genre does.)

This aspect of the genre appeals to me more than any other because the struggle to grow and improve is realistic for all of humanity.

  • Anyone who tries to create good habits or quit bad habits…
  • Anyone who lets their wounds color how they see the world…
  • Anyone who fails to silence their internal critic with logic…

Anyone…knows that change is hard. We all struggle with changing our thought processes, our reactions, our emotions, our habits, etc. We all go through life making “too stupid to live” decisions, like letting ourselves be distracted and waiting until the last minute to get serious about deadlines—time…after time…after time. *cry-laughing*

Yet in the romance genre, the characters are virtually required to improve themselves in some way, and the deeper stories in the genre often force them to make major changes. In other words, they’re expected to do that thing we all struggle with in real life, and we often judge them harshly for not jumping at the chance to just fix things at the outset.

We pretend it’d be so easy for us to make the changes if we were in their place: “Ugh. You know you’d be happier if you just did xyz, so why don’t you do it? I would.”

That attitude right there? That’s aspirational. *grin*

We want to believe that we can change, that we can improve our lives. We hope to have the will and strength to make those changes. We want to achieve more, be happier, do better.

Characters with positive arcs can inspire us to change and improve. Seeing how they’re happier after experiencing their growth can remind us of the happiness waiting for us if/when we change. Their motivations can help us identify what motivates us to make improvements. And so on.

So if we’re in the mood for an uplifting story, we can focus on positive character arcs. We might even look for character arcs where we can directly relate to the character’s struggle and growth, such as learning to be more confident or being able to stand up for ourselves when we want to make similar changes in our lives.

While other genres might have happy endings and positive arcs, romance is the only genre where those are virtually guaranteed. And in my opinion, that’s a major reason why the romance genre is so aspirational. *smile*

Have you heard of the aspirational label being applied to the romance genre before? If so, what was your impression of what the label referred to? Do you think these other elements are important for aspirational stories too? When you’re in the mood for an uplifting story, which element do you most look for? Do you disagree with these ideas, or do you have other insights to share?

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

I have reviewed a book or two in the new/ newly popular category of ‘uplit’ which is mainly written for and about women. A woman comes from a low ebb in her life and becomes not only successful but happier and enriched by friendships. Romance may or may not occur. An example is a newly widowed woman coming to terms with the rest of her life and starting to change and advance herself.
I believe we have had so much doom and gloom and horror in media both fact and fiction, that the writers and readers want to swing the balance the other way.

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[…] Lots of craft elements intertwine to build your story and they all impact each other. K.M. Weiland discusses the triangle of plot, character, and theme; Cindy Sproles talks cliffhangers, and Jami Gold explores what makes a story uplifting. […]

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