While I’ve earned a reputation as an author who specializes in tragic endings, I want to go on record as saying that my favorite novels to write are those with bittersweet endings. I love to craft a novel – like The Notebook – in which the characters long to be together but can’t, for fate has conspired to keep them apart. The problem, however, is that such novels are exceedingly difficult to conceive, let alone write.
Why, after all, if two people love each other, can’t they be together?
A hundred years ago, stories like these were much easier to craft. Class, race, feuds and religion were “fair game,” but in the 21st century – and especially in the United States – these issues simply don’t ring as true. Yes, prejudice still exists and in small pockets of society, such issues might still predominate, but as a general rule, prejudice is frowned upon, and I strive to write novels that feel universal to the majority of people. And besides, in novels where “love is supposed to conquer all,” most readers want to believe that almost any obstacle can be overcome
What then should serve as the obstacle in the relationship? What causes the bittersweet ending? Why can’t the two people be together?
The most obvious – and relevant – reason that two people who love each other can’t be together is that one or both is already married, and they are loathe to divorce their spouse for family reasons. This was the “obstacle” that kept the lovers apart in both The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller and The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans.
Yet, I have a problem with that obstacle as well. While I know it’s real and that it happens, adultery is nothing I want to glamorize. I’ll be perfectly honest when I say that I find nothing romantic in it. Nor does my wife. And, obviously, it’s an obstacle that now lacks in originality, since it’s been overdone in both books and films.
This is where, of course, I found myself when conceiving the idea forDear John. How could I make that idea at least somewhat original? How can I make it feel universal to the majority of readers?
In the end, the twist I chose was to have the characters fall in love while both of them were single, only to have separation “forced” upon them. In this case, I chose the circumstances surrounding the horrors of 9/11 and a soldier who feels the need to re-enlist, thus continuing the separation. When he finally returns, the girl he’d once loved is now married, and hence, they can no longer be together. Lovers are kept apart because of marriage, and yet no adultery occurred.
Everything else in the story – John’s relationship with his father, Savannah’s personality, Tim and his brother, the coin collection – were elements that came later and conceived as ways to best support the story’s bittersweet ending.
In the end, I was proud of the novel. It is, in many ways, one of my favorites. It is also one that I think will resonate with readers long after the final page is turned.