Friday, August 20, 2010

Romantic Suspense

Some time back, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop given by best-selling author Brenda Novak. The topic was Romantic Suspense, and since that's what I like to read and write, I figured I could pick up some good tips from one of the masters of the genre. Here's what I learned:

A romantic suspense must be ONE story, not a romance and a suspense. They have to be dependent on each other, and the outside tensions have to be equal for both the suspense and the romance. One cannot exist without the other. Things that affect the suspense plot will also impact the relationship.

In a suspense, the timeline is usually short. Building the relationship over a short time has to feel plausible.

There's usually a lot of research involved, and you have to do enough to write with confidence about your subject. However (and this point was reiterated in the FBI workshop I took later), she said it's better to go with a widely held belief rather than confuse readers even though you're "right." This is problematic, because so many readers watch the CSI type shows and believe what happens there is the truth. They'll assume you're wrong, even if you're right.

Conflict: you need a lot. Constantly up the stakes, both for the suspense and relationship. You also need to vary the emotions. Escalating fear throughout the book without any other emotions, or breaks, will leave a reader exhausted, and likely unsatisfied. Conflicts can't be static.

She gave a lot of good writing advice that works regardless of genre. Start on a hook, leave the back story for later, create questions. End scenes in the middle. Tell the boring stuff, show the emotional. Use description sparingly. Use interesting, unique details in descriptive passages.

Revisions: she provided some exercises to move the first draft from ordinary to compelling. Use riskier language, have your character say something outrageous. Challenge reader expectations. Use subtext to add layers. Make dialog work on more than one level. Blend narrative with dialog.

Pacing needs to be quick and tight. Don't repeat information (one of my pet peeves).

Characters must behave in a manner that holds true for the nature of their situation.

Don't forget the villain.

Hold the tone of the book to a sense of mystery.

Brenda definitely provided a lot to think about. I write mystery-based stories, not suspense. I rarely have a "villain" as a POV character. That goes against what I like in a book. My Five Star romantic suspense, When Danger Calls, follows the 'no villain on the page' model. The secret behind the inciting incident is revealed little by little, so the reader doesn't see anything beyond what the characters see.

For more about me, and my writing, visit my website, and my personal blog, Terry's Place. And if you're looking for a bargain, I have autographed copies of When Danger Calls at a 50% discount off the cover price.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Terry,

I agree with Brenda's definition of romantic suspense. That's pretty much why I had reservations about having my novels THE INFERNO COLLECTION and THE DROWNING POOL listed as "romantic suspense" when they are in fact mystery novels with a strong element of romance. In romantic suspense, the romance is more important than any mystery or suspense elements. Romance takes precedence. I do intertwine these elements. However, my novels
are mysteries. That is why my third novel in this series, THE TRUTH SLEUTH, will come out under the Five Star mystery line in May. As to true romantic suspense, my just published historical romance TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS is truly a romantic suspense novel set in the Regency period where the romance is of the utmost importance but the mystery elements are intriguing.

Terry Odell said...

Actually, in a good romantic suspense, the balance should be about 50-50, Jacqueline. However you do have to make sure that you deal with wrapping up the mystery/suspense before the relationship reaches that HEA. In a well-structured rom sus, that all happens in a short number of pages after the climax.

Actually, writing a romantic suspense is much
harder than a straight mystery since you're actually writing 4 books in one.
Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I agree with you that a good romantic suspense novel is more difficult to write than straight mystery. But I disagree about the balance. It has to lean more toward the romance. Therefore,
the mystery is solved first while the romance is tied up in the final scenes.

Carol Ann said...

I agree in the 50/50 balance for romantic suspense. Writing any story with another subplot (romance, suspense) is harder because you must keep track of both plots, intertwining them seamlessly to keep the reader engaged. I write inspirational romantic suspense...even more difficult with adding yet another layer to the mix.
Brenda Novak is one of my fav authors. Heeding her advice can only help those writing romantic suspense. Thanks for sharing!

Carol Ann Erhardt

Terry Odell said...

Carol - I recently read a mainstream mystery that, were it not for the balance, could have easily been shelved with the romances. All the elements were there, but it was more of a 60-40, or even a 70-30 mix. The crime even wrapped up BEFORE the relationship did. But I don't think anyone would say John Sandford was writing a romance! But I gravitate toward the relationships in any book I read, so maybe that's why my books tend to be classified as romances.

Kathy said...

Brenda writes such fascinating books. I wish I could have taken her workshop, but you summed it up nicely here for us. Thanks Terry. I wonder how you deal with conflicting suggestions when people are helping critique something you are working on? One person loved the opening as well as another. A third said it didn't seem right so I'm second guessing what I had again.

Terry Odell said...

Kathy - I think Brenda's a wonderful all-around person. With crits--it's right to think about what people say, but wrong to blindly change things. But when a lot of people whose opinions you respect say the same thing, it's time to seriously consider the changes. One of the hardest lessons to learn is probably when to trust your own instincts, and when to trust others'.

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