writers' guide :: section b
Pat Warren Helps You Write Romantic Suspense
Writing Romantic Suspense
- by Pat Warren
Does the writer of romantic suspense dream up a suspenseful story and throw in a little romance? Or does she put together a romantic love story and add a dash of suspense? Either method works and the mix depends solely on the author and the audience she's trying to attract.
First and foremost, if you plan to write romantic suspense, you really should enjoy reading in that genre. You should have a feel for both romance and suspense, a genuine sense of what it takes to spin a tale about two people destined to be together against all odds, yet struggling with a truly frightening situation or set of circumstances that turns their world upside down.
The opening is arguably the most important part of any book, the few pages you have to both hook the reader and the editor. This is especially true in suspense novels. These stories are not specifically mysteries; that is, there's not always a distinct and recognizable puzzle to solve. The story can and often does include the viewpoint of the perpetrator. Even if it doesn't, the reader sometimes knows whodunit at the beginning. The challenge for the author is to keep the reader holding his breath to see if the villain gets away with it, or when and how he'll be caught before real harm comes to our main characters.
The difficult part in suspense openings is to resist the temptation to foreshadow too much and reveal things you don't want known until later. This is probably the rule most often broken., The story begins too slowly with too much background setup and the action doesn't start until Page 15 or even Chapter Two. In order to build and maintain suspense, you need to get rid of all but the minimal descriptive passages and keep your sentences short, to keep the action moving and keep the tension high. Background information and character description can be threaded in later.
The climax is the next most important part of the suspense novel, and it should be an edge-of-the-seat page turner. One way to kill an otherwise acceptable book is to write a long narrative chapter of explanation after the excitement is over. Of course, you have to wrap things up, but never interrupt the action to do so. In romantic suspense, it's vital to bring the conflict to a satisfactory close, then resolve the romantic relationship.
The womjep, affectionately known as the a woman in jeopardy, is a very popular form of romantic suspense, used by some of our most prolific authors. Since women make up the largest portion of fans of romantic suspense, they can easily identify with a woman who finds herself in jeopardy through no fault of her own. The reading pleasure comes in discovering how she overcomes these adversities.
Of course, in romantic suspense, it's perfectly acceptable to let your heroine lean a little on the hero. But not too much. We are writing about the 90's independent woman, after all. Nothing irritates a female reader more than to have our hero discover the crime, spot all the clues and blithely solve the puzzle and save the day, while our little heroine stands by alternately wringing her hands and sighing over how sexy and brilliant he is. Give her a break. Make her a part of the discovery and a participant in the solution. Women make great detectives. Look at Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone and Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski.
Pacing is extremely important in writing romantic suspense. From a breathtaking opening on to the startling conclusion, we have to keep the action going and make every word count. Intersperse the romance and let the love affair build. Be brutal in your self-editing and remove anything that doesn't move the story forward or add to our understanding of the character or situation. That's why God invented the delete key. If the action slows, throw in another complication or problem or predicament for your protagonists. But put them in danger again, throw up a road block, give them a dead end or several red herrings to cope with, or a blowout in the middle of a car chase. The tougher they have it, the more the reader wants to continue turning pages to find out just how they'll get out of this one.
It's okay to complicate the plot with an occasional coincidence or a natural catastrophe, such as a hurricane or a fire, a flood or a plane crash, but don't let that element solve the problem. Make the hero and heroine figure out the solutions and keep them logical. Make a list of your clues and how each serves to help your protagonists solve the situation.
And speaking of lists, charts are also helpful. In writing a long, involved book with many characters, write all the things that must happen in the mystery part of your story on one side of the chart. On the other side, track the romance, from the meet to how the attraction builds, on to the difficulties they encounter and then proceed to where they acknowledge that they're in love. Think of it as a succession of hills and valleys. You climb up, getting the old adrenaline pumping with the suspense, then break the tension with a romantic scene, either sensual or humorous, then shoot back up to more tense moments.
Probably one of the cardinal rules in writing anything that involves a mystery is—or at least should be—to never, never, never begin the book without knowing where you're going with the story. Don't have bodies dropping all over the place and hope that by the time you near the end, you'll come up with a likely candidate for whodunit. The villain, his motivations and what his threat to other is, should be a mystery to the reader, but not the writer.
Speaking of motivation, it's important in all fiction, but doubly so in suspense. Most of us pay a great deal of attention to what motivates the hero and heroine. But what about your villain? Let's not cop out and say the poor guy just loves to shoot people or his mother didn't breast feed him so he strangles women. As readers, we want to know what makes people tick, the good and the bad. As writers, it's vital that we know, that we slowly reveal these motivations to readers. We can relate on some level even to anti-heroes if we understand them. In drawing your characters, even the killers, it's good to keep in mind that no one is all black or all white. Even serial killer Ted Bundy, in real life and in the book about his life, The Stranger Beside Me, donated hours to servicing a suicide prevention hot line.
If you're just beginning to think about writing suspense, you might wonder how to go about your research. Most of us have formed our ideas of police procedure and criminal behavior from movies and television shows. These can be fairly inaccurate in the interest of drama. Most police departments have a public relations liaison officer who can be invaluable in clearing up misconceptions and in explaining how detectives really work.
There are also lots of books you can get from your library or bookstore to give you an authentic feel. For instance, The Writers Complete Crime Reference Book and Criminal Investigations are good sources put out by West Publishing. Then there's the truly wonderful Howdunit Series published by Writers Digest. They offer Armed and Dangerous, a thorough explanation of weapons, as well as Cause of Death, which delves into forensic medicine, Police Procedural, Secene of the Crime, Private Eyes and Deadly Doses (which is all about poisons) and others. Read and study all of these and you've got a great beginning.
To summarize, suspense grows out of situation and action, romance out of two people attracted to one another who are often forced to be together by somewhat dangerous circumstances. It's a merger of two popular genres. You need an empathetic hero and heroine who deal with problems by trying the simplest solutions first, just as any of us might, logically trying to find answers. If that doesn't work, they look to other sources and things often get complicated. The villain has to be an even match for these two, and should have qualities the reader can understand if not approve of. The things that happen to your two protagonists alternate between good and bad, testing their ability to cope, and finally wind up with a finish that will satisfy one and all.
An ending that will leave your reader amazed at your cleverness isn't all bad, either.
Copyright © 1999, Pat Warren. All rights reserved. You may reprint this chapter in whole or in part provided credit is given to the author.
| Pat Warren | began her writing career at the age of sixteen with a teenage column in the Akron Beacon Journal. Later, she wrote a humorous column about marriage and motherhood, which ran for several years in the Detroit News. She is an internationally best-selling author of over 40 novels with 5 million books in print, many translated into more than a dozen languages. A versatile writer, she is publ ished in contemporary romance, mystery and suspense. In April 1995 Warner released her first mainstream novel, Forbidden. Many of her titles have appeared on the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks paperback best-seller lists.