The Romantic Suspense Triangle
A little more about what romantic suspense is (and isn't) and the romantic suspense triangle:
1) What is romantic suspense?
Romantic suspense is, in fact, its own genre. The breadth of romantic suspense is huge, from erotic to paranormal to historical, from light to dark, from heavy suspense to heavy romance and everything in between.
This is why I love romantic suspense as a reader--there are lots of choices. And as a writer, it gives me a broad canvas on which to find my voice.
Some people will state that "romantic suspense" is ONLY books where the suspense and the romance are so intimately entwined that you can't have one without the other.
For me, a romantic suspense is a romance with a strong suspense element or a suspense with a strong romance element. There's that scale that I hear about-- 70/30. As long as there's at least 30% suspense or 30% romance, it's a romantic suspense.
Storytime: When I was sending out queries for THE PREY, my debut novel, I called it a "Mainstream suspense with strong romantic elements that may appeal to readers of Iris Johansen, Lisa Gardner and Tami Hoag." Why? Because in too many contests I was slammed down and told that I wasn't writing romantic suspense. I got an agent off that query and guess what she told me? That I had "nailed" the romantic suspense genre.
It's not the "formula" or the percentage or whether your hero and heroine are together in chapter one.
Romantic suspense has a story promise: that the villain will be defeated and the hero and heroine will survive and be together (or closer) at the end of the book. Every agent, every publisher, every reader, every writer, has a different definition of romantic suspense FOR THEM. None of them are wrong. Especially if they're the publisher :)
The other thing about writing in general is that it’s all about voice. Yes, good writing and good storytelling are important, but what makes a story truly shine is the author’s voice. We all like different music, and music has its own voice as well. Books are no different. You may find that your natural voice is writing dark suspense, so when you try and force humor it falls flat. Or maybe your natural voice is writing uplifting women’s fiction with some suspense—but if you try killing off characters, you come out with an unwieldy mess.
Finding your voice is crucial, and no one can tell you where it is. The only way you can discover your voice is to practice writing, and if things aren’t coming together the way you want, maybe you need to try writing darker or lighter, adding the paranormal or taking it away, changing the time period, or writing in a completely different genre.
2) The romantic suspense triangle.
The romantic suspense triangle is crucial--you can't have an RS without a villain. In an RS, the villain is usually a person who wants to harm the hero, heroine or others and therefore you have a physical threat. (There are also non-violent villains, usually called the antagonist, who is a villain to the hero/heroine but not necessarily what we think of as a “villain” in a romantic suspense. In contemporary romance, the antagonist (villain) may be the minor child of the heroine who doesn’t like his mom dating again, or the ex-girlfriend of the hero who begins stalking the heroine, or the mother who passive-aggressively demeans her daughter.)
The villain is ALSO an emotional threat to the hero OR heroine or both. Often it's facing a fear in order to defeat the villain, or it's the emotional threat of a relationship in the midst of danger and/or other deep-seated fears—a pending disaster, a fear of losing a loved one, a person in jeopardy, etc.. But there needs to be a balance--the villain needs to add weight and depth to the story, not be a throw-in or used solely as a plot device to get the hero and heroine together.
Remember, the VILLAIN IS THE HERO OF HIS OWN JOURNEY. EVERY character is on a journey, and the story is where all those journeys intersect. If you keep that in mind, your romantic suspense will have a much stronger impact.
So what is the triangle? Hero – Heroine – Villain. The Hero and Heroine generally have a lot of page time in the book, and when both of them AREN’T on the page, the villain gets the face time. (There are of course secondary characters who are important, and some get their own scenes and POV, but that’s probably going to be less than 20% of the total pages in your book.)
You must have a strong villain, a villain WORTHY of your hero. A weak, silly villain who is a dumb criminal will make your hero look dumb if he can’t catch the bad guy. No one likes a dumb hero. ☺ . . . But the villain—the smarter, or scarier, or more violent, or more sick, or even more sympathetic—a strong villain gives the hero and heroine a chance to shine.
If you take away one of these points in the triangle, the story falls apart—while some people believe that romance and suspense need to be so entwined that you can’t have one without the other; I believe it’s character based—if you can take out the villain, you have a contemporary romance. If you take out the hero, you have women’s fiction or a suspense or mystery. If you take out the heroine, you have a thriller. For romantic suspense you must have those three pillars: hero, heroine, villain.
Any questions? Comments? Problems? Ask away!
Reply to Mary Ellen: Plotting
Hi Mary Ellen!
Every writer is unique, and every writer has a different approach to writing and plotting. The hard part is to find the best system for you.
I don't plot. I start with a character and a premise and go from there. I have some loose ideas in my head, but I really don't know what's going to happen until I start writing and get a feeling for my characters and what they will do under different situations.
For example, when I started KILLING FEAR, my prison break trilogy, I didn't know anything except that the hero was a cop, the heroine was a witness who used to be a stripper but now owned her own nightclub, and the villain escaped during an earthquake at San Quentin. I didn't know the heroine was scared of the dark until I got into her head; I didn't know that the villain was guilty of only three of the four murders he was convicted for; I knew there was another killer out there, but I didn't know who. I knew that the hero and heroine had a relationship during the original investigation, but I didn't know why they broke up or what happened.
All these developed as I wrote the book, then I tightened and strengthened the elements during revisions. Some plot points I dumped, some I changed completely.
I'm more comfortable not writing within a structure. My current WIP completely changed as I wrote it, and I had to rewrite the beginning to make it work. I don't mind rewriting, and in fact I embrace it.
But a lot of people don't feel comfortable writing without a structure. In that case, what some people do that seems to work for them is:
1) write a loose, fluid outline, highlighting the key plot and turning points.
2) using the three act structure to plot (see Vogler's THE HERO'S JOURNEY)
3) Writing a detailed chapter by chapter outline
I couldn't plot to save my life, but others couldn't write organically.
The most important thing to do is to keep moving forward--write, keep writing, keep making progress. If you're not making progress then you might need to change your process. Don't be afraid to experiment and try new things until you feel comfortable with the process.
I hope that helps! But ask more questions if you have them :)