If a romance (regardless the heat level) is like a brownie then a romantic suspense is a brownie with chocolate chips added. A romantic suspense requires all the elements of any good novel—character development, skillful use of setting, romance (depending on heat level – including sex), and solid plotting (the bases for a brownie). But in addition, the suspense reader expects a bit more – suspense (the chocolate chips).
Some writers struggle with the balance of romance and suspense. Just like chocolate chips are throughout the entire pan of brownies. Suspense MUST be in every chapter. Not just the big scene at the beginning with the killer stabbing the heroine’s best friend to death and then only a mention of the killer in the middle but the killer isn’t really heard from again until his demise at the end.
Here are some chocolate chips to make sure suspense is throughout your book…
Pacing. Does each chapter contain some element of the suspense? Every chapter, even the quiet ones between lovers or parent and child, must include something that advances the suspense plot.
Emotional Ups and Downs. Emotion should grow even as the danger grows. The character moves constantly between trust and suspicion, between safety and danger. Side note here, the trust/suspicion here does NOT have to be between the heroine and hero. The heroine may trust the hero but there should be someone that she feels compelled to trust BUT something always rocks that trust.
Steadily Worsening Danger. Suspense should build; the coils tighten slowly around your character. Your heroine or hero don’t have to be the ones in danger maybe it’s someone close to them. Or you have a ticking bomb suspense and time is running out. There has to be a some element of ‘time is up.’
Use the Setting. I could do entire blog post on this and have. I cannot stress how much I feel that setting is key BUT please please do not put the heroine in an empty house without power and have the killer stalking her. Use a usual setting to place of your story for maximum impact.
Red Herrings. A red herring is a fact which seems to lead to the solution but which is a deliberate distraction. Skillful use of red herrings leads the reader to draw an erroneous conclusion. They keep the reader guessing but they should make sense.
Secrets. Give everyone in your story a secret, romantic suspense queen Phyllis Whitney said years ago, and it’s still a solid device. It takes skill to develop some secrets that will bear on the main plot, dealing with something the character wants to hide, perhaps for an innocent reason. While other secrets have little to do with the main plotline, but will cause the character to behave in a suspicious or mysterious way. Secrets can cause conflict in the romance element and raises suspense. The key is that each secret should be revealed at the point when it will cause maximum dramatic effect.
False alarms. This is a great way to step outside the box. Come up with a false alarm unique to your plot and heroine. Do not rely on having your heroine investigate a frightening sound, only to discover that it is the wind rattling a shutter or the dog scratching at the door. When it happens it’s the killer. Most readers will expect this.
Cliff-hangers. End scenes and chapters with something which pulls the reader along: a surprise, a secret unveiled, a threat, a physical attack, an emotional revelation. This is my favorite and I use it without fail.
The MacGuffin. This term, coined by Alfred Hitchcock, refers to an object or secret that everyone pursues throughout the novel, each for his or her own reason. Hitchcock is said to have insisted that the ‘what’ didn’t really matter, as long as the characters and readers believed it to be of crucial importance. I love to read this type of suspense but haven’t been able to write one – yet!!!
So these are some of the suspense chocolate chips that I sprinkle into my books – regardless of the length. Hiking with a Killer is only 12,000 words yet each chapter has some element of danger for my couple and ends in a cliff-hanger. The danger escalates danger, there are false alarms, and red herrings that leads my couple into a life or death situation. Also in that 12,000 words I had start a fire hot sex scenes, character growth, and relationship development.
I’d love to hear about some of your favorite chocolate chips – things that you add to your writing or things you love to have in your books.