Wednesday, May 16, 2012

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: Following Hearts . . . and Red Herrings

by Margaret Birth

Like many people, I enjoy a good romantic suspense novel, or a mystery that has a touch of romance. Reading one is easy. It’s writing one that’s a challenge. Finding the right balance between romance and suspense and/or mystery can be the hardest part. Since I’m writing, here, for an audience of romance readers and writers, I’ll focus specifically on romantic suspense—which needs an entirely different balance than a mystery with a touch of romance.

After the years I spent working as a freelance manuscript reader for a major romance publisher, if there were one piece of advice I could give about writing a romantic suspense novel, it would be summed up as: Let your characters follow their hearts before they follow the red herrings.

There are two particularly common mistakes I’ve seen in romantic suspense manuscripts. The first is the author’s making the assumption that the external conflict provided by a woman-in-jeopardy plot is all the conflict it’s necessary to include. The second is equating lust with love, and/or equating making love with falling in love, and relying on hot-and-heavy scenes to give emotional romantic depth to an otherwise-exciting action story. In my years of working as a freelance manuscript reader, I saw that many aspiring writers of romantic suspense would put a man and a woman side-by-side in a woman-in-jeopardy plot, throw in a little sex-on-the-run, and assume they’d written a romantic suspense novel. They hadn’t.

A romantic suspense must, first and foremost, be a romance. The focus must be on the hero and heroine. If you’re writing a romantic suspense novel, there are a couple of questions you should be able to answer.

The first question is: What special qualities does each character have that causes the other one to fall in love with them? If some of these qualities are related to how the characters handle the difficult situation that they’re in—say, qualities of compassion and level-headedness—that’s all the better. Mystery/suspense aside, there needs to be a reason—even better, a whole set of reasons—these two people are attracted to each other. This is the case whether a story is sweet or sexy.

The second question is: How does the mystery/suspense affect the hero and heroine, both as individuals and as a couple? You can hardly put two people together in a dangerous situation without having the focus be not only on the danger, but also on how they react to the danger, and on how they react to one another under dangerous circumstances. Often, their reactions to this external conflict will cause them to clash—whether because of how one of them deals with the danger (for example, if the hero is angry because he believes that the heroine is putting herself into the line of fire), or simply because of the vulnerability that people naturally feel when they’re not sure what the future holds (think of devastating death-bed confessions, and then leave the characters alive to deal with the after-effects of those confessions).

If you can answer these two questions, then you should be well on the way to writing a romantic suspense novel that will leave your readers alternately sighing at the love story and gasping at your heroic couple’s close calls!♥

Margaret Birth is a Christian writer who has been widely published in short fiction, short nonfiction, and poetry, and is currently drafting a novel called A FAMILY FOR FAITH.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this article. You've given me two new things to look for as I edit my novels.