Keeping the Pages Turning in Romantic Suspense (Lessons I’ve Learned the Hard Way)

Revisions on my current manuscript have been torturous. Murky, slow and agonizing. Why? I blissfully (stupidly) ignored the tenets of what makes a romantic suspense a real page-turner. To the point where my agent, after having read the first 55K words, essentially said, “Well it all hangs together, but it reads like a contemporary romance.” Ouch. That’s not to say that contemporary romances are dull—in fact, they are some of my favorites to read. However, if you grab a romantic suspense, you expect to be biting your nails. NailBiterGal_124527807Or, according to Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia’s definition: Suspense is a feeling of pleasurable fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, tension, and anxiety developed from an unpredictable, mysterious, and rousing source of entertainment. There’s more, but you get the idea.

Below, I’ve shared the 11 best methods I’ve found to enhance suspense. No need to use all of them at once, nor are they listed in order of importance. Simply pick a few, make them integral to your story, and viola, readers will burn dinner because they snuck a few pages while standing over the range. The extra bonus? The same elements, ahem, make the story far easier to write.

1. A Solid Conflict. Opposing forces. Absolute must do’s. No other options. Any story in any genre will fall flat without well-constructed conflict. The simplest formula I’ve seen is Madeline Hunter’s: She MUST DO SOMETHING, and He MUST STOP HER from doing it.

2. Ticking Clock & Short Time Frame. The character(s) MUST do something before a certain event or within an allotted time, or tragedy will strike. Keeping the time frame short ramps ups the tension. How stressed and off balance is your heroine going to be if she has two months to dawdle over a problem—as opposed to just two weeks to act? Two days? Force them to make quick decisions and to go to extremes.

3. The Chase. When the heroine is being chased, is on the run, and is constantly in danger? Slam dunk—for the same reasons that the Ticking Clock and Short Time Frame work.

4. High Stakes. Stakes vary by genre and by book. Wiping out a city or the world? Certain death for the protagonist? Abduction of a loved one? Loss of freedom? As long the stakes are potentially devastating to your character and they’d do ANYTHING to stop the worst from happening, you’re golden.

5. Enlighten your Protagonist. Make sure the characters actually KNOW they are in danger, or at least suspect it. A clueless protagonist, la-tee-da-ing around the story, doesn’t excite anyone.

6. Seriously Wicked Opponent. Make the villain more determined, more motivated, and better equipped, than the protagonists. By the end, your characters will rise to the challenge and defeat the baddie. In the beginning, however, the reader should really be worried because the odds seem insurmountable.

7. Tight Writing & Fast Pacing. Keep the backstory feed short and impactful. Hack any unnecessary scenes, characters, tangents (yours and the characters), lines, and words.  Keep things happening to the characters. Yes, readers may need a minute to catch their breath, but then, boom—something more needs to happen to march the characters toward the inevitable showdown.

8. Include the Villain’s POD. The bad guy’s point of view is a bonus. The reader is given the gift of knowing what’s coming and can therefore dread every delicious second, even if the protagonist is a step behind. Like in the movies, when you clutch your seat and want to scream: Don’t open that door! Don’t go into the basement!

9. Turn Worlds Upside Down. Wrench the rug out from under your characters’ feet, ASAP, so that they are reacting from a place of stress and uncertainty from the get go.

10. Take Away the Easy Out. His Glock was tossed over a cliff, her mega funds have been stolen, the K-9 dog was poisoned, or she can’t use Judo because she’s tied up…Whatever the character normally relies on to get them out of a tight spot—eliminate. Problems become more challenging and the characters must use their noggins and guts in new ways.

11. Withhold Answers. If someone dies or something terrible occurs, at the start, your reader will need to find out who, why, how… If you hold back the big reveal until the end, they will trail along picking up the puzzle pieces until the last blank spot is filled. It’s the intrinsic need-to-know factor at work.

Please share your own experiences in using these devices in your stories. What did I miss? Which elements make you as a reader plop a book into your buyer’s basket? Thanks for reading!

Jenna

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12 Comments

  1. Nicely said! Keeping the suspense level AND the heroine’s interest (lol) is always a challenge, but when done just right… a beautiful craft.

    Reply
  2. Jenna Blue

     /  June 10, 2013

    Thanks, D.C.! And I agree–a tough balancing act, so much to juggle, and yet when you make it work, the story just rocks!

    Reply
  3. This is great advice, Jenna! I love me some bad guy’s POV. 🙂

    It’s a tough genre, but I think your voice is well suited to it. You do creepy right!

    xo

    Reply
  4. Jenna Blue

     /  June 11, 2013

    Thank you, Joanna! Means the world coming from you. Not because you are creepy! : ) But because you are a great writer and you know your stuff! I sure am hoping you like my villian’s voice this go round. Thomas, in Runaway, was hard to beat!

    Reply
  5. OMG, I agree with Joanna…Thomas’ POV in The Runaway was soooo creepy…like Hannibal Lechter. Love when the villain’s POV is included.

    I think for me, when the pacing is off, I lose interest in the story. Romantic suspense is hard to write because of this factor…it has to build and build, urgency has to grow to a crescendo, and when the climax comes, it has to be almost orgasmic for the reader (and I’m not talking about sex scenes here, lol!).

    This is a great list, and many of these things apply to all stories. Acutally, I’m going to print it out and post it above my desk, so I can be reminded of all of these things as I write.

    Good job, Jenna!

    Reply
  6. Right this minute, Jaye, I’m finding pacing the toughest part! I was thinking about it later, and agree that the whole list really pertains to ALL stories, it’s just sooped up in RS. Thanks!!

    Reply
  7. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  June 13, 2013

    Great Post, Jenna!

    Jaye took the words out of my mouth regarding your list. Much of what you have applies to all genres, all stories. I always find the time clock in suspense, action or thrillers, keeps me engaged as a reader or viewer. Funny thing about a time clock though…it works in all genres. Think of the time frame in a movie like Leap Year (Amy Adams is on my brain for some reason today). She goes to Dublin to propose to her boyfriend by leap year, Feb 29th and chaos ensues. She’s gunning for that date the whole movie, and the viewer knows she has until that day to figure out she’s making the wrong choice. If she wants true love and happiness, she’s going to have to take a leap of faith.

    LOVE that we see inside the mind of creepy villains in RS (esp. yours…YIKES, CREEPY!!!). If we tried to do that in Young Adult or Romantic Comedy, it would come out sounding petty and more than likely a reall turn off for the reader!

    Clearly you have become a student of your genre and your craft.

    I’m saving your list as well!

    RoseAnn

    Reply
    • Thanks, RoseAnn! Who knew I had a penchant for creepy! Boy won’t all my friends be freaked out when they someday read my books! : ) I sure hope the new villain won’t disappoint! Haven’t seen Leap Year, but should–Amy Adams is great!
      I’m honored you guys find my list a keeper! Thanks!

      Reply
  8. Hi Jenna. I agree with Jaye, that many of your list applies to all stories, and is magnified for romantic suspense stories. My second story is a contemporary but has a suspense element to it. I surprised myself when I found that I liked writing it. I had actually written a scene in the villain’s POV, but ended up removing it because I hadn’t written in his POV consistently throughout the story. I think in true RS, you can (and should). I like getting in the head of the villain because it builds up the intensity when he confronts the H/H. You know what the villain is capable of because you’ve become intimate with him or her. You understand their motivation and exactly what they’re willing to do in order to accomplish their goal.

    I like the unexpected twist. Lead the reader down one path and then turn it around completely. Always keep the reader guessing. Great post. I hope it helps you get back on track with your edits. Good luck!

    Reply
  9. Maria, I can’t wait to read the suspense you’ve layered into your latest contemporary! Sounds fun–and probably refreshing for you. So many authors say they switch genres to keep fresh. Agreed, WE the readers often get a heightened sense of uh-oh, because we know just how insane the bad guys are, when the main characters can’t even imagine. So far, I don’t think I have any big twists, but I agree, it’s a good move in RS. I’ll have to think about that for an upcoming story!
    Thanks!

    Reply
  10. Wow, Jenna! So much to think about when writing romantic suspense. Pacing isn’t the only thing driving the suspense. You write AMAZING unique romantic suspense stories that incorporate everything you’ve mentioned. I can’t wait for readers to be able to purchase your terrific stories. Talk about villains. Phew. SOON! XXOO Michele

    Reply
    • Thank you, Michele! I sure hope I’m managing to incorporate it all. Such a juggling act. Love your compliments!!! And I love that you always love my villains and give me good creepy ideas–you’ll see some of those in the new story! Bet you could easily write RS yourself!

      Reply

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