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Romance Novels: Romance on the Edge of the Seat—A Look at Romantic Suspense (Guest Blogger Liz Johnson @LizJohnsonBooks)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Continuing the series on Romance Novel genres, please welcome special guest poster Liz Johnson today.

Romantic Suspense: Trial and Error
Everything I know about writing romantic suspense I learned by trial and error. Mostly it consisted of me trying it and my editor saying, “Nope.”

Navy-Seal-Security-by-Liz-JohnsonI never intended to write romantic suspense novels, so I hadn’t spent much time studying the craft of this specific subgenre. Reading it? Yes. Analyzing it? Not so much. But when I sat down to write, my stories always had a strong suspense element. (The romance aspect was never up for discussion. I don’t think I could write a book without a love story.) I’d spent years writing and studying how to write novels in general. Character development and story arcs. Dialogue and description. These are integral to every novel, regardless of genre.

But there a few things I’ve learned along the way that are specific to romantic suspense.

It started in 2007 when I wrote a novel and zipped it off to Love Inspired Suspense—a Harlequin line devoted to books with equal parts sweet romance and suspense. An editor was kind enough to send me a response. While her words were different, her gist was clear: This book doesn’t meet our guidelines. So I asked if I could revise and resubmit. She said yes—with a two-page letter of changes she wanted me to make. We went back and forth three more times. Always with additional changes and more for me to learn.

Eight books and almost a decade later, here’s what I’ve learned about writing a romantic suspense novel.

The hero and heroine have to meet. Quickly.
A-Promise-to-Protect1-230x360It seems like a given, but it’s harder than you’d think (and I’ve read more than a few books claiming to be romantic suspense novels that leave the characters languishing apart for chapters and chapters), especially if the story doesn’t start in the right place. When I start too early, my hero and heroine may be on a trajectory to run into each other. But trajectory isn’t where the story starts. So get them together. Fast.

Someone has to be in danger.
Serious, mortal danger. Someone threatening your heroine’s flower garden may work for a cozy mystery, but that’s not what we’re writing. We need more than an off-the-page death to keep the tension tight and the suspense strong. Your villain has to be bad. Really bad. And he (or she) has to be threatening someone we love. Maybe it’s the hero or heroine. Maybe it’s the hero’s daughter or the heroine’s grandmother. Someone is in danger, and your characters recognize they’re in trouble. The villain wants more than to make life for the hero or heroine miserable. He’s after blood.

And the villain has a very plausible reason for everything he does.
In his mind, he is the hero of the story. In his mind, his victims deserve everything they get—and then some. I’ve written everything from revenge-seeking villains to bad guys who are clean out of their minds to ones who know they’re motivated by money. But they all believe that what they’re doing is validated by their situation.

The romance shouldn’t outweigh the suspense.
Or vice versa. Finding a balance isn’t always easy, but any romantic suspense should have equal parts of both. Like in every romance, the hero and heroine must have a conflict—a reason they can’t/won’t be together. And that conflict has to build right along with the suspense. They should match each other so that as the suspense heightens so does the romantic conflict.

The story has to develop and grow.
Each event and plot point has to lead to an eventual black moment—that situation where it seems impossible that the hero and heroine will work out their conflicts and that the bad guy is going to win. If these things don’t happen at exactly the same time, they should definitely happen back-to-back. As I mentioned, the romance and the suspense should run at the same pace.

Finally, the romantic and suspense conflicts must be resolved.
A romance isn’t a romance without a happy ending. So they’ll have to defeat the villain and work through their romantic issues by the end of the book. This one is non-negotiable. At least for my editor. And for me as a reader.

I’m not going to lie. I’m not an expert. And I’m still trialing and erroring more than I’d like to admit. And I still think it’s the best way to learn. But I am pleased to report that my editor says, “Nope,” a lot less than she did when I first started this writing adventure.


LizjohnsonBy day Liz Johnson works as a marketing manager, and she makes time to write late at night. Liz is the author of nine novels—including her first contemporary romance, The Red Door Inn, and her most recent romantic suspense, Navy SEAL Security—and a New York Times bestselling novella. She makes her home in Nashville, where she enjoys exploring local music, theater, and making frequent trips to Arizona to dote on her nieces and nephews. She writes stories of true love filled with heart, humor, and happily ever afters. Connect with her at or

9780800724023About The Red Door Inn: Marie Carrington is broke, desperate, and hoping to find sanctuary on Prince Edward Island while decorating a renovated bed-and-breakfast. Seth Sloane moved three thousand miles to help restore his uncle’s Victorian B and B–and to forget about the fiancée who broke his heart. He wasn’t expecting to have to babysit a woman with a taste for expensive antiques and a bewildering habit of jumping every time he brushes past her.

The only thing Marie and Seth agree on is that getting the Red Door Inn ready to open in just two months will take everything they’ve got—and they have to find a way to work together. In the process, they may find something infinitely sweeter than they ever imagined on this island of dreams.

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