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Crafting Romantic Suspense
By Nora Roberts
Construction is tone of the key words in creating romantic suspense. In a romance novel, the love story is built step by step on the emotions, needs, doubts and personalities of the protagonists. In a suspense, the mystery, intrigue, secret or tension is built state by state with facts, innuendo, atmosphere and action.
Romance suspense is a blending of the two. There must be a relationship — that ongoing, developing relationship we expect between the covers of a romance novel. There must be an unknown — a suspicion, a mystery, a danger that we expect between the covers of a suspense novel. Therefore, the outside tension is just as vital as the emotional and sexual tension and its construction must be just as meticulous.
The mystery and its ultimate conclusion must be just as visible, just as believable and just as important as the romance and its final consummation. There are not two separate stores with a common link. It is one full, complex story where separate elements merge and affect each other. Two levels where the writer is in charge of setting the balance and keeping the reader involved.
Any novel contains basic elements such as plot, character, setting, dialogue and narrative. Both mysteries and romance are build on a certain framework. Romance novels celebrate relationships. By their very nature they represent the standards and values of society. Seeking a mate, starting a family. Mysteries are our morality plays where evil is ultimately found out and punished by good.
The mixing of the two results in a variety of genres and sub genres. Romantic suspense, mysteries with a dash of romance, romance with a dash of mystery. Women in jeopardy, the hard boiled or soft boiled detective novel that flirts with a relationship, the gothic, the cozy.
Any Mary Steward novel is an excellent example of romantic suspense at its best.
From Nine Coaches Waiting, written in the first person from the heroine’s POV: “The side of the room where we had been sitting was in deep shadow, lit warmly by the now fading fire. Behind us the while shaft from the moonlit windows had slowly wheeled nearer. The bed lay now full in the sharp diagonal of light. Raoul carried the sleeping child across the room. He was just about to step into the path of light — a step as definite as a chessman’s from black to white — when a new shadow stabbed across the carpet, cutting the light in two. Someone had come to the window and stopped dead in the path of the moon.”
This involves you immediately. It makes the reader wonder who came to the window and why. What effect will they have on the protagonists? The atmosphere, in using moonlight, shadows, evokes both romance and suspense. I don’t know anyone who uses atmosphere better than Ms. Steward, and in blending romance and suspense she is unsurpassed. There is always a balance of tension in her work that is essential to a successful romantic suspense novel. The characters and their relationships are as finely developed as the twists and turns of the mystery. Invariable one element enhances and moves the other.
For mystery with a dash of romance, we can read any one of a dozen Agatha Christies or Ngaio March. These are puzzle books, deftly constructed mysteries, but often contain a hint of romance.
For romance with a hint of mystery, you can check out the back cover copy of any number of category romances. Some may fall into romantic suspense, but there are many that employ a dollop of mystery to enhance the plot and add tension to the relationship.
In the hard boiled league, try the Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. This is first and foremost a detective novel, one of the best film noirs ever produced. But there is a whiff of romance as Sam Spade falls for the mystery woman — a woman, who in the end he must not only give up, but turn in. One of Sam’s last lines to his love — and naturally I hear Bogart speaking to Mary Astor — goes like this: “I’m going to send you over. The chances are you’d get off with life. That means you’ll be out in 27 years. You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you. If they hand you, I’ll always remember you.” That’s romance.
Another favorite of mine is Sue Grafton. Her Kinsey Milhone is a tough, sharp, savvy heroine who plays with the big boys while maintaining a touching feminine side. She’s a woman, but she isn’t weak or naive as so many females characters were portrayed in mysteries in the past.
On the soft boiled side, give Nancy Picard a try. For dark and delightful British mysteries with solid relationships, there’s Elizabeth George.
If you want Gothics, you can’t do better than going for the classics of Victoria Hold. Her Mistress of Mellyn, has unease and suspense and romance that kick off almost from page one and carry right through, brilliantly.
Construction, again. A house of cards or a complex arrangement of dominoes. Each step, each stage depends on the whole to make it stand. In romantic suspense there is an interlinking, so that when each card, each tile, each piece of the jigsaw puzzle is set into place, it changes and affects the whole. It isn’t fair, to yourself or the read, to force the pieces of the puzzle together. Just as it isn’t fair to shoehorn our lovers into bed. The pieces must fit, the lovers must be ready. And each new stage of the puzzle, and the relationship should affect or build on one another.
We know a love story isn’t satisfying if lose ends are left dangling . . . if the hero and heroine haven’t come to terms with each other and whatever was keeping them apart. All of us would be furious if we turned the last page of a mystery and were left ignorant of the villain’s name. Just as annoying is to discover at the end of the book that the writer held back vital clues, both to the relationship and to the mystery. Years ago our hero spent nine and a half chapters being a total jerk, often an emotionally abusive jerk, then confessed that he’d made her life hell because he loved her. We don’t want that today, just as we don’t want those impossible red herrings at the end of a mystery. The murder was done by the hero’s twin brother, separated at birth and raised by gypsies — and the twin handily appears in the last two pages to confess all.
The fun of reading romantic suspense is to play along, and at the end when the solution is revealed, to be able to say — yeah, of course, I should have guessed. And to say, when the relationship is resolved — they belong together. I’m glad they worked it out.
You must give the reader these two levels of entertainment so they are satisfied with the romance and its outcome, satisfied with the mystery and its outcome. And there should probably be a connection between the two.
Involvement is another key work. You must involve the reader in the blend of elements. Your hope is that they will care just as much about the love story as the mystery. That means you, as the writer, must care equally. You set the stage for a romance, to draw the reader in. Moonlight, candlelight, music, a rainy afternoon. This same stage can be used to develop the suspense as well — even if it’s used to give the protagonists a moment’s respite from the outside tension.
You set the scene for a murder — a dark room, a scream, a vacant lot. How does this event affect the relationship between the protagonists? This action must send out ripples of reaction that involves the characters.
In suspense, the reader need to hear the door creak, the wind howl, footsteps echo. They should feel the danger and care if a character is in jeopardy — as much as they care if the heroine and hero make love. How these two people become involved in a mystery must make sense. How they react to the danger has to suit their personalities. And how they react should probably have an effect on how their relationship progresses.
There’s a natural connection between romance and mystery. A man and a woman fall in love — they have to learn about each other, clues are dropped, false steps are taken. There is risk. There has to be motivation. There is usually suspicion before there is trust.
What do we use to create romance in a book. Back to atmosphere. We use lighting and shadows, sounds and scents. Emotions. Precisely the same elements we use to create suspense.
I strongly believe the build of writing is intuitive. You just know. You just feel. There’s a danger always of becoming over analytical and hedging back from your instincts. If you’re writing a romantic suspense, nothing will bog the creative flow more than sitting there worrying if you’re put in enough of this or too much of that. I don’t think we should take it to the level of measuring out the proper ingredients for a cake. It it’s really right, I think you’ll hear it click.
That doesn’t help when an editor sends the manuscript back saying it’s not romantic enough, or suspenseful enough, or that it lacks focus. Romantic suspense isn’t an easy genre to get into. We can probably count on one hand the truly recognizable names in the genre.
But we have to get back to basics. If you want to write it, you have to read it. You have to understand it, enjoy and appreciate it. Ask yourself why a particular book satisfied your need on both levels. Or why it didn’t. At the risk of being analytical again, follow the steps and the structure. Do they balance? Does the romance add to the suspense and vice versa?
Remember when readers settle back with this kind of novel, they are looking for a wonderful love story, a tense mystery, a heist or a chase, sexual tension and romance. They want to be moved. They want to be baffled. And they want it all to come together in the end. You have to want that, too.
When you’re building your own personal house of cards with words, remember that every one counts. If it tumbles, it was misplaced. It’s up to you to find the right spot for it.
This article first appeared in Northwest Houston RWA May 1995