What IS Romantic Suspense, Exactly?
Last post, I showed how romantic suspense gets into everything, which makes it damned hard to define and limit pure Romantic Suspense.
Lisa Gardner, who is arguably one of the best selling romantic suspense authors writing today, has stated almost exactly the same thing, in her series of lectures on romantics suspense:
Personally, I consider a romantic suspense novel to be a book that focuses on developing key relationships as well as advancing some kind of intrigue (whether that’s mystery, thriller, action/adventure, on-the-run, or woman-in-jeopardy — see, even suspense has a lot of faces). By this wide definition, most books are romantic suspense. That doesn’t bother me. Most readers, even male readers, enjoy some aspect of romance in their suspense/action/mystery/adventure novels. For example, the movie Speed has a very nice romance element and it was clearly marketed as an action movie. Did action-loving moviegoers mind watching Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock swap witty barbs and heated looks? Not at all. So the key issue becomes defining how much romance is in your novel, versus how much suspense. Think of it as a spectrum.
How much suspense/action/mystery/thriller v’s romance is therefore key. This would seem to hold true across all romance categories, not just RS itself. If the romance plot line is overshadowed by the “other” elements, it stops being a romance. If the other elements aren’t strong enough, it’s just a romance and not included in those special categories) or it is included and readers and reviewers get to express their disappointment — one of the most democratic aspects of indie publishing and the evolving reader review system today).
If you head back to RS roots, the 50/50 ratio pops up. That is the maximum amount of any one element you can have. What would be a minimum? When does a story stop being a romantic suspense and just becomes a (contemporary/historical/boring) romance? It would be easy to lay down an arbitrary figure, and say that at the 75/25 mark, it stops being RS and becomes just romance, but a) there’s no objective way to measure how much of each element is present in the story and b) even if less pages are devoted to one element over another, the developments described on those fewer pages may have far more impact on the story than the other elements combined, and (c) the definition of a contemporary romance excludes any sort of RS elements at all…so where would you shelve the story, if not in RS?
The One Size Fits All Category
The problem is, RS has become the scrap box, where all the left-overs get dropped. Because RS elements appear in every romance category except contemporary, if a book can’t fit a better-defined category’s criteria, then it will most certainly be able to find a place on the wide, unmarked terrain that is Romantic Suspense because it contains RS elements, and can be truthfully called a romantic suspense if nothing else fits. As there is such mass confusion over what is/not really romantic suspense, there may be only one or two dissenting votes against such a classification, but most readers will let it stand.
Laura Sheehan defined romantic suspense as:
Danger. If I had to narrow down my definition of romantic suspense to one word, I would say the defining element would be danger.
This is a perfect example of how the RS category expands to fit everything. There are dangerous elements in all the romance categories except contemporary, and some historicals (Amish romances, for instance).
Sheehan went on to say:
Suspense novels incorporate a sense of tension throughout the book; heart-pounding action, adrenaline-inducing chase scenes, edge-of-your-seat thrills, life-threatening situations, and dangerous criminals are all common elements of a suspense novel. A romantic suspense would incorporate these suspenseful elements along with the essential components of a romance. So, in a nutshell, we’ve got a central love story in which our lovers have to traverse a perilous plot of nail-biting adventures before they can live happily ever after.
What about romantic thrillers? Romantic mysteries? What’s the difference?
The term “thriller” is essentially synonymous with “suspense,” so the answer to that one is that there is no difference. With mysteries, however, their plots are typically suspenseful but focus on the puzzle-solving aspect of the story.
There’s an interesting word: “Tension”. It’s an all-inclusive word for the emotion invoked by suspense, action, mystery and thriller plots.
Is It Possible to Define Modern Romantic Suspense?
If romantic suspense is so inclusive, gets into everything, and is a catch-all for anything that doesn’t fit anywhere else, then it’s no wonder most readers and writers are confused about the true definition of romantic suspense.
Given everything romantic suspense is…and isn’t, I’m going to take a stab at defining it.
If a novel contains:
– a major romance plot with a happy ending, and;
– a major suspense, mystery, thriller or action plot that evokes strong tension in the reader; and
– the novel does not already fall into one of the other romance categories, such as paranormal or historical; then
you most likely have a romantic suspense in your hands.
But even this definition, while it will help you identify romantic suspense, will only help you sort them out in your own mind and shelves.
These days, with RS being a function of so many other categories, authors, publishers and booksellers have started doing funky cross-genre categorizing: historical romantic suspense; paranormal romantic suspense, etc. If you love and adore romantic suspense, but don’t mind a little extra in with your guns and violence then, when you are shopping for new RS titles, you will need to look in all the genres to find them, because RS is misfiled, mislabeled, cross-labeled, and hangs out everywhere. If paranormal can be romantic suspense as well, then the whole world of books becomes your oyster.
But now you know how to spot RS in all its disguises.