It’s been awhile since ALLISON BRENNAN has joined us at Romance University, and we are excited to welcome her back!
This month, I’ve been giving a class to the Kiss of Death chapter of Romance Writers of America. KOD is primarily for those who write romantic suspense and thrillers, and the whole reason I joined RWA back in 2003 was because I wanted to join this chapter.
The class is called “Thrills & Chills” and focuses on what makes a good thriller—character, pacing, stakes and conflict—as well as the “romantic suspense triangle.”
Romantic suspense is a broad genre that encompasses every sub-genre—paranormal, historical, science fiction, inspirational, erotic—and it has such a range that some romantic suspense novels are considered “romance” and other “suspense.”
One of the biggest problems I see among writers—both aspiring and published—is that many people want to put romantic suspense into a box. That it MUST be a 50/50 blend of romance and suspense. That it MUST be this, or that, or some other thing.
Romantic suspense has one story promise: the hero and heroine will be together at the end of the book. And, because it’s a romance, there needs to be a growing or evolving relationship. And, because it’s a suspense, there needs to be a strong and realistic suspense plot.
One of my favorite romantic suspense books is THE THIRD VICTIM by Lisa Gardner. While Lisa is writing firmly on the suspense side of the line now, THE THIRD VICTIM was a compelling and timely story coupled with a conflicted relationship between two characters who have returned a few times in her books—Quincy and Raine. The book leaned to the suspense side … and that’s okay. Why? Because there was still a romance plot. And the overall story was stronger because of the romantic plot.
I tend to write more on the suspense side of romantic suspense because that’s my natural voice. One of the problems I have encountered when I give workshops or classes are all these “rules” about, well, just about everything. The most important rule is that you tell a good story. Maybe you’re not writing romantic suspense. Maybe you’re writing a psychological thriller. Or a contemporary romance. Write the book. Then you’ll know what it is.
But romantic suspense is always going to be a favorite of mine—both writing and reading.
Romantic suspense is a triangle: Like a three-legged stool, you need a hero, heroine and villain. This is the trope of this genre. Just like historicals are set in the past and contemporaries are set in the present and paranormals have a supernatural element, romantic suspense has a hero, heroine, and bad guy.
In an RS, the villain is usually a person who wants to harm the hero, heroine or others and therefore you have a physical threat. Could be a killer, or a thief, or someone who wants to commit an act of terror. The villain is ALSO an emotional threat to the hero OR heroine or both. Often the hero/heroine must face a fear in order to defeat the villain, or it’s the emotional threat of a relationship in the midst of danger and/or other deep-seated fears—a pending disaster, a fear of losing a loved one, a person in jeopardy, etc.. But there needs to be a balance–the villain needs to add weight and depth to the story, not be a throw-in or used solely as a plot device to get the hero and heroine together.
Remember, the VILLAIN IS THE HERO OF HIS OWN JOURNEY (from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.) Every character is on a journey, and the story you are writing (or reading!) is where all those journeys intersect. If you keep that in mind, your romantic suspense will have a much stronger impact.
So what is the triangle? Hero – Heroine – Villain. The Hero and Heroine generally have a lot of page time in the book, and when both of them AREN’T on the page, the villain gets the face time. (There are of course secondary characters who are important, and some get their own scenes and POV, but that’s probably going to be less than 20% of the total pages in your book. I love my secondary characters!)
You must have a strong villain, a villain WORTHY of your hero. A weak, silly villain who’s a dumb criminal will make your hero look dumb if he can’t catch the bad guy. No one likes a dumb hero! But the villain—the smarter, or scarier, or more violent, or more sick, or more sympathetic—a strong villain gives the hero and heroine a chance to shine. Avoid stereotypes. Again—consider that the villain is the hero of his own journey, that he has a purpose for doing what he does, and make that shine on the page.
If you take away one of these points in the triangle, the story falls apart, just like a three-legged stool will fall. While some people believe that romance and suspense need to be so entwined that you can’t have one without the other, I disagree. I believe it’s character based—if you can take out the villain, you have a contemporary romance. If you take out the hero, you have women’s fiction or a suspense or mystery. If you take out the heroine, you have a thriller. For romantic suspense you must have the three pillars: hero, heroine, villain.
Another thing to remember: even if you are not writing in the villain’s POV, the villain is still a crucial element of the story, and you must understand his motivation and goals if you’re going to carry the story to a satisfying conclusion for the reader. In fact, it’s sometimes harder to write a romantic suspense without getting in the villain’s head because the suspense element needs to then come directly from the villain’s actions and the reactions of the characters who deal with it (i.e. the detective at the crime scene, the daughter of the victim, the friend who wants to solve her best friend’s murder, etc.)
Writing romantic suspense is not easy. You need all three of your main characters to have clear goals, motivation and conflicts.
I have many pet peeves in romantic suspense. Here are a few:
Characters who have sex when they are in immediate danger.
Danger can be an aphrodisiac, but having sex when they know they should be getting ready to fight the bad guys is stupid. Sexual tension can work wonders.
Bad guys who kill blondes because they hate blondes. Remember the Perils of Pauline? Just … no. “Good” bad guys will feel like real people to the reader and provide depth to the story.
When your hero and heroine are fighting for stupid reasons, or are kept apart because of a misunderstanding that could have been solved if they just talked. Sometimes, there’s nothing keeping them apart except the actions of the villain.
Too stupid to live heroine.
A heroine who willingly goes into danger without training or unarmed. Heroine’s who say and do stupid things. There can be good reasons to walk into a dangerous situation — rescuing a child from a burning building, for example. You might be able to put your heroine at risk if she’s risking her life for someone else or has no other reasonable choice. Don’t make her do stupid things, however. If a bank is being robbed, a female cop will behave differently than a female romance writer, for example.
Convoluted scenarios used to get the hero/heroine together or set up an important scene, such as the climax. Story situations should feel real and be organic to the characters.
I have many favorite romantic suspense books … the two I read that led me down the path of writing romantic suspense were THE THIRD VICTIM by Lisa Gardner and THE SEARCH by Iris Johansen. I read them back-to-back and they changed the way I viewed the world of romantic suspense.
To be fair, I prefer books that lean toward suspense. I don’t like my suspense “light” — I like to have a real threat so that my characters have to earn their happily-ever-after. (Or happily-ever-after-for-now.)
Other favorite RS books:
JD Robb’s IN DEATH series.
THE PERFECT HUSBAND by Lisa Gardner
THE OBSESSION by Nora Roberts
DEAD WRONG by Mariah Stewart
TRACERS series by Laura Griffin
THE MAZE by Catherine Coulter
What I love most about romantic suspense is that two worthy people have to earn their happy-ever-after by overcoming a very real threat and save they day. Nothing is more satisfying!
What do you love about romantic suspense? What’s one of your favorite romantic suspense books?
Allison Brennan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thirty books, including the Lucy Kincaid romantic thriller series and the Maxine Revere cold case mysteries. She lives in northern California with her husband, five children, and assorted pets. Her latest book, MAKE THEM PAY, comes out on March 7th, and her crossover book with Lucy and Max SHATTERED will be out August 22. For more information you can go to her website, allisonbrennan.com, or check her out on social media: facebook.com/AllisonBrennan; twitter.com/Allison_Brennan; pinterest.com/abwrites; instagram.com/abwrites.
- No Plotters Allowed Workshop – Allison Brennan
- Reader Roundup: No Danger of Running Out of Good Romantic Suspense – Amy Alessio
- Keep ‘Em Hooked by Laura Griffin
- Writing a New Series After a Successful Debut Series by Christy Reece
- The External Story Versus The Internal Story with Lori Wilde