Genre Explorer: Romantic Suspense

The following is an article I wrote for the March 2011 edition of LARA Confidential (the award-winning newsletter for the Los Angeles Romance Authors chapter of the Romance Writers of America), discussing the definition of the romantic suspense genre.  This article includes an interview with New York Times bestselling author and Rita award winner Cindy Gerard.

Genre Explorer: Romantic Suspense

By Laura Sheehan

As we are all depressingly aware, the romance genre is the most popular and yet inexplicably least respected form of literary fiction.  Despite consistently nabbing the largest share of the consumer market year after year, romance novels continue to carry the undeserved burden of being considered lesser fiction.  This, in my opinion, is due largely to the misunderstanding of what a romance novel actually is.

Don’t believe me?

Check out the romance section of your local bookstore and tell me if you can find Pride and Prejudice there, or Jane Eyre, or Gabaldon‘s Outlander, or Meyer‘s Twilight.  I think most of us would agree that all of these are excellent examples of romantic fiction, and yet these books are scattered across the store, re-categorized by the experts into Literature, Fantasy, Young Adult, or some other section depending on the whims of the booksellers.

So, if literary experts can’t even agree how to define the romance genre, how do we?  Many have tried, and many have failed, but my favorite definition is the simplest (and the same one purported by Romance Writers of America): a romance novel has a central love story and a happy ending.  BAM.  There you go.  I love its simplicity because such a broad and encompassing definition flies in the face of those idiotic literary critics who accuse romances of being formulaic.  How does a genre with such a wide embrace possibly produce only one-note novels?  It doesn’t.  So there.

Which brings us to the sub-genre, the genres within the romance genre.   We’re talking about romantic suspense, science fiction romances, paranormal romances, inspirational romances, and historical romances, to name a few.  And then there are the sub-sub-genres, such as regency romances within the sub-genre of historical romance, not to mention the cross-genre genres, such as time-travel romances, which could fall under both science fiction and paranormal romance… it’s enough to drive a woman mad.

But never fear, LARA is here!

To help guide you through the muddy waters of definitions, trends, challenges, and new directions of the various sub-genres (and sub-sub-genres) of romantic fiction, LARA brings you The Genre Explorer.

This month, we’re tackling Romantic Suspense.  So let’s tie this sucker down to the examination table and take a look at what it’s is really made of, and what that means for you.

 Romantic Suspense

Danger.  If I had to narrow down my definition of romantic suspense to one word, I would say the defining element would be danger.  But you’re not reading this for a one-word answer, and I’ve got plenty of room left in this article, so let’s expand upon that definition, shall we?

Suspense novels incorporate a sense of tension throughout the book; heart-pounding action, adrenaline-inducing chase scenes, edge-of-your-seat thrills, life-threatening situations, and dangerous criminals are all common elements of a suspense novel.  A romantic suspense would incorporate these suspenseful elements along with the essential components of a romance.  So, in a nutshell, we’ve got a central love story in which our lovers have to traverse a perilous plot of nail-biting adventures before they can live happily ever after.

What about romantic thrillers?  Romantic mysteries?  What’s the difference?

The term “thriller” is essentially synonymous with “suspense,” so the answer to that one is that there is no difference.  With mysteries, however, their plots are typically suspenseful but focus on the puzzle-solving aspect of the story.  The generally-accepted explanation of the difference between suspense/thrillers and mysteries is that the latter typically focuses on “who done it,” while the former usually focuses on “will the bad guy be caught in time?”  So although romantic mysteries can often fall under the category of romantic suspense, the reverse is not always the case.

The birth of the 20th century romantic suspense novel can arguably be traced back to Mary Stewart (i.e., Madam, Will You Talk – 1955, The Ivy Tree – 1962), whose beautifully-written stories weave together both romance and mystery, along with non-stop excitement.  Other famous (and favorite) romantic suspense authors include Linda Howard, Jayne Ann Krentz (Amanda Quick, Jayne Castle), J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), Catherine Coulter, Sandra Brown, Tami Hoag, Iris Johansen, Cindy Gerard, and many more.  I could use up my entire allotted word count listing all the great authors in this genre, but… OK, just a few more: Carla Neggers, Laura Griffin, Brenda Novak, Lisa Gardner, Kay Hooper, Susan Andersen, Karen Robards, Allison Brennan, Pamela Clare… Alright, alright, I’m stopping now.

Clearly, I’m a fan.  But I’m not alone!  According to Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2010, romantic suspense novels were a top-selling subgenre of romance novels in 2009, second only to historical romance.  And according to RWA, about 9.5% of romantic subgenre novels published in 2009 were romantic suspense.

So now you know what a romantic suspense is, who some of the major authors in the field are, and you have an idea of just how popular this genre is with the public.  So that means you’re ready to go forth and write a best-selling romantic suspense novel, right?

Err, probably not just yet.  Why?  Because we haven’t talked about the most important thing: what makes a good romantic suspense.

Ahh, that’s always the kicker, isn’t it?  Many of us may approach the distinction between good romantic suspense and bad romantic suspense in a manner similar to that of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously defined pornography by saying, “I know it when I see it.”  But that non-definition definition won’t help us writers, so I went to an expert to get the real thing.

Cindy Gerard is not only the author of the enormously successful Black Ops Inc. and The Bodyguards series, but she is also a two-time Rita winner and New York Times best-seller.  In addition to all that, it turns out she is also unbelievably generous with her time and extremely responsive to her fans (ahem), making me a very lucky girl indeed.

After she agreed to be interviewed (and after I subsequently danced a little jig in my living room), I got down to business and asked Ms. Gerard what elements she considers vital to a good romantic suspense:

“Action, adventure, realism, diligent research, AND compelling characters that we can champion and cheer for on both their perilous journey and their emotional journey into their budding relationship.”

So, in addition to the action and adventure of our stories, we can’t forget the believability.  Not only must the world/setting be believable, requiring research to add those elements of realism and depth, but our characters’ emotional development has to be equally relatable and authentic.  Incorporating gripping moments into the plot is a given for any romantic suspense, but incorporating those same thrilling moments into a character’s emotional arc takes a special kind of skill.

Gerard seems to relish the challenges this sub-genre poses.  “I love the action and adventure and creating larger than life yet (hopefully) realistic situations that pit my characters against danger and moral dilemmas and sometimes place them at odds with their own sense of self and who they are or who they thought they were.  Tense, life-threatening situations bring out both the best and the worst in the ‘human condition’ and I love exploring all the character nuances that come along for the ride.  If my hero and heroine don’t evolve into ‘more’ than they were at the beginning of the book, then I didn’t do my job.”

When it comes to common errors that romantic suspense authors should be wary of, Gerard cautions, “…the biggest error would be over-writing and manufacturing emotions.  Your characters have to be honest and real.  They have to react to their situation and to each other with total honesty or readers will not invest in them or care about them, which equates to not caring about the story.  And it’s a huge mistake to pay lipservice to a character’s ‘issues’.  For instance, if you have a recovering alcoholic or someone suffering from PTSD as a main character, then, by all means, don’t just gloss over it.  Infuse his or her ongoing struggles in their growth – or their relapse – throughout the book.  Life is messy.  So, too, should your story be messy.”

So go forth, fellow LARA-ites, and make a mess.  A thrilling, dangerous, adventurous, action-filled, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat, authentic, breath-catching, eye-widening, passionate mess.

And then send me a copy, cause I’m a sucker for a good romantic suspense.

8 thoughts on “Genre Explorer: Romantic Suspense

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  6. I was struggling with how to define a book I wrote, and this guide was very helpful! My story of a gaslight con woman who is forced out of retirement when her past comes back to haunt her (literally) definitely feels like it best fits into romantic suspense even though it is also both paranormal and historical. Thanks for the post 🙂

  7. Laura Sheehan,

    I came across your web page when I was looking for a genre classification for my novel, “Alligator Park.” I thought it might be a “Romance Thriller” and your article help me categorize it. I would like to send you a free copy since you expressed an interest in this type of novel. If it doesn’t appeal to you, feel free to donate it to a charity. This is a brief description: “A romance thriller about trust, love, and deception, and about one woman’s quest to overcome an unforgiving world that has torn her life apart.” More information at my Amazon Author’s Page.

    Amazon Author’s Page:

  8. Pingback: Genres Wk. 26: Romantic Suspense – Archivist Tara Belle

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