I know there are romantic suspense workshops out there for writers. I’ve seen them mentioned at RWA, among other places. But what makes romantic suspense good for the reader? In reviews, we often mention the balance between romance plot and suspense plot, but I don’t think that’s really all we can go by. After all, you can have a romance that splits the plotting 50-50, but it just never gels. And then there are books like Viper’s Kiss or like many of Karen Rose’s romantic suspense thrillers where the suspense portions of the plot really dominate the story. However, the romance still works. It may get less time and fewer pages, but the leads still have plenty of chemistry.
And then there’s the reverse. Even though this book is marketed as a mystery rather than romance, One Was a Soldier comes to mind. At that point in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series, the romance between Clare Fergusson and Russ van Alstyne really needed more time and space within the narrative. And it got what it needed. However, while the suspense was perhaps a little more out of the limelight than in other books in this series, the plotting still worked. Oh boy, did it ever.
So, what really makes these books work? To answer the question in my own mind, I have to start with what makes a book not work for me. The “I’m so physically attracted to you that I just have to stop fleeing from the bad guys and screw you silly” plots are just too unbelievable for me. Yes, I like romances of all different heat levels, but there’s a certain amount of believability that has to be there. Not only do I want to believe that the hero and heroine fall in love, I want to believe that they’re not competing for a Darwin Award. And speaking of believability, I like reading a romantic suspense novel where the author has done her homework on the background information. After all, it’s hard to engage with a book and sink into its world when the geography is all mixed up or the courtroom thriller is riddled with legal errors.
Pacing is another quality that is key. As opposed to looking for mathematical ratios of romance to suspense, I think it helps when one looks at the pacing of both plots. When the suspense plot moves along in a way that makes sense, but then the leads fall in love and commit to marriage all in the last few chapters, I’m left scratching my head. On the flip side, I think we’ve all read that frustrating romantic suspense novel where we start off with a good suspense story, then a promising romance develops and the author pretty much just tosses the suspense plotting after that point, winding everything up with a villain-catching infodump at the end. Neither of these works. However, that happy(and probably difficult to execute) medium where the suspense builds and melds naturally with the romance works so well and that’s what keeps bringing me back to romantic suspense.
Well, that and good chemistry. Romantic leads in any subgenre need to convince the reader that they really are attracted to one another and that the reader truly has come along on their journey toward falling in love. The chemistry between the leads is that spark that brings life into the story. Some of her books have been uneven for me, but when she’s at her best in books such as White Heat or The Perfect Couple, Brenda Novak does this very well even when writing gritty stories that are way heavier on suspense than romance.
Getting all of these elements right takes a lot of skill, which is one reason why I admire the good romantic suspense authors so much. But, when it’s done right, that edge of danger and mystery really adds to a romance.
So, what makes romantic suspense work for you? And which authors do you think really get it right?
– Lynn Spencer