What IS Romantic Suspense, Exactly?

What IS Romantic Suspense, Exactly?

Part I

golden gunThis post is part of a series:
Part I
Part II


Ask six different readers and writers what romantic suspense is, and you’re likely to get six quite different answers.

There is a lot of confusion out there about what is — and most importantly, what isn’t — romantic suspense these days.

I learned this quite unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago when I got a frosty response to one of my review requests that stiffly informed me “we do not handle romantic suspense, thank you.”  The book I had submitted for review was an historical romance, and nowhere in the description or my email did the words “suspense”, “mystery” or “thriller” appear.  However, the reviewer’s definition of what is/not a romantic suspense clearly included books with historical settings and romance plot lines plus some additional criteria that I was not made privy to — perhaps a plot more complicated than the straightforward will-she/won’t-she-win-the-Lord? was enough to qualify it as “suspense” in the reviewer’s eyes.

The Genre Has Evolved

It’s probably not a big surprise that romantic suspense, along with the rest of Romanceland, has continued to evolve since it was first “invented”.

Romantic suspense draws from the original gothic novels – a vulnerable young women finds herself alone in a remote location — usually a manor, house or castle, where the enigmatic and usually laconic hero appears to be threatening, sometimes even supernaturally endowed.  The suspense is wound up until the attic boards squeal, via near misses, the death of friends/relatives within the house, and misdirection that all points to the hero as the bad guy, including his shady, secret-filled life (which turns out to be completely innocent, if not utterly heroic).  Nothing is resolved until the very end scenes; neither the romance nor the mystery, and the hero’s reputation hangs in the balance the entire time.

The adaptation of the gothic novel into today’s first romantic suspense is generally credited to Mary Stewart, who wrote a series of romantic suspense novels, including Madam, Will You Talk?, which is considered a classic.  Mary Stewart’s formula was very straightforward:  50% romance, 50% mystery/suspense, nicely entwined and beautifully written.

The genre quickly took flight after that, and really hasn’t touched down since.  While paranormal romance may have eclipsed romantic suspense as a genre, sales-wise, romantic suspense has evolved and grown roots and off-shoots that have successfully spread across most of Romanceland.  These offshoots are generally not recognized as part of the romantic suspense family — I’ll explain why in a minute.

The Definition Should Evolve, Too

If the romantic suspense genre has grown so much, and become unrecognizable in some of its forms then, clearly, the traditional definition of romantic suspense is no longer working.  We need a new definition, or additonal criteria in order to figure out if a story is/not romantic suspense.

What IS the traditional definition?

The definition I was given when I was first learning about romance was that romantic suspense was a story that was 50% romance and 50% suspense — a pared down rendition of Mary Stewart’s winning formula.

That sounds pretty logical, given the name of the genre.  But what is suspense?  There are different ways of defining suspense genres, and suspense itself, and all of them cause problems with this simplified definition.

I’ll show you what I mean.

Let’s look at Wikipedia’s definition of romantic suspense:

Romantic suspense involves an intrigue or mystery for the protagonists to solve. Typically, however, the heroine is the victim of a crime or attempted crime, and works with a hero, who tends to be in a field where he would serve as a protector, such as a police officer, FBI agent, bodyguard, or Navy SEAL. By the end of the novel, the mystery is resolved and the interaction between the hero and heroine has evolved into a solid relationship. These novels primarily take place in contemporary times, but authors such as Amanda Quick have broadened the genre to also include historical timeframes.

It’s a workmanlike definition.  I can’t argue with anything in it.  It’s what isn’t included that I have an issue with.

1.  “involves an intrigue or mystery…to solve”.  I think this is far, far too simplistic.  There are action/adventure-style RS where there is no mystery, and no question about who did it.  The antagonist is right out there for the world to see and the hero and heroine to chase after.  Wikipedia’s definition excludes these novels, yet they are still considered RS by most of Romanceland.

2.  While I can’t dispute that ‘typically’ a lot of RS do feature the heroine as the victim, I believe the genre is trending away from this.  (Thank the gods for that!)  I suspect urban fantasy and new fantasy, with the kick-ass heroines, may be partly responsible for this trend.

3.  “hero tends to be in a field where he would serve as a protector,”:  …and what about the heroine?  Why can’t she be the cop/soldier/spy?  This part of the definition limits RS to contemporary cop/military type stories only and RS has spread far beyond those borders.  I think it would be fair to say that cops and military heroes are a sub-genre of RS, these days.

4.  “primarily take place in contemporary times…”    This point is one that makes me want to shriek blue murder.  RS is found in every setting, as a sub-genre of every major romance genre.  To confine it to contemporary with the odd historical setting as a bonus is an ignorant viewpoint of the functions of story and genre.

I think it would be fair to say this is a fairly outdated and useless definition.

Goodreads defines RS simply as:

“…any genre romance that features a prominent mystery, suspense or thriller plot.”

This definition has good and bad points, too.  It’s inclusionary, which is good.  Any genre romance with a prominent mystery, suspense or thriller plot means the action/adventure stories aren’t orphaned, neither are historicals and futuristics.  But what about, say, urban fantasy romance?  Almost without exception, these stories have strong thriller/action plots.  Should they be shelved as RS, then?  Probably not.

This definition, then, is too inclusive.

Romance Suspense is Everywhere

This is the point I made earlier about how romantic suspense has evolved and spread feelers out into all sections of Romanceland.  There are very few romance sub-genres that don’t have prominent action, suspense or mystery plots these days.  You name it:  paranormal, urban fantasy romance, science fiction romance, steam punk, historical romances (except for the highly vapid wallpaper historicals) — they all rely on the elements within romantic suspense to hold up their stories.  About the only category that remains pure is the contemporary romance; especially the category romances like Harlequin/Silhouette.

Romance readers have learned to appreciate romances told as part of damned good stories.  Those stories inevitably require plots that build questions in the reader’s mind about what may happen next, and tension and concern over the welfare of the hero and heroine — either physical or emotional.  This is the very definition of suspense.    If there is any secret about who the antagonist really is, or what he has done, then the suspense is now a mystery.  If the stakes are high enough, then it is now a thriller.  The resolution of the storyline will always involve some sort of action plot if the characters have any sort of gumption and initiative.  It is almost impossible to avoid RS elements in genre story-telling.

So is there a good definition of RS out there?  Find out in Part II


4 thoughts on “What IS Romantic Suspense, Exactly?”

  1. Heh. I posted about this exact thing about a week ago on Facebook. Your post is excellent. And I’m ashamed I didn’t think of Mary Stewart. My current series is fantasy based, but certainly has suspense elements. How do we change the emphasis from ROMANCE to Romantic Suspense?

    1. Thanks, Anny.

      How do we change the emphasis of what, exactly? Your stories, readers’ perceptions? Not sure I’m following you there.


  2. I think I was wondering how we signal a shift from primarily romance to more suspense elements–for potential readers–especially readers who’ve read our racier romances.

    1. I think readers are making that shift for themselves — by preferring and buying more beefy stories, and letting authors and editors know via ratings and reviews when romances are too light-weight for their tastes.

      When you see comments about “I wish more time had been spent on xxxx….” or “I would have liked to have found out what happened after xxxx,” then you know the story wasn’t developed enough for the reader(s) tastes, but they haven’t got the technical terminology to say they wanted a more substantial plot. Or comments like “boring” or “too long” usually indicates there wasn’t enough story, too.

      But there’s all sorts of ways of hinting there’s a muscled-up story so the reader knows in advance. The blurb is the primary tool. Tags are a good one, too.

      I hybridize my categories these days, too. I write historical romantic suspense, and urban fantasy romance, and paranormal romantic suspense, etc. VIVIAN’S RETURN I billed a contemporary romance/action-adventure — because the action storyline was secondary to the romance story-line. Indie publishing makes it a lot easier to pull this sort of cross-categorizing off, though.



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