When is a Story a Romantic Suspense?

by Stacy B. Woodson
published in Writing

I was sure my first novel was a romantic suspense. At least I thought I had structured it that way. The story has danger, mystery, and an escalating romance between two people, who, under any other circumstances, would unlikely get togeter.

Eager to see how readers would receive the initial draft, I entered my story in a series of contests. Romantic suspense is a genre that often straddles more than one market so I cast a wide net and submitted to contests sponsored by Romance Writer’s of America and others in the mystery field. Submissions ranged from twenty to fifty pages, as dictated by contest guidelines.

The initial feedback was promising. The novel was named best romantic suspense in the Virginia Fool for Love Contest 2016. I was ecstatic. And yet, only months later, a judge from the North Texas RWA Great Expectations contest said, “I don’t find the romance.” But then the story was a finalist for Killer Nashville’s Claymore award, a forum for mystery, thriller, and suspense writers. Needless to say, the feedback I received was wide-ranging.

Was there a tipping point?

How could perspectives be so diverse? Was there a tipping point? When did a story transition from a mystery or thriller to a romantic suspense?

I went to writer association websites searching for the answer. Mystery Writer’s of America (MWA) and Sisters in Crime do not offer a definition of romantic suspense, but both promote romantic suspense authors. MWA includes Entangled and Harlequin, both category romance publishers with romantic suspense lines, on their approved publisher list.

So I looked at Romance Writer’s of America. RWA defines romantic suspense as,

“Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.”

It was a broad definition and certainly applied to my novel. But the illusive tipping point was still missing for me. So I dug a little deeper.

Romance and suspense are mixed equally

New York Times bestselling author, Brenda Novak writes, “Many people believe any romance that includes a mystery or suspense subplot constitutes romantic suspense. In my mind, however, a romantic suspense novel mixes both genres fairly equally. One strand – romance or suspense – does not significantly overwhelm the other… There needs to be two types of tension: the tension found in an escalating romance, and the danger or ‘ticking time bomb’ found between the covers of a good suspense novel.”

USA Today bestselling author Maureen Smith says, “There is a reason why the genre is called romantic suspense, not suspenseful romance. The romance must come first. Achieving the perfect balance between the two can be tricky. Unlike other fiction genres, you’re straddling the fence between two readerships.”

So if this was true, then there was no tipping point. The goal was to blend a romance and mystery/ thriller plot while creating a fast paced story – filled with tension and looming danger – with a happily ever after/ happy for now ending.

I considered my favorite romantic suspense authors. Sandra Brown blends romance and suspense effortlessly. Her story, Friction, is a great example. Texas Ranger, Crawford Hunt, attends his daughter’s custody hearing when the courtroom is attacked. Crawford saves the Judge, Holly Spencer, but the gunman escapes and is now a threat to Holly. Holly still has to rule on his daughter’s case. Despite the conflict of interest, they can’t deny their attraction.

Melissa Cutler’s Tempted into Danger is also one of my favorites. ICE Agent, Diego Santero, must deliver Vanessa Crosby to a safe house, something goes horribly wrong. They go on the run. Sparks fly.

And of course television is ripe with examples too. Castle is a great one. Richard Castle is a best-selling mystery novelist and solves cases with NYPD homicide detective, Kate Beckett. The series, ultimately, is about the romance between Rick and Kate and their investigation into her mother’s murder.

But still, there are romantic suspense stories that defy convention. I loved Anne Wilson’s Hover. A novel that is heavier on the suspense and lighter on the romance, Navy helicopter pilot, Sara Denning, is assigned to battle group and meets SEAL Eric Marxen. He coordinates flights operations for a SEAL team who requests Sara to pilot one of their missions. Sara’s interactions with Eric leave her reeling.

Is romantic suspense changing?

In the end, perhaps stories that are considered romantic suspense are changing. Maybe it is as simple as Lisa Gardner writes, “Personally, I consider a romantic suspense novel to be a book that focuses on developing key relationships as well as advancing some kind of intrigue.”

So what were the lessons I learned? Reader expectations influence contest results. Some readers want a sexy, sizzling romance in the opening pages of a story. While others enjoy romantic suspense stories where the suspense is more center stage.

What are your favorite romantic suspense stories? Do you like romance with your suspense or suspense with your romance? 

Stacy Woodson is a U.S. Army Special Operations veteran and a self-declared fitness junkie. She loves a good conspiracy story and has penned one of her own. She believes in the power of a good writing community and how it can elevate your writing. She is a contributor to DIY MFA’s 5onFri and a Claymore finalist. She’s represented by John Talbot at the Talbot Fortune Agency.

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