Romantic Suspense – An Overview

Romantic SuspenseIn a comment on a previous post, one TKZ reader asked about romantic suspense. Since I write in that genre as well as mystery, I’ll try to respond.

At first glance, the answer seems obvious. Romantic Suspense books have both romance and suspense. However, that’s a very broad definition, and in order to write in the genre, one needs to dig a little deeper.

Is it a romance novel with a suspense sub plot?
Or is it a suspense novel with a romance sub plot?

How are they divided? 50-50? 60-40 romance because it’s Romantic Suspense? Or 60-40 suspense because it’s Romantic Suspense? Or something else?

In truth, it’s none of the above, so let’s back up and look at the definitions.

According to the Romance Writers of America (presented long before the recent implosion and I think their definitions/guidelines still hold), a Romance is defined as a novel containing a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.

One of those subgenres is romantic suspense. What does RWA say about that?

Romantic Suspense: Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.

You’ll notice the definition does not single out suspense. Instead, it adds mystery and thriller. And my own personal bugaboo is that RWA chose to call the entire subgenre “Romantic Suspense” when the mystery genre is also in there. A mystery is not a suspense, and vice versa.

Let’s look at those genres that fall under the mystery umbrella. Author and former agent Nathan Bradford sums them up thusly:

Mysteries have mysteries, i.e., something you don’t know until the end.
Suspense has danger, but not necessarily action.
Thrillers have action.

A bit simplistic, but it’s a start. An easy way to think of it is in a mystery, the reader follows the protagonist and doesn’t learn anything until he or she does. Think Sherlock Holmes.

In a suspense, the reader is one step ahead of the protagonist and knows facts before he or she does. Think Alfred Hitchcock.

Can your book have both? Yes. In my Finding Sarah, the story begins with a mystery, and both characters are working together. But when Sarah disappears, readers will see what’s happening from her POV, and they’ll know more than Randy. Likewise, as Randy discovers clues, the reader will know them but Sarah won’t. Moving your characters apart can increase the suspense aspect of the book.

What about thrillers? The older definition of a thriller was “a suspense novel with consequences of global proportions”, but the lines between suspense and thriller have blurred. A thriller has more action, should have higher stakes, but often the stakes and/or consequences are only for the characters and don’t reach far beyond the setting of the book.

(Side Note) At a conference, I asked Lee Child whether he thought thrillers had been “watered down” as a way for publishers to attract a wider audience, because I’ve seen reviews for some of my Blackthorne, Inc. books that refer to them as thrillers, which was not my intention when writing them. He gave me a serious look (from way up high, because he’s tall and I’m not.) He said, “Do you want to know the difference between thriller and suspense?”

Duh. Of course I did. This was Lee Child, after all. He said, “It’s an extra zero on your advance.”

So, for the purposes of this post, I’m lumping thrillers and suspense in the same box. Now, back to my initial question, taking the RWA definition of romantic suspense into consideration.

Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.

Note the word integral. The two elements are entwined so you cannot remove any of the mystery/suspense elements without the book collapsing. Likewise for the romance. If you can remove either of those elements, you don’t have a romantic suspense.

When you’re writing you should be writing 100% romance and 100% mystery/suspense.

Sound hard? You’re right. It is.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


22 thoughts on “Romantic Suspense – An Overview

  1. I met an agent at a conference who told me the mystery and the suspense had to be well balanced. Don’t concentrate on one at the expense of the other.

    • Good advice, Karla. They have to be intertwined to the point that you can’t separate them–unless you’re Dr. McCoy in what has to be one of the worst episodes in Star Trek–“Spock’s Brain”. And even he needed a lot of help. 😉

  2. Thanks, Terry. I just finished When Danger Calls and enjoyed it. It’s very different from Alexandra Ivy’s Some Like It Sinful, which I also read recently, after hearing her at last year’s Killer Nashville. This difference brings out the point that romantic suspense can vary along a variety of different dimensions.

    Personally I don’t need the “Ken and Barbie” bit or the clichéd language about instant magnetism when the protags first lay eyes on each other. I want a certain authenticity and realism to my romances.

    Romantic suspense can also vary in tone, all the way from cutsie to noir. (Would it still be noir if it had an “emotionally satisfying” ending?)

    “Temperature” can range from “General” to “PG 13” to “X.”

    Another way to see the boundaries of the romantic suspense genre is to consider two series outside the genre.

    Harry Bosch police procedurals:
    -Certainly not “An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending.”
    -Love story is not central (though significant in a number of them, especially the novels involving Eleanor Wish).

    An important element of the romance genre is that each of the would-be lovers is a co-protagonist, usually with chapters/scenes from each protag’s PoV. Neither Eleanor nor any other of Bosch’s girlfriends rise to the level of co-protagonist. Renée Ballard is a co-protag, but her and Harry’s relationship is, of course, not romantic.

    Phryne Fisher novels: female, amateur detective; definitely not cozy.
    -The heat level kicks up from the PG of the Bosch novels to somewhere between R and X. But again the romance is not central–if there is even any “romance.” Even though Phryne seems to have a long-term, satisfying relationship with Lin Chung, the ins and outs of that relationship are not central to any of the stories I’ve read and neither Lin Chung nor any of the other men or women in Phryne’s bed(s) rise to the level of co-protags.

    Jae’s Portland Police Series, particularly the first one, _Conflict of Interest_, fits the romantic suspense definition as an F/F romance. Aiden and Dawn are definitely co-protags and both the crime story/police procedural and the romance are central, along with each protag’s arc.

    • Thanks, Eric. And glad you enjoyed When Danger Calls. By definition (as used in this post) romantic suspense books are ROMANCE novels. Therefore, they’re going to be totally different, as you pointed out, from books with “outside” romance/relationship elements.
      My romantic suspense series are all under the umbrella of romance and (I hope) meet the expectations of readers of that genre.
      My Mapleton mysteries show the developing relationship between Gordon and Angie, but would never cut it with romance readers. In fact, I had a very short bit of mild foreplay in the first edition of Deadly Secrets, but after a HUGE amount of flak from mystery readers, I removed it (about 300 words) from the second edition.

        • Those mystery readers who object to any form of sexual references tend to be more vocal. For that matter, so do romance readers who prefer all sexual encounters to happen between chapters.
          You’ll never please everyone. Write what works for you.

  3. Great article, Terry. I write mystery-romance, but there doesn’t seem to be a separate genre for that. I don’t understand why.

    Question: does the romance have to involve the protagonist, or can a secondary, but important, character be the focus of the romance? Basically, I’m asking if there can be two simultaneous plot threads in the story.


    • Good question, Kay. Amazon has recently added “Mystery Romance” as a category, and I’m not sure what reader expectations would be yet.
      If you’re going to categorize the book as romantic suspense, then yes, it needs to focus on the romance of the hero/heroine. That’s not to say you can’t add another romantic thread with a secondary character and carry it over into the next book. That’s a very common practice in the romance genre, where “series” are really connected books. (Another topic for another time, perhaps.) Suzanne Brockmann’s series are good examples of this.

  4. Enjoyed your explanation, Terry. I write suspense with a twist of romance, but they’re categorized as romantic suspense. Go figure. Some of my books have more romance than others…I mean, it’s hard to put romance in a story that covers 4 or 5 days at most.

    • For whatever reason, romance readers don’t seem to mind that HEA in such a short time frame. However, almost all of my romantic suspense books end with the ‘promise of the HEA’ convention. (I hate epilogues wrapping everything up, with the white picket fence, two kids and a dog, although I’ve done a couple.)

  5. Good discussion here, as usual.

    I’m in the slim but very vocal group of female readers who’d rather eat worms than read (or write) a “mushy” romance. My favorite read is suspense, mystery, spies, lots of action, with just a hint of romance to come…maybe. And, for me, the story doesn’t have to have the hint at all. I need the meaty action, not the fluttering eyelids.

    But, I’ve also read some stories thick with romance. And I liked them! Charles Martin. Francine Rivers. James L. Rubart. The romance side of these stories was accentuated by the mystery/suspense/action. That’s what works for me. And that’s how I want to write.

    • Thanks for sharing, Deb.
      I thought I was writing a mystery when I started my first attempt at a novel. My daughters told me it was a romance. I’d never read one; still don’t care for the “category” romances, but romantic suspense works for me in that genre.
      In mystery, I prefer police procedurals. Anything with “Psychological” in the title gets an immediate pass.
      Isn’t it nice there are so many books out there!

  6. A great example of a romantic suspense novel is The Witness by Nora Roberts. If you haven’t read it yet, check it out!

  7. Thank you Terry for explaining this, (I was the one with the question).

    You made something very hazy more clear. The advice about writing what you like is a great take-away for me. I think I get distracted trying to write something that will fit a market rather than just enjoying the story itself.

    • I’m glad I was able to be of help. If you’re trying to write to market, and the subject/genre/whatever isn’t something you love, it’ll show in the writing. If you’re with a traditional publisher, that trend could easily be gone before your book hits the shelves. If you’re an indie author, you have a better chance of getting the book out there, not to mention that there are a lot of niches traditional publishers don’t deal with that are wide open for indies. Readers don’t seem to care.

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