What Makes Romantic Suspense Work?

karenrose 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

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16 Responses to What Makes Romantic Suspense Work?

  1. farmwifetwo says:

    As you said it’s easier to say what I dislike.
    1. Cold fish h/H and lots of “woe is me” but they manage to fit in sex and get an HEA at the end with no change in character along the way.
    2. Unending POV from the bad guy. I hate being flipped btwn POV’s and sorry those bad guy sections remind me of those really over the top horror movies… They aren’t scary there, they aren’t scary reading them. My imagination does a much better job.
    3. Poorly plotted suspense lines. Yes, I will notice if you put big holes in the plot or your h/H magically forget everything they ever learned in police college.

    A start..

  2. Leigh says:

    I haven’t read romantic suspense in a long time – which is pretty unbelievable since it use to be one of my favorite genres.

    What caused me to quit reading it is too stupid to believe scenarios – like on the run and stopping to have sex or the heroine has to join the hero in a dangerous situation when she doesn’t have the training or another private organization filled with ex-military members off to save the world.
    Then add in that many books are filled with graphic violence or that the reader spends a large portion of the time in the mind of the psycho killer.

    Although it could easily be that I don’t know “good” female romantic suspense authors and I know I sound chauvinistic but honestly many times it seems like books with the most believable plots are written by men. Also I like how they balance the romance and the suspense.

    When reading romantic suspense my desire for romantic elements is low – think of the movie Speed. I think that is the perfect blend of romance & suspense. Mainly action with hints of attraction and the individuals acting in a professional manner. I don’t want to read about mental lusting when there is a child missing or the individuals are on the run for their life. I want the dialog to convey the attraction through repartee or jokes but still the hero and heroine take care of what is important first, and then act on their feelings.

  3. farmwifetwo says:

    I agree Leigh, also don’t forget where the heroine has to be rescued afterwards b/c she knew better than the properly trained hero and didn’t do what he told her too.

  4. Tee says:

    I love the suspense genre and I also enjoy a romantic relationship within the story (but it doesn’t have to be there). My favorite authors know how to blend the two; but, obviously, the romance is more subtle. Some of the stories have ongoing relationships, which when done well, work very well for me. Here is a small list of authors I enjoy, but I can’t in all honesty call their stuff romantic suspense—more, suspense with a relationship (and in no particular order).

    Tess Gerritsen
    Karin Slaughter
    Jilliane Hoffman
    Lisa Gardner
    Linda Castillo
    Cody McFadyen
    Chelsea Cain
    Tami Hoag
    Jordan Dane
    Angela Hunt (surprisingly)
    Laura Griffin

    A few others who probably have more romance in their stories and could be labeled romantic suspense (and do it well, for me) are:

    Karen Rose
    Mary Burton
    JoAnn Ross
    Sandra Brown
    Mariah Stewart (earlier books)
    Andrea Kane

    I specifically do not like “kick-ass” heroines. Being tough is one thing; doing stupid physical things just seems so made-up. I don’t even mind a foul mouth every now and then, as long as it’s not consistently throughout the book. It needs to be effective in the right circumstances. Hoag and Slaughter and a few others know when to turn this on and shut it off. They incorporate a couple of characters in their series who are great examples of this.

    As with the case of recognizing women’s fiction, I know when I like a suspense novel and I know when I don’t. But I don’t always know exactly the reasons why in either case.

  5. dick says:

    IMO, the success of romantic suspense is related to length as well as balance. A really long romantic suspense novel–as for example, Rose’s “You Belong to Me”–wears out the suspense nodule in the brain, the way an overload of perfume, regardless how pleasing, brings on sneezes. I do, however, like to read the villain’s point of view, especially from those authors who seem, in a quirky way, to really understand what drives him.

  6. SHZ says:

    Romantic suspense is by far my favourite subgenre.

    My pet hate is when you pick up a book and it’s 98% sappy romance and 2% half-hearted suspense. Or if they run out of ideas and ruin their series by turning it paranormal halfway through (I’m looking at you Maya Banks and Cherry Adair!!). I wish authors wouldn’t try to write it if they don’t have the guts to add the gritty stuff!!

    My favourites?
    Cindy Gerard
    Kaylea Cross
    Tara Janzen
    Kylie Brant
    Roxanne St. Claire
    Elisabeth Naughton
    Laura Griffin
    Linda Winfree
    Shannon K. Butcher

  7. SHZ says:

    Oh, I should add, the relationship should evolve BECAUSE of the suspense, not in spite of it. If you cannot weave your romance into your action in a realistic way, then you should be writing straight contemporaries. That is the mistake so many authors seem to make, especially if they move to suspense from a different subgenre.

  8. RobinB says:

    Romantic suspense is what I turn to when I get tired of the wallpaper Regency historicals; I’m not into supernatural romance or vampire fiction, despite being a fan of “True Blood! :)

    I’m surprised no one’s mentioned Linda Howard as one of their favorites, so I will! Admittedly, her books are not consistently wonderful, but novels like “Diamond Bay” and “Kill and Tell” are among my all-time favorites. Also, I just finished an oldie but goodie, Anne Stuart’s first novel in the “Ice” series, “Black Ice”, which I enjoyed very much. And I would include Shannon McKenna in my list of romantic suspense authors I like (or would that be romantica suspense?).

    The problem with romantic suspense (and I suppose this would apply to any other subgenre of romance fiction) is what I call “series fatigue”; this has been discussed several times on this blog and elsewhere at AAR. Here’s what I’m talking about: I read the first of the Steele Street series by Tara Janzen (AKA “Crazy ____”), and thought it was OK. Then I started the second book and realized that I was pretty much reading the same story with different characters! Sorry, but I have too many books in the TBR stacks to waste my time with the same plot wearing different clothes!

    • Tee says:

      RobinB: I’m surprised no one’s mentioned Linda Howard as one of their favorites, so I will!

      There was a time. But she has been another inconsistent author for me these past years. Every so often, I enjoy one, but there are not enough of them to consider her a favorite anymore with me.

  9. Connie says:

    When thinking about romantic suspense, J.D. Robb’s In Death series immediately jumped out of my mind. To me, that is a perfect balance of romance and suspense.

  10. Victoria S says:

    I know which authors get it right for me.

    J.D. Robb’s- In Death series
    Tashsa Alexander’s- Lady Emily series
    C.S.Harris Sebastian- St. Cyr series
    Deanna Raybourn- Lady Julia/Nicholas Brisbane Series
    Linda Howard
    Dee Henderson- O’Malley series (Christian romantic suspense)
    Kay Hooper- Shadow/Evil/Fear series
    Tara Janzen’s- Steele Street series…some of them, my fave is the book about Skeeter Bang Hart (that name makes me happy every time I hear it–go figure)
    Lisa Gardner- FBI Profiler series and D.D. Warren series

  11. JoAnn says:

    So many of my favorites have already been listed but I would like to add Pamela Clare’s I-Team series.

  12. Carrie says:

    For me, the romance needs to be strong, but not stupid. I get tired of books that rely on overwhelming lust. I don’t mind flawed characters, or even misunderstandings, as long as it works with the characters and the plot. The suspense ought to be well-plotted and make sense. It doesn’t have to be convoluted or even complex, just that it doesn’t have glaring plot holes. I’m not fond of graphic violence, but can deal with some if it’s not dwelt upon. I also don’t want to spend too much time in the villain’s head if he/she is a sick serial killer. If it’s a mastermind kind of villain, then getting that POV can be very interesting.

    Jill Sorensen has a good balance of romance and suspense in her books, and rarely uses TSTL heroine.

    Some Nora Roberts, such as High Noon and Carnal Innocence, hit the mark for me; as well as several Jayne Ann Krentz, such as All Night Long.

    Other authors (some previously mentioned):
    Laura Griffin – she’s very consistent
    Cynthia Eden’s Deadly series
    Linda Howard- books like Cry No More and Dream Man are excellent examples
    Tami Hoag’s Lucky’s Lady
    J.D. Robb’s In Death series
    Julie James
    Kathryn Shay’s Firefighter trilogy (After the Fire, etc)
    Debra Webb’s Less series

  13. Sandy Curtis says:

    I’ve read this blog and the comments with great interest. As a romantic suspense author whose books have gone from having a 50-50 balance of romance to plot to those that are more “crimance” as my current publisher calls them (crime with a love story), I find it difficult to ascertain whether readers think romantic suspense is the same as crime with a love story, and if not, what do they think is the difference. I agree with Lynn’s view that believability, pacing and chemistry are essential, but does the percentage combination of romance and plot work for some readers and not others because of their expectations about what romantic suspense should be?

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