This is a guest post from Laura K. Curtis. Laura gave up a life writing dry academic papers for writing decidedly less dry short crime stories and novel-length romantic suspense and contemporary romance. A member of RWA, MWA, ITW, and Sisters in Crime, she has trouble settling into one genre. In 2015 alone, she has two romantic suspense novels—Echoes and Mind Games—from Penguin, a self-published contemporary in her “Goody’s Goodies” series about women who sell adult toys, and a short Gothic piece in Protectors 2: Heroes, an anthology to benefit PROTECT.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurakcurtis.
Romantic suspense is an odd hybrid. All the suspense of a thriller with the emotional punch of romance. The plot-driven thriller all mixed up with the character-driven romance. On their face, the two go together like…chocolate and garlic. Did you just make a face? I know I did. The keys to a delicious romantic suspense, as anyone who’s ever made roasted garlic truffles can tell you, are proportion and timing.
Despite what you may have heard elsewhere, there’s no formula to writing a romance of any kind, let alone a romantic suspense. No manual out there tells authors “the first kiss is by page thirty, first sex scene two-thirds of the way through.” We muddle through on our own, and every author has her own approach. Sometimes, the approach even differs book to book for the same author.
And sex and romance are not the same thing—just because two characters stop for a quickie on the side of the road when their getaway vehicle has broken down doesn’t mean they’ve developed a lasting emotional bond. Sexy thrillers are one thing; romantic suspense is another.
Here’s the basic division of ingredients for a sweet and savory romantic suspense: how a romance develops depends on the characters; when it develops depends on the plot. In some cases, the protagonists come to an author first. Their relationship, their personalities, their internal conflict. But in others, the setup—a world about to be destroyed by a lunatic with a bioweapon, a serial killer stalking blonde women through Chicago—calls the author, and the external conflict is then populated with the appropriate characters to drive it forward.
Romantic suspense that takes the “end of the world” road doesn’t leave much time for the protagonists to develop a romance. High-key action is fantastic for personal heroism, not so great for love. In this type of plot, sex frequently comes before deep emotion. It is desire (often with a healthy dose of adrenaline), not affection, that causes the protagonists to seek out time alone, and they get to know and care for one another partially as a result of taking that time.
On the other hand, in romantic suspense of the more personal type (the stalking serial killer, for example), the pacing is frequently slower. A relationship between characters who are working together in enforced proximity where there is a great deal of “downtime” can develop more slowly, in a more traditionally romantic vein.
And lastly there is the “reunion romance.” Action movies depend almost exclusively on this so that they don’t have to worry about developing romance. In the reunion romance, the characters have known each other in the past and at least one has always loved the other. Think, for example, of Die Hard. An out and out thriller, it’s also a favorite of romance fans and contains arguably one of the most romantic lines in any movie: “She’s heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times. She’s never heard me say I’m sorry.”
In Die Hard you had an example of two people in love who just needed to remember that love. In the original Terminator, James Cameron worked with the trope of the hero who’s been in love with the heroine forever. (Pretty much literally, since he comes from the future.) That particular plot conflates the end of the heroine’s life with the end of the world. If she dies, so does everyone else. It’s hugely effective, but doesn’t leave much time for romance. And she needs a romance. Without the romance, the world ends. Allowing the hero to have heard about her, fallen in love with her long before meeting her, gives him some latitude.
As with most books, there’s no “one right way” to do romantic suspense. Pick up a book by Carolyn Crane and your experience will be totally different than if you pick up one by Laura Griffin. But either way, you’ll get thrills, chills, and sweet, sweet love.