Riding the suspense roller coaster in a romance novel – Part One

One of the key elements to engaging the reader in a romance novel, just as in any genre, is carefully building and maintaining suspense.

I’m not talking about combining romance and suspense fiction — though I often enjoy a good romantic suspense novel.  I’m talking about the suspense the reader feels as he or she turns the page, wondering if Rick and Sven are ever going to get together, or if they’re just going to dance around each other for the entire novel, each wondering if the other is interested, until they eventually give up and go their separate ways.  Despite whether they do or do not finally consumate their relationship (in one way or another), if there is no suspense in the reader’s mind about the final outcome, the reader will probably put the book down and pick up something more interesting.

Now of course a lot of romance novels are marketed in such a way that we know that the couple (or threesome, or what-have-you) will eventually get together.  And some of us readers are even sneaky enough to take a peek at the end, just to make sure we aren’t going to be frustrated by the ending.  In the 1980s, when I first came out, nearly every novel or film with a gay lead character either ended with him dying or being alone and depressed for the rest of his life.  So peeking ahead to the end was the best way for me to determine whether the novel was going to be worth my time.  But a recent study — which I’m not going to bother tracking down — indicates that most of us don’t have our enjoyment of the novel lessened by knowing the outcome.  For someone like me, who reads favorite novels countless times, it’s really not an issue, at all.

And of course, other readers enjoy bittersweet endings, where the two heroes (or hero and heroine, or heroine and heroine, for those who aren’t writing M/M romance) do get together briefly, but are separated at the end.  However, the same principle applies.  The reader needs to feel suspense, in order to keep reading.  Not knowing whether things will turn out well in the end might, at first glance, seem to help, in this regard, but it doesn’t really.  Romances that don’t end happily may be marketed as such, so the reader may still have an idea how the formula will go.  So the suspense needs to be maintained on a smaller scale, and continued throughout the novel, regardless of the ending.

This is done, first and foremost, by making the readers care about the characters.  Not an easy task, though some writers make it look easy.  I have some ideas about how to accomplish this (I can drone on about pretty much anything), but that’s a subject for another article.  For now, we’ll just assume you have some idea how to create interesting characters.  But one key element is that your main character has to want something — badly — and, since we’re talking about romance novels here, that something is probably his love interest.

But he can’t get it.  If he did, the novel would be over.  Or at least, it would be for the reader, who would say, “That’s nice,” when it appears that everything is going smoothly for everybody on page 20, and set down the book to reach for something more interesting.  I have read books like this.  Or, more precisely, I’ve started to read books like this.

So obviously, there has to be an obstacle between the hero and his love interest.  (Yes, I know.  This is Novel Writing 101.)  In T.J. Klune’s wonderful novel, Bear, Otter and the Kid, Bear wants Otter.  And Otter wants Bear.  So the romance could end up being pretty cut and dried, except for the fact that Bear thinks he’s straight, has abandonment issues, and he’s solely responsible for the care of an eight-year-old brother.  His life is complicated.  And when Otter attempts to show him affection, all of these things get in the way.  Similarly, in Dark Horse, by Kate Sherwood, Dan finds himself drawn to both Jeff and Evan.  But not only does he feel that he can’t abandon his lover, Justin, despite the fact that Justin has been in a coma for over a year (which is mentioned in the beginning of the book, so I’m not giving anything away), he also doesn’t know how to deal with the fact that Jeff and Evan are lovers, and they both want a relationship with him.  This isn’t something that’s ever been in his vocabulary.

But it isn’t just a matter of setting up complications and dragging them out for the entire novel.  The reader will get bored with unresolved conflicts as much as with conflicts that are resolved too easily, if nothing ever changes.  If, every time the love interest attempts to win our hero over, said hero responds that, ever since he saw Barbara Stanwyck betray Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, he’s never been able to trust anyone to truly love him, the reader will eventually start shouting out loud, “Will you just get over it?”

So we need to set up a roller coaster of goals thwarted, then realized, and then followed by new goals.

Stay tuned for Part Two….

Check out more of Jamie Fessenden’s rants about the art of writing on his blog, at www.jamiefessenden.com

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