Blog Tour & Giveaway: An Ode to the Bittersweet - Derek Bishop's "Incendium"

Today we have Derek Bishop visiting the blog to talk about his latest book, Incendium. Let's give him a unipornian whinny of welcome!

I've just published my first work of romantic fiction. It does not have a traditional happily-ever-after ending. For this reason, I don't really have the right to call it a Romance with a capital "R". I'm still new to the genre, both as a reader and as a writer, so when I was first told this, my bewildered expression must have resembled the one Catholics show when Southern Baptists kindly inform them they're not real Christians.

"But―but... it's a love story. It's got sex scenes in it―"

Nope. Not allowed.

I felt like that awkward girl no one wanted to dance with at prom.

I don’t mean to criticize the hallowed HEA; I love HEA endings. I love romances that weather the test of time and endure for decades. I get teary-eyed from reading or watching them. I want to write other romantic stories that do have an HEA ending. A typical happily-ever-after was not the right conclusion for my novella, though. I certainly appreciate the overwhelming appeal of the HEA, but is this the only definition of happiness allowed at the close of a love story? A bittersweet ending can also have satisfying, emotionally-powerful impact. Is there not a place for it in this market, in this community?

A common response to the critique of HEA sacrosanctness seems to be, "Well, if I wanted to be sad, I would open a newspaper." But an ending that is not an HEA does not preclude a happy ending. Among the Romance genre, the meaning of HEA has shifted from its literal one; it does not necessitate that the main characters are believably happy, but that they are, above everything else, together. The mechanisms to deliver the heroine/hero into this situation sometimes come across as contrived and strain the bounds of belief. In some novels, it seems as though it's more important for the h/h to be together than it is for them to find actual happiness. Sometimes a story just needs a bittersweet ending to make it as good as it's meant to be.

Love stories with tragic endings have always resonated within the human psyche. There is something about the catharsis of feeling someone else's heartbreak that leaves us clean and reborn afterwards. Tragedies are extremely sad, though, which is why they are not Romances in the modern definition of the term. However, we no longer live in a time when Janus has only two faces. The human race figured out how to fuse comedy and tragedy long ago; a motley mix of the two is available. Enter the bittersweet ending―an ending in which something terrible happens in order for something wonderful to occur, the best of both worlds.

There are many tremendous love stories that do not end with the lovers being together, and while they may be romantic, they are not Romances. They are literary fiction, or some other classification of fiction. The Romance label or any form of it, guarantees an HEA. I have read and heard it expressed by several Romance authors that they wanted to write a different ending to one of their novels, one they thought was better, one the story deserved, but they had to forgo it in favor of a contrived ending to keep the characters together. How many great endings have we missed out on because of the HEA standard?

Many fans would tell me, "Well, if you don't want an HEA, then just go read another genre." But an HEA ending is not the only convention of Romance. There are the explicit―arguably extraneous―sex scenes, but these are only a shallow trapping, and not all Romance stories contain them. The plot of every Romance, however, is structured around the evolution of a romantic relationship in a way that is unique to the genre. There is the significant meeting of the lovers for the first time, the build up to their first kiss, the first time they say the "L" word to each other, the resolution of the inner conflict between them, and then the strength of their bond overcoming the outer conflict that threatens them.

At its core, a Romance is about two people overcoming an obstacle that keeps them from being happy. It depicts a relationship that is attacked on two fronts―an internal, emotional conflict within one or both lovers’ hearts, and an external one keeping them apart through either a physical or social hindrance. While most non-Romance love stories tend to focus on one or the other of these two types of conflict, within a Romance, they are linked. The inner conflict has to be resolved, and the two principal characters fully realize their love for each other, before this connection can give them the strength to overcome their outward hardships.

Romance stories are about triumph. The RWA definition requires that they have, "an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending" and that "the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love." In a bittersweet ending, the lovers may realize the love they had for each other separately, at different times, or perhaps one after the other has died. Even if they are forced, or decide to be apart, for whatever extenuating circumstances, the reward of their unconditional love can still occur and emotional justice triumph over the outward conflict. There can still be a hopeful and optimistic ending, even if they do not end up together.

What is more romantic than someone sacrificing themselves for their love? Or when a character realizes they cannot be with their lover without hurting them or putting their life in danger? Or when the protagonist learns wisdom from a failed relationship and the experience makes them ready to bond with a more compatible partner?

The HEA will always dominate the genre; that is something none of us need fear will change. So I would recommend that even if you are an adamant proponent (or fanatic perhaps?) of the HEA, you should give the bittersweet ending a chance sometime. Venture out from Romance with a capital "R" and see how it goes. I know some of you have been hurt before; you've been betrayed, thinking you were getting an HEA ending, and then did not. Some standard of categorization should be made to manage readers' expectations of the endings they will get. But what if you went into the experience knowing it was going to be something else? What if you were prepared for the catharsis that waited at the end?

If you're someone who already enjoys bittersweet endings, I urge you to continue to support authors that offer that kind of experience. It will increase acceptance for these types of stories in the Romance(ish) market. For instance, (and I say this completely objectively, with no bias or self-interest whatsoever:) you might stop by the Storm Moon Press website and take a look at my novella, Incendium.


Thanks for joining us on the Incendium blog tour! Be sure to take part in our giveaway! You have several options to be entered through our Rafflecopter, but you get the most entries by leaving a comment on this post! Today's question is...

How do you feel about bittersweet endings in romance?

Enter Derek Bishop's Incendium Rafflecopter Giveaway HERE

About the Author: Derek Bishop grew up in a small Virginia town along the Blue Ridge Mountains. He was raised on Southern Baptism and Star Trek. The Star Trek was the one that stuck. His parents were both teachers and imparted a love of literature and wilderness exploration on him. He went to school at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia where he learned the joys of studying feminist theory, dancing to techno music, and grocery shopping side by side with colonial costumed re-enactors. He left one class short of a Gender Studies major and several classes too far of an English major. His latest work, Incendium, is now available from Storm Moon Press.


  1. Well sometimes a HEA just doesn't work for the story. Not every Romance ends happily. My own r/l one didn't. It didn't mean I loved him less. Maybe he didn't love me enough.

    I know it's not m/m, but take "Gone With the Wind" for example. No HEA, no HFN. But either of those would not have been right for that story. I read Scarlett as well & it wasn't nearly as epic. Not at all what I wanted for Scarlett & Rhet. So I say, bring on the bittersweet ending if that's what is right for that particular story.

  2. I agree that sometimes a bittersweet ending is the right ending for a story, but then that story is no longer a part of the romance genre. Romance, whether it's m/m or het, comes with the expectation that the MC's will fall in love and be together, just as Derek pointed out. Whether it's a forever thing or not, the two are a couple and I can happily sigh at the end, satisfied that all obstacles have been overcome in one way or another. If that expectation isn't met, then I didn't just read a romance, I read a fictional story that may have had some sex and romance involved. And that's fine too, if it's listed as part of the fiction genre and not the romance genre. For me, it's the HEA or HFN that makes it a romance, plain and simple.

  3. Maybe there are some who can say they love bittersweet romances, or even that they enjoy them. I am not one of those people. However, I can say that I want to read them, and I do seek them out. I love a grand sweeping HEA or the fun ride of an HFN, but there is a place set aside in my heart for bittersweets. What gets me with readers who are against them is that they are usually missing out on beautifully poignant scenes of love just because they know that joy doesn't get to last. That's like saying you don't want to fall in love because the person will die some day, or the love won't be forever. You'd miss out on something amazing and magical because you're afraid of the pain of loss? Not me. Some of my most lasting romantic memories in stories are ones from bittersweet romances. They touch my soul in a way that romances (with a capital R) can't because I know what I'm getting is a shooting star, beautiful and amazing, but fleeting. I don't know if what I said at the beginning is true, maybe I do love them, but it's not an easy love, it's the kind that demands something from you and won't always give you back what you thought you wanted.

    Thank you for your wonderful post, Derek, and for (unselfishly) waving the bittersweet banner. Incendium has been added to my list, to be removed by luck or purchase.

  4. I freely admit that I tend to prefer HEA endings. That doesn't mean that I never read books with HFN or bittersweet endings, though. I tend to prefer a little warning that it's coming though, and there are times when I need a comfort read and I will avoid them like the plague. Sometimes I need that HEA to keep me sane.

  5. I like books that fit. Odd statement. I know. So, I'll explain. Not every story has a happy ending, be it circumstances unforeseen or a sudden case of head-in-your-assness. So if there's this great angsty story about someone with struggles or a great responsibility to their people and an HEA is somehow contrived out of thin air...guess who isn't a happy reader? If the ending is bittersweet but fits the story I'll be SOOOOOO much happier than if the ending is an HEA that's from the twilight zone. Capiche?

  6. I prefer HEA (but often can't distinguish between that and HFN) but sometimes a bittersweet ending is in order. Love doesn't necessarily conquer all, despite our dreams and best intentions

  7. It is ironic that I will accept a bittersweet ending in my movies far more than in my books. I loved Titanic and Braveheart and Romeo and Juliet. My Romance books have to be HEA though. I need to know their pain and strife are rewarded in the end. I do want it to be believable however. Maybe that is asking the author for too much sometimes. I agree that authors should write the story they want with the ending they want and market it in the appropriate genre. Romances have HEA, HFN - romantic fiction can have bitter sweet or HEA. But that is just my opinion...

  8. How do you feel about bittersweet endings in romance? I do like some bittersweet ending in romance as it makes it all real for the readers. Not every thing can't end in Happily Ever After, we do need reality too so I am very ok with bittersweet endings.