Tips and Tricks for Writing Romantic Suspense
by Patience Bloom, senior editor of Harlequin Romantic Suspense
So, you want to write a suspenseful romance? Fantastic! We’re always looking for exciting stories, combing submissions from the next big author. It takes a village to put a book together, but that village begins and ends with your imagination. You may have your story all plotted out with characters talking in your head. Villain, check. Dark moment, check. Engaging points of view, check. All the ingredients may be there, but as you write, it’s helpful to keep these 5 points in mind. These are issues we, the editors, encounter most often when considering your work.
1. Start simple. The biggest mistake I see is when a writer throws in everything but the kitchen sink. The heroine discovers she’s pregnant by the cowboy down the street who has amnesia and can’t remember that he’s the father of another baby left on his doorstep by his ex who just died in a car crash—or was she murdered–but he never forgot the heroine. Did I mention a tornado is coming? This is sensory overload for the reader and often seems forced. When you start, consider a basic plot first. Like, the heroine is on the run and must face her demons and the man she never stopped loving. Think of what the back cover copy of your book might say. Something simple and catchy, right? It’s not how much you put in the story, but how you tell it. For a series book, you don’t need a lot of ado to get to I Do.
2. Think zig-zag, not line. In Romantic Suspense, you need to build momentum. It’s much easier to think in a line, but a linear plot is not so compelling for the reader. We expect the excitement to grow, increasing in layers, to that big, unforgettable ending, which always refers back to the beginning. I tend to see a great Romantic Suspense plot as two steps forward, three steps back. The heroine might make progress, but an element holds her back. With a linear plot, you might see something like this: The heroine falls down the stairs. She dusts herself off and then gets mugged. After that, she gets hit by a car. The hero comes along and then they both get kidnapped. Long story long, too much happens and it doesn’t build. Not only that, but the linear plot becomes predictable. In a more zig-zagging or circular plot, we’re always reminded of what came before and how it affects the next steps. The writer should bring the story full circle by the end. When faced with similar challenges, this time, the heroine/hero win.
3. Oh no, not that! In your story, you have to introduce the characters’ worst fears and really torture them. At the end, the last thing the heroine wants, her ultimate nightmare, should come true in some form. Often, I see a stalker introduced and you know, he/she will reappear at the end. The heroine/the reader is far too prepared for this. But it’s not so much the stalker that creates the dark moment but the feeling that the stalking will never end. Terror and dread are a victim’s worst enemy and, as a writer, you need to convey this in a creative way. When the oh no, not that moment occurs, make it different and unpredictable. Most of all, make it resonate.
4. And then it gets worse. When life couldn’t get any worse, make it worse! The heroine’s stalker’s whole family just appeared with guns, ready to kill her. Wait, it gets worse. The hero has no idea where she is and is happily eating his breakfast at the diner! If you want to be predictable, have the hero magically know she’s disappeared and he could brilliantly remember a little cabin the stalker used during his summers as a camp counselor and the hero arrives in the nick of time. Zzzz. If you want to make your reader uncomfortable, prolong the agony. The hero tries this place and fails—but his desperation grows. He thinks of life without her; he knows she’s dead. They only just found each other and now his world has been upended in a way he hadn’t expected. Meanwhile, the heroine is immersed in her own seventh layer of Hades, confronting the worst nightmares in her soul. Maybe she barely escapes, maybe she kicks and screams, maybe she re-experiences trauma. Whatever it is, you should break your reader’s heart and make your characters’ emotional recovery uncertain. Often, the most powerful stories are the ones where your characters seem permanently damaged at the end. You don’t believe they could ever live happily ever after.
5. But they do! Give your reader an enormous triumph, an outcome that is better than your character ever expected. An example of this can be found at the end of Enough, starring Jennifer Lopez. An abused wife flees her awful—but good-looking–husband. He finds her, and we knew he would. The tired route would be to have her go to law enforcement and report him–again. She’s already done that and maybe she can bait him just in time for someone else to take him to jail (zzz). But this heroine knows deep down she has to face her fears. She has to take matters into her own hands (scary!). She trains and trains…and then waits for him to show. The viewer expects her to die, but die fighting, which is victory enough. This ending goes a step further. J.Lo beats the you-know-what out of him and the viewer can’t help but rejoice in her personal triumph (I don’t promote violence but sometimes it happens). Include a big triumphant moment where your characters kick some derriere; show the knife the heroine had hidden the whole time, after her other weapons were taken away. You want to make your reader cheer at the end.
As editors of Romantic Suspense, we’re looking for a shock. What hasn’t been done before? What makes your story different and vital? How can you push your characters to the limit—and beyond? If you have a crazy thought, put it on paper and develop a romance around it. Often, you hear of people meeting during extraordinary circumstances. That’s what we want to read. We’re ready for your story!