People occasionally complain that with the romance genre, you need the Happily Ever After, the cliched clinch in the sunset. Umm no, you need a satisfying ending and because the emotional relationship has been the spine of the book, the reader will not be satisfied with anything but the couple getting together or at least showing the promise that they will be together. Readers are not willing to have the lady or the tiger type endings. They are not satisfying.
Ultimately a reader wants satisfaction. They want to feel that the main character/the focal character's emotional needs/goal is met. A cliche clinch does not do it. It is why those old Harlequin M&B novels where the hero appeared to hate the heroine up to the last three pages fell out of favour. The ending wasn't satisfying. Characters' emotional needs were not being met and readers started demanding more.
It is because Harlequin Mills and Boon does deliver on the satisfying ending that its books are so popular. Yes, they all end with a HEA, but is an emotionally satisfying HEA. There is a difference.
Equally and obviously, a HEA does not mean that the characters need to achieve all of their physical goals. They simply need to have their emotional needs met.
And sometimes, they achieve their physical goal only to realise that it does not meet their emotional goal.
For example, in A Noble Captive, Helena does become the Sybil, something she has worked and waited for for all her life, but she discovers that she really wants and needs something else. IMHO the ending would have been less satisfying if she had not made the decisions that she did as she had learnt what she truly wanted from life.
Or for another example. In Life on Mars, the main character's goal is to get back his old life, but once he does return, he realises that he has no feelings. Earlier, he has been told that the way you know you are dead is when you stop feeling. He then makes a decision that I think gives it a more satisfactory ending. The key moment for me is when he cuts himself and realizes that he is just existing.
In other words, it is okay to have goals change, but the turning points need to be marked. It is also important to realise that physical goals are simply manifestations of the internal landscape. And it is what goes on internally with a character that decrees whether or not a reader is satisfied.
One way of looking at it as my editor is apt to say -- is what does the character want beginning, middle, and end. What happens if they do achieve it? What other need does that open up? Will the characters be satisfied with the ending? If they can't get what they want, what can they get? What else do they need to achieve before thy can live happily ever after?
Endings are satisfying when emotional goals are achieved, rather than just physical goals.
And if the author does it right, the reader can not conceive any other satisfying ending besides the HEA in a romance. Therefore, the reader feels cheated if she does not get that ending.
Do not cheat the reader.
As Kate Walker has said many times, the last page of your book sells the first page of your next book. Never underestimate the power of an emotionally satisfying ending.
Now I need to get back to my middle and work towards that halcyon plain -- the ending.