Harlequin editor Leslie Wainger said that in a romantic suspense, the suspense plot and the romance should be so tightly interwoven that if you removed one strand the plait – or story – would collapse. This is the image that has fuelled every romantic suspense I have written and is the standard to which I hold those I read.
The reason for deciding to blog about this is that I often see some of the keenest and most widely read fans of romance saying that they have been burned too often by romantic suspense. One book review lead to a conversation in which people agreed that the main love story and characters were great, but that the suspense plot was unbelievable, manipulative and mainly there to keep the protagonists from falling in love too soon. One person said they liked the romance so much they skipped the suspense plot and ended up enjoying it far more.
While I have never read a book where the two plot lines could be so easily disentangled as to be ignored, I have read a few where by a little over half way the couple are more or less in love and the rest of the book is mostly solving the mystery and some cosy romance. I believe if any time before the last chapter either plot strand could be resolved and leave the other strand intact, they are not tightly enough intertwined and it’s not a true romantic suspense – it can still be a good book, a romance with mild suspense elements, or a suspense with some romance, but not what I was hoping for.
What I mean by resolving one strand would be someone’s boss suddenly appearing and saying, “hey, we caught the villain, he confessed and there’s no more threat, take some leave.” What do the hero and heroine do then? If they smile and say thanks and jet off for a fortnight making love on a beach there wasn’t enough romantic conflict. In my writing and in those books I adore, at least one of the protagonists would turn and run away as fast as possible – solving the suspense is all that is keeping them alongside the other person and by doing so they find out enough about themselves and each other to move forward to love and a hea.
Maybe I love forced proximity stories too much, or reunions where there’s a lot of baggage, or enemies to lovers. But in my opinion solving a mystery or a little shared danger isn’t enough for a hea, I want real personal gaols and motivations keeping them apart, not a deranged killer. It’s having to work together to find a solution that forces them to face their internal emotional conflicts, makes then appreciate the other’s strengths – and weaknesses – and makes them reluctantly fall in love. The suspense is actually pushing them together, inadvertently creating character growth and strength, rather than being a device to stop them falling in love too soon or creating artificial tension.
That’s how I like the romance to be dependent on the suspense, but it needs to work the other way as well – to keep the plait taut in all directions. What if half way through the book the H&h decide they are in love and go to the boss in charge if the suspense investigation and say, “we’ve had enough of this danger, get some other cops/spies/scientists/soldiers to solve this while we go off and make out for a week.” If the boss says, “sure, have fun,” then the suspense plot could belong to anyone. It needs to be personal to this particular H&h. There has to be a reason why they are determined to find answers, why are they putting their lives in danger, why is this story being told?
I’ll admit that this aspect only became clear to me fairly recently, but it’s why so many suspense books have a protagonist in danger such as being a witness or survivor of a serial killer – they will never be safe until the bad guy is caught. Or it’s someone out to clear a family member’s name, or get justice for a murdered partner, or to right something they feel guilty about, or because someone close to them is in danger. Of course there doesn’t always have to be a personal link to the suspense plot and I have read a few brilliant examples where the H&h just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but on the whole the braiding together of the suspense and romance is made stronger when at least one of the protagonists is personally invested in the suspense. Can any moment be darker than when a choice has to be made between solving the mystery to which they have dedicated their life or saving the person they have reluctantly fallen in love with? The ultimate romantic suspense dilemma.
Of course a plait, or braid, has three strands, not two. For me that’s perfect because in Harlequin Romantic Suspense they like the romance to be of more importance than the suspense, they used to specify 60% romance to 40% suspense and while I don’t think it’s that rigid any more it’s the kind of balance I try to aim for. So, what is the third strand in my plait? One is the suspense or danger or mystery plot. One is the romantic conflict, the inner reasons why they can’t instantly fall in love, the cerebral romance and barrier if you like, the past history and all the things that keep them at arm’s length – even while they acknowledge that there is a connection or an attraction there. So the third strand is showing us, and them, that attraction. It’s the awareness, the sensual details, the touches and glances and reluctant appreciation that they can’t help even though mentally and emotionally they know it’s a bad idea.
And of course these are the moments that happen while everything else is going on. When you’re on the run from bad guys there’s no time to stop and date or get to know each other as we would in “normal” life, everything is heightened and fast and pressured and that’s why suspense stories are great for bringing people together who would never work under any other circumstances – whether they are warring exes, childhood best friends or Montagues and Capulets – the suspense throws them together and all the while they know they can’t be together they are watching each other solve clues, adapt under pressure, be cool under fire, be resourceful and brave and compassionate and no matter how hard they fight it they start to grudgingly appreciate the other while they are solving the suspense plot. It makes them see each other in a light that they wouldn’t without the suspense – the strength in someone’s fingers as they hot wire a car, the gentleness as they bandage a wound, the way they bite their lip as they try to solve a puzzle, or the impatient way they push their hair out of their eyes even while having the kindness and time to calm a scared child. All of these are the little moments that make up a romance almost before we’re aware of it and that can happen literally under fire. When the danger has passed, then is the time for the cerebral strand to come back to the fore and for the doubts or reasons not to fall in love to have the upper hand, but then the suspense is upped again giving a moments respite from romantic dilemma, and so on, constantly twisting and highlighting one of the strands while the others are still visible, holding it all in place.
I doubt that I have stated this as clearly as I would like, but it shows what I hope for as a reader and aim for as a writer. I believe that Leslie Wainger has now retired from Harlequin although her “Writing a romance novel for dummies” book is still available. I was fortunate enough to discover the forums at harlequin.com in 2001. Leslie was the senior editor of the Silhouette Intimate Moments line (published in the UK as Sensation) and she had an “ask the editor” thread where she dispensed nuggets of wisdom, humour and Buffy (mostly Spike) appreciation. I think I had already realised that Intimate Moments was the line that most suited my reading and writing taste and so I lapped up every bit of advice and have some saved in clunky document files. This was how she phrased it:
It also helps to think of your book as a braid. Many new authors think of plot and romance as the side rails of a railroad track, going on together, parallel but never really crossing, though occasionally there are switches that connect them. But in a braid, you have many strands woven together to create a whole. Remove one and the whole thing falls apart.
And that’s (just one reason) why she was a genius editor and entertaining giver of advice. I hope some of it causes a few lightbulb moments for other romantic suspense writers and that I have applied it correctly to my current work. If I haven’t, I leave this image as a warning of what happens when a plait goes wrong.
*Post edited on 15 May when I realised I had mispelled Leslie’s surname. I did a last minute check of her name against her book on Amazon UK and it picked up the incorrect spelling from a review as my top search. So much for attention to detail… dammit.