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Shades Of Romance Magazine

August 3-9, 2003



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Writing Romantic Suspense

By

Deirdre Savoy

 

Let's start with a good definition of what romantic suspense is.  Many people believe that any romance that includes a mystery or suspense subplot constitutes romantic suspense. In my mind, however, a romantic suspense mixes both genres fairly equally.  One strand (romance or suspense) does not significantly overwhelm the other.  From the beginning of the story, the reader knows that your protagonists will both a) fall in love and b) solve whatever mystery you have set up.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  In my book HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO, my heroine Samantha is injured in a car crash that kills her former fiancÈ, Billy, who also happens to be the hero Adamís half-brother.  When Adam comes to town to investigate his brotherís suspicious accident, he also becomes Samanthaís bodyguard.  Everything that happens in the story from this point focuses on Sam and Adam discovering whether or not Billyís accident was really an accident, and if not, who was responsible for causing it.  They donít set out to fall in love.  In fact, at first, they donít like each other at all.  Falling in love is what happens on the way to solving the crime.

One reason I have come to love romantic suspense is that the suspense provides instant tension in a story.  Something direñor at the very least something suspiciousó has happened.  Maybe a child is missing or your heroine receives a threatening note or (my personal favorite) someone has turned up dead.  If youíve done your job right, the reader is immediately hooked wanting to know more.  What happened to the child?  Who is threatening your heroine?  Who is that dead guy and how did he get that way?  Nothing stimulates readers to turn pages like the burning curiosity to know what happens next.

But for the romantic suspense to work, you need more than a dynamite opening.  You need follow-through on both the mystery AND the romance.  Itís a tall order to pull off, so letís examine each strand individually.

SUSPENSE:

Letís get a little technical for a moment.  In the mystery community, distinction is made between a mystery (where your protagonists must figure out who is responsible) and suspense (where your protagonist knows or finds out early in the story who is responsible.  The question is how much damage this person will be able to cause before he or she is stopped). Linda Howardís Now You See Her is a good example of the former.  A woman is dead and the protagonists must find out who killed her.  Lisa Gardnerís The Perfect Husband is a perfect example of the latter.  Everyone knows the husband has gone off his rocker.  The problem is catching him.  The line between the two is not absolute, but acknowledging the difference can help you figure out exactly what kind of story you want to tell.

Of the two, the true mystery is the more difficult endeavor.  Youíre goal here is to plant enough clues to help your protagonists (and the reader) figure out who the villain is, without giving away the villainís identity too soon.  You may also want to incorporate one or more red herringsófolks who come under suspicion for being the villain but prove not to be.  It all depends on how involved your plot is and how long your story is.  A longer story will require a more involved plot to keep the reader interested and still guessing until the end of the story.


Of the two, the true mystery is the more difficult endeavor.  Youíre goal here is to plant enough clues to help your protagonists (and the reader) figure out who the villain is, without giving away the villainís identity too soon.  You may also want to incorporate one or more red herringsófolks who come under suspicion for being the villain but prove not to be.  It all depends on how involved your plot is and how long your story is.  A longer story will require a more involved plot to keep the reader interested and still guessing until the end of the story.

SPEAKING OF VILLAINS

Gone are the days where a writer could describe her villain as just plain crazy.  Readers are far too sophisticated to buy that.  Every human being acts according to motivation.  In The Crime Writerís Reference Guide, Martin Roth gives several common motives for murder, which include:  ambition, blackmail, to cover another crime, sadism, thrill, fear, jealousy, as well as self-defense.  Now every romantic suspense revolves around a murder, but every villain does have a motive, whether it is warped and bizarre, whether it is only known to the villain himself until the end of the story.  Studying some of the criminal ìpersonalitiesî can help you create a believable, three dimensional character. 

Another trap to avoid is the bumbling or incompetent villain.  Your protagonists need a strong antagonist to play against. How brilliant does your hero to be to foil someone who bungles his way through the story?    You want your villain to be smart, but your protagonists to be smarter and more tenacious, and thatís why they get the job done.

ROMANCE

Just because youíve provided your readers with suspense doesnít mean you can skimp on the romance.  If anything, readers expect more of a distinctive chemistry between the protagonists.  Romantic suspense necessitates a short timeline for the storyóno weeks or months in which feelings grow.  After all, someone(s) life or sanity or reputation hangs in the balance of a quick resolution.  So the reaction of the protagonists to one another has to be immediate and strong. 

This at-a-glance chemistry doesnít mean your hero and heroine have to fall in love on sight, but they have to notice each other, they have to have an immediate reaction, even if that reaction is hatred.  You just have to make sure you show the reader why and how your protagonists get from one emotion to the other.

As in any other romance, your protagonists will need to have internal conflicts about falling in love, regardless of any conflicts you have set up in terms of solving the mystery or resolving the suspense. 

Undoubtedly, protagonists will be working together closely to solve the suspense element you have developed, which will give them plenty of time to learn about each other through conversations, observations, how they deal with others.  But unlike a straight romance, you probably wonít have too much time for long narrative or introspective passages, as it will disrupt the pace of the mystery.  If you plot out your stories in scenes and sequels, you will probably end up with a lot more scenes than sequels in order to keep the action going.


BLENDING THE TWO STRANDS

As with any kind of story that mixes two elements, the romantic suspense works best when one plotline is dependent on the other to work or make sense.  If the protagonists meet and are forced to interact because of whatever mystery or suspense you have set up, this heightens the tension of both the romance and the suspense elements.

HAPPILY EVER AFTER

Both romance and mystery demand a happy ending.  For romance, the happy ending is that the couple ends up together.  For mystery/suspense, the happy ending is that the bad guy(s) are brought to justice in one form or another.  Both these endings have to leave the reader emotionally satisfied. 

For a romantic ending, you want to show that the hero and heroine make a commitment to each other.  How much of a commitment is needed for the reader to be satisfied depends on how close your couple has gotten during the story.  Remember, the romantic suspense tends to take place over an abbreviated time period.  Promises of undying love, marriage proposals or other signs of ìhighî commitment may seem out of place.  A commitment to working things out or seeing where things lead may be all thatís needed to convince the reader that the couple is on the right track.

For a mystery ending, you canít be afraid to kill of the bad guy.  You canít be afraid to have one of your protagonists kill off the bad guy.  I recently read a book where the hero shoots the bad guy but doesnít kill him.  This was not emotionally satisfying to me because the guy was a piece of dirt and deserved killing not a jail sentence no matter how long.  Realize that the more heinous your villain the more readers will want him or her to have a horrible end.  Give them one.

TONE

Remember, just because the romantic suspense revolves around something grave happening, that doesnít mean the romantic suspense has to have a serious tone.  Anyone whoís read a Stephanie Plum book knows there is room for plenty of humor in the most dangerous situations.  But you must be consistent.  Once you set a humorous or somber tone, you should stick with it throughout the story, just as you would any other kind of book.     

MY FAVORITE REFERENCES FOR MYSTERY/SUSPENSE:

1.  Practical Homicide Investigation, 3rd Edition by Vernon J. Geberth.
The bible of homicide investigation.  Outlines how detectives investigate, provides interesting forensic information.  If you do not have a strong stomach do not open this book.  Some of the pictures are very graphic and very gory.

2.  The Crime Writerís Reference Guide by Martin Roth
The subheading on this book is 1001 Tips for Writing the Perfect Murder.  For once, truth in advertising.

3.  The Writerís Digest Howdunit Series
Includes books on police procedure, crime scene investigation, how criminals operate, investigation tips and more. 

4.  The Criminal Mind by Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D
Self-explanatory title.  This book focuses mostly on the role of the psychologist in evaluating and classifying criminals by type of disorder.