Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Romantic Suspense Is Not Just About Hunky Special Ops Heroes

I will start by saying that I am overly picky about romantic suspense. Actually, I'm pretty picky about a lot of genres, but this is one of the big ones for me. Too often, I am seeing stories that really don't live up to the expectations I have for romantic suspense. I do have to add to this, however, that this is an exceptionally tough genre to write considering the romance, needs to take the central focus, AND YET, the suspense element of it really does play an equally important role.

When I think about many of the stories I pass on with this genre, I do so because the writing is often cliche, but it also doesn't really fit the concept of suspense. These stories tend to be "ho-hum" in
nature, and leave me with a sense of simply saying "so what?" I find the heroes fake, the heroines amazingly stupid (I'll explain that one in just a second) and the plots far from real. Let me break this down for you.

I want to start first with the definition of suspense. I ran to the generic Internet definition of this one:

a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen.
"come on, Fran, don't keep me in suspense !"
Starting here, you can already see where many of the stories fall apart. The definition itself states we should be feeling excited, anxious and uncertain about what is going to happen. It is this last part that really falls apart for me. For the romance side of the story, this is fine. We know it will end up in the Happily Ever After so the only question there is how the characters overcome the obstacles. With the suspense side, however, we have a completely different twist. 

In simple terms, we should not already know what is going to happen. The author needs to keep us on our toes, not with simply "I wonder what the bad guy is going to do" but we need to push it to concepts such as:
  • Who is the bad guy? We should start to feel paranoid about a lot of people.
  • How far will things go? 
  • What will even happen next?
  • etc.
I mean, look at the synonyms for the word, All of these really amp up the stakes for the characters. It isn't simply a question of will the hero save her, but there is a lot more on the line. Success and failure for not just the relationship is on the brink here and if we, as authors, don't read faster, who knows what will happen! Arrrgggghhhh!!!

I think the other issue I see in these stories is that the relationship is 100% built around the "suspense" plot element. The only real conflict in the story is the fact there is a stalker chasing the heroine and the hero has to protect her. We have talked about this in the past here, but the conflict of the story needs to be much more than simply this external conflict. 

This problem also affects the happily ever after element of the story. When I see stories like this, where the hero and heroine are drawn together by the emotionally charged events of the external conflict, I start to wonder what their life will be like after this is over. The anticipation, excitement, apprehension and the strain of that moment will simply not be there. I just don't think deciding what to have for dinner that night, or which movie to take the kids to will be enough of an adrenaline rush.

Finally, we get to the characters and how they fall apart too often in these stories. It comes down to the word CLICHE. I honestly have to say, I almost gag when I see an query come in where we find, "the hero (often having a sort of weird name like Tag, Chase, Duke or Buck) is an ex Navy Seal with issues." Why? I do know the authors are often grabbing these people because they still "have connections with the military" or "they know how to fight" or "they are bulked up". This is not enough though and simply makes your story sound run-of-the mill. All of this adds up to being counterproductive to the definition we started with.

For the heroines, we run into the same problems. Why do we have to have these characters doing stupid things, only to end up needing to be saved. Let's try this one. She works as a youth director in a local program such at the YMCA. Suddenly we have in increase in drug and gang influence in the community so she decides she is going to go right in and personally manhandle the criminals in the gang. "Oh, that sounds smart!" Of course the added twist to this is the hero is already "undercover and now is really pissed off because she is ruining the sting he had going for over 2 years." A) Do you see how predictable this is; B) the conflict comes from her stupidity which probably wouldn't have happened; and C) this is probably not that realistic. 

I get it, these are just tough to write. This is part of the reason why there are so few out there who really have done well with the genre. These stories take planning. These stories take plotting. You cannot just write a book with hot characters having sex in the middle of a manufactured crisis. We should not be motivated to turn to the page just to find out when the characters jump into the sheets together. We need to be turning the pages to know if SURVIVAL IS EVEN POSSIBLE!

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