by Fay Lamb
When asked about writing romantic suspense, the word “formula” often arises. Many publishers insist on “formula.” Here is what formula means to romantic suspense: hero and heroine meet before the first chapter, opposition enters the story to keep them apart, until their happy-ever-after ending.
I’m not a formula person, but there are components that are a must-have for romantic suspense to work well:
A Likeable Hero and Heroine
Oh, you can try making one or both of your main characters unlikeable at first, but selling it to an editor or agent might take a little more effort, especially if this is your first foray into this or any genre. I recommend starting with a likeable guy and gal. Give them some scars or some problems to overcome. In my novel Stalking Willow, I had a very unlikeable heroine. She was an angry mess of bitterness, and every word she spoke brought that truth out about her. My critique partners didn’t like her. I’d say they hated her, but that would be too strong of a word, even if it’s true. My excuse was “no one likes a bitter person.”
It didn’t take too long to realize that my critique partners were right. I had to tone the heroine down. Enter the hero. A likeable sort. A pretty nice guy. Great with kids. He’s a high school coach. He’s known the heroine all of his life, and he harbors a bit of bitterness toward her. After all, she left town and didn’t come back for ten years, and she only returned because she had a stalker on her tennis-shoe heels.
The heroine’s bitterness is rewritten with a sarcastic wit which becomes a plot device for the story. The hero is then able to turn the tables on her. With the help of some secondary characters, the heroine begins to see her bitterness through their eyes, and the eyes of her hero. While she’s attempting to change, her sarcasm comes back to haunt her because everyone takes the things she says in the wrong way, and she often wonders why they’ve taken exception to something she’s said.
The hero? He had a slight problem with anger when it comes to another character. He gets into a few fights in the story. He’s far from perfect, but a wise editor told me to never—ever—ever—let the hero throw the first punch.
With a heroine and hero in place, the key is to make sure that the reader will want the couple together. In Stalking Willow, I used a few plot devices that folded nicely into some subplots: a picture the heroine had drawn of the hero and a baseball cap. I also allowed the arguments between the couple to show that, despite their anger toward each other, they were still in love.
A Conflict Fueled Plot Driven by a Troublesome Villain (or Two)
I’m sure that somewhere in the writing journey, every writer has heard or will hear this mantra: Conflict. Conflict. Conflict.
Conflict is the fuel that drives a story forward. Without fuel, the story won’t even sputter and die. The story will never start. The plot will go nowhere.
The conflict in the main plot of a suspense novel must be the villain (person or thing) that will bring danger (conflict) to one or both of the main characters (the hero and heroine). The villain’s actions may be toward only one member of the dynamic duo, but at some point in the plot, the villain must run across both the hero and heroine. The conflict he or she brings to the story must build as the story moves forward.
In Stalking Willow, one villain is closer than the heroine thinks from the very beginning of the story. He scares her back to her hometown intending to wreak more havoc upon her, toying with her until the right moment. With each scene, the conflict of the main plot escalates with the villain getting bolder and bolder and introducing trouble for the heroine—trouble the hero wants to save her from—trouble the villain eventually turns on the second scoundrel, whom the heroine has never met in her life, despite the closeness of their relationship. That’s called a plot twist. Those are nice additions in any genre.
Pacing: the Right Speed in the Right Scene
I’m often asked the difference between a thriller and suspense. The difference is the pacing. Generally, a thriller moves quickly. The author uses short, clipped sentences or other techniques to develop a sense of urgency to the scenes, which amp up to a fast pace with a lot of action. The action might build to a point where the reader is clinging to the seat waiting to see what’s going to happen next. The key to this type of writing is to keep the characters in motion, fighting against conflict.
A writer of suspense, though, must develop the skill that allows them to recognize when to slow the pace of the story to draw out the tension of a scene or speed it up to give it the feel of a thriller.
In Stalking Willow both techniques are used. In a scene in which the heroine must escape from a predicament quickly, the sentences are short, and the actions keep coming. Not only actions. There is conflict with every move the heroine makes to get out of the predicament. I wanted the reader biting her manicured nails.
Another scene in the novel was written slowly, to draw out the tension for the reader. This is often done in horror films. You know the ones: the teenager who’s been left at home to babysit her baby brother is in her kitchen consoling herself by making an ice cream float. Ding She receives a text message. What? Does her friend seriously think she’ll believe that someone else is using her phone—someone who says he’s killed her friend and he’s coming after her? She starts to text back. Bam! A loud thud hits the floor above her. She drops the tub of ice cream and searches frantically through the kitchen drawer for her mother’s knife, the one with the big blade. If her friend is joking, this isn’t funny. Her little brother’s asleep. She finds her weapon and walks to the foot of the stairs, listening. The knife trembles with her white-knuckled grasp. She forgets to breathe. The noise upstairs has stopped. Had she only imagined it? She lowers the knife. A loud bang from her brother’s room sends her body into convulsions. A door creaks open. She drops the knife and bends over to get it, holding to the banister, looking upstairs while feeling around on the tile floor for her only weapon. She calls for her brother. He’s only a baby. He couldn’t be making the noise, but someone is up there with him. All goes still. She calls out his name again. Silence. She starts up the stairs, one slow step at a time, knife raised …
You get the picture. That’s the Alfred Hitchcock style of suspense. That style worked for him, and it works for suspense writers as well. A student of romantic suspense will study these scenes to make sure that the pacing is just right.
Oh, and no writer ever wants to hurry the romantic kiss. The key is to turn the slow pace of the suspenseful moment into one the reader wants to see occur rather than one the reader wants the character to avoid.
And last, we have our …
Happy-Ever After Ending
Spoiler alert: in Stalking Willow the hero and heroine have a happy-ever-after ending. I don’t mind telling you that because while the sweet kiss, lover’s embrace, or a poignant moment is nice, it usually comes at the end of the story. The heart of a romantic suspense—the part that an author wants the reader to remember—is the journey that got them to that moment.
So, find that lovable hero and heroine, put them into conflict with a villain, and amp up or string out the suspense to take the reader on an adventure they will never forget to a happy ending. Give the hero and heroine a happy ending, and let the villain get what he or she deserves.
Fay Lamb is an editor, writing coach, and author, whose emotionally charged stories remind the reader that God is always in the details. Fay has contracted two series. Stalking Willow and Better than Revenge, Books 1 and 2 in the Amazing Grace romantic suspense series are currently available for purchase. Charisse and Libby the first two novels in her The Ties That Bind contemporary romance series have been released. Fay has also collaborated on two Christmas novella projects: The Christmas Three Treasure Hunt, and A Ruby Christmas, and the Write Integrity Press romance novella series, which includes A Dozen Apologies, The Love Boat Bachelor, and Unlikely Merger. Her adventurous spirit has taken her into the realm of non-fiction with The Art of Characterization: How to Use the Elements of Storytelling to Connect Readers to an Unforgettable Cast.
Future releases from Fay are: Everybody’s Broken and Frozen Notes, Books 3 and 4 of Amazing Grace and Hope and Delilah, Books 3 and 4 from The Ties that Bind.
Fay loves to meet readers, and you can find her on her personal Facebook page, her Facebook Author page, and at The Tactical Editor on Facebook. She’s also active on Twitter. Then there are her blogs: On the Ledge, Inner Source, and the Tactical Editor. And, yes, there’s one more: Goodreads.
Anyone interested in learning more about Fay’s freelance editing and her coaching should contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.