Thursday, March 12, 2020

How to Increase Suspense in Romantic Thrillers

One of my favourite romantic suspense stories is Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks.  Katie plots a life-saving escape from a violent and abusive husband and builds a new life for herself in a seaside town in North Carolina.

While Katie is trying not to fall in love with a kind and handsome storekeeper in North Carolina, the wicked husband is slowly but surely hunting her down.The reader is compelled by the fragile love story unfolding, as well as fear of what will happen if the husband finds Katie.

Merriam Webster defines a thriller as a “work of fiction or drama designed to hold the interest by the use of a high degree of intrigue, adventure, or suspense.”  Suspense is defined as the “pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome.”

So when we write love stories that include a thriller element, we suspend some of the facts from our readers knowledge, in order to fuel excitement about the outcome. We insert a mystery, an adventure or a dash of intrigue into the story by leaving clues that raise questions in the reader’s mind, over and above the will they won’t they of the romance.

 1.     A Hook

If suspense can be described as anxious uncertainty about what will happen, then in a romantic suspense novel, we need a hook that will grab the reader’s attention early to raise questions about what will happen next.  The hook should be uncomfortable enough to it give our reader some anxiety.

Drew Graham -Unsplash

In the first chapter of Safe Haven, we find Katie waiting tables in a casual family restaurant in North Carolina, surrounded by dating couples and nice, friendly people. But in that safe environment we learn she can’t sleep, her hands shake, and she refuses a date because of a bad past experience.  She thinks back to when, for just a moment she was happy, like the dating couples.

And we’re hooked. We like Katie, but we’re worried about her.  Why do her hands shake and why can’t she sleep? Is her trauma over?  What will happen next?

2.      Plot Twists

Colton Sturgeon - Unsplash

As we go along, we insert plot twists or more surprising information that must either shock our readers or be unexpected. This keeps the momentum of the initial question going.  

In Safe Haven we are surprised to learn that Katie’s ex is a policeman, someone who should keep others safe.  Instead he is abusive, we know he is trained to kill and are terrified when he uses his police connections and resources to hunt Katie down.

It is preferable in romantic suspense to find the balance between the thriller twists and the love story.  Rather keep the suspense plot simple and have one good plot twist, surrounded by the ebb and flow of the romance. If you end up with multiple not-so-shocking plot twists, the thriller side could descend into melodrama.

 3.      Setting

Joe Beck - Unsplash

A chilling setting is another way we can increase the suspense in a story.   Think about the setting of a dark and stormy night. It is a well-known trope for a reason. Storms and darkness create the kind of mood that feeds suspense. There are many other settings that create a mood in which suspense will flourish: old castles, windswept beaches, quiet parking garages, forests, desolate mausoleums.

4.     Character Vulnerability

When it comes to your characters, think of the worst thing you can do to them, and then make it worse.  This will give your readers the anxiety you need for them to feel the suspense.

Caleb Jones - Unsplash

Expose vulnerabilities in a character so the character becomes real and worth worrying about. For example, in Safe Haven, the handsome storekeeper is also a struggling single Dad. He tries so hard and we love him for it. We really don’t want the evil husband to come and take revenge on the storekeeper and especially not his children. They are part of the storekeeper’s vulnerability and make the reader root for him. We keep reading to make sure the children are going to be fine.  The character of the storekeeper grows as he has to deal with the fact that the threat to his children’s safety comes from the jealous ex of the woman he loves.

 5.      Time limits

Another way to increase  suspense is by setting a time limit. Give your characters a limited time frame to accomplish something.  In Safe Haven, Katie has to get the storekeeper’s children out of the house before her ex-husband burns it down.  You can imagine the suspense is pretty intense.

Brooke Cagle - Unsplash

Romantic Suspense author, Sandra Brown has the following extra tips on writing romantic suspense on The Novel Suspects 

The four elements of romance that I incorporate into every book:
1. The hero and heroine must share time and space.
2. They are co-dependent, needing each other in order to survive a common threat or to overcome a shared enemy. Neither is happy about requiring the other. They’re reluctant allies.
3. Nevertheless, they desire each other. Badly.
4. They’re forbidden to each other. Something built into the plot makes it impossible for them to submit to their desire. If he’s a fireman, she needs to be an arsonist.
The Suspense
I plant a question in the reader’s mind early on. If not in the first sentence, then certainly by the end of the prologue and first chapter. I continue to plant questions and if I do it correctly, the reader isn’t even aware of the questions. But I withhold the answers for as long as possible. The first question asked is the last question answered. That “aha” is the reason for the story. It’s what makes the point of telling it.”