Writing Romantic Suspense

In Romantic Suspense there are two distinct stories. The suspense and the romance.

RWA defines romantic suspense as a romance novel in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.

You need a strong suspense story and a strong romance. Then you weave the two together perfectly. Today I’m only going to talk about developing quick physical and emotional relationships.  

In this genre the action moves fast and the story takes place over a relative short period. I write contemporary thriller/action adventure and the stories take place over a couple of weeks. BIG PROBLEM. An author has to weave in a plausible romance and bring it to a satisfying conclusion (don’t forget part of a romance definition is the HEA) in short timeframe.  Not easy.

If your characters are meeting for the first time on the pages of your story how can that plausible relationship develop so fast? What about the sexual aspect?  Characters getting under the covers fast is crazy tricky. Of course if the characters have a history, good or bad as long as they have a touch point of familiarity and knowledge, it’s less complicated.

If you plan on writing sex for a hero and heroine who just met it is important you know yourself and your own boundaries.  Know what YOUR comfort zone is. If you can’t conceive of, or don’t agree with characters getting hot and sweaty together fast, for goodness sakes don’t do it.

For example I’m not comfortable with a 24 year old woman meeting a man,  two hours later being in bed and two weeks later being in a happy ever after relationship. Nor am I comfortable with someone that age knowing the man she’s just met is the one that fast. It would be impossible for me to give her the experiences that would allow her to make these decisions. Let me be clear here. I am NOT saying someone that age is incapable of making that decision, I’m saying I can’t write it to happen fast.   

Ergo, I write with heroes and heroines over 35. They have experience. To my way of thinking—my comfort zone—they are more capable of making a decision about going into a sexual relationship after a short time and handling any blow back. A 36 year old woman who has been around and experienced a lot in her life knows the ramifications of a hook up.

You MUST know your characters.  What they will and will not do and why. I mean the down deep why.  While these issues are vital in every story, it is even more important in the fast pace RS genre.  You must know what circumstances will drive your heroine to hit the sheets quickly.  BTW I say heroine because I firmly believe she is the one who makes the decision as to the when and where sex happens.

In my first book the H&H go home together after they first meet. I totally knew my heroine. What event formed her values and beliefs and was behind all her decisions. The day the H&H met, she suffered two huge setbacks in her story goal. Going with him that night breaks all her personal rules but she decides to console herself with some sexual healing. Give in, just once, to her own needs and the reader knew this. She leaves his bed before he wakes thinking she will never see him again. In a few days this comes back to bite her. It also begins the resolution to her story goal. 

As for the HEA in this story, these two people were NOT looking for a relationship but found something in each other that filled a void they didn’t know existed. As the author, I knew it did. Knowing your characters inside and out allows you to understand what they fear, what they want, and what they need. You use it to get them to work out their problems together and rapidly establish a bond. With each other’s help they face their fears, they change, and are rewarded with love and in the suspense novel get the bad guy in the process. This is an over simplification but I hope you get what I mean. 

When the H&H have a sexual history getting them into a speedy relationship is always easier. In my third book, two experienced intelligence officers from different agencies have an affair that lasted more than a year. He broke it off for his own misguided reason. They come together again working to find the same bad guy. With their history, the sexual tension lasts for only so long before they give in. Their HEA is very complicated. Again, I know them completely.

Another way is to use what some call survivor sex. After two people share a near death experience sharing the life affirming act of sex is always a possibility.  As an author, you can put friends, detective or business partners, who have worked together for years and know each other completely into that death experience and life affirming sex after. The act changes a relationship to full blown love and HEA. On the surface this looks to be the easiest choice. Honestly it’s the most difficult for me to write. To get a good balance of conflict you really have to know your H&H.

I can probably come up with a hundred more scenarios but this is already too long.

Bottom line

  • Dig deep
  • Know yourself
  • Know your characters inside out.

What do you think?

Check out my Romantic Suspense Books.


10 responses to “Writing Romantic Suspense”

  1. Kate Parker says:

    Rita, you’ve given a great description of romantic/thriller-suspense and I love your stories.
    Romantic mystery, particularly historical romantic mystery, isn’t recognized by RWA but it does exist in many cozy mystery series. The hero and heroine take their time over several books, each with a happy for now ending, to reach their HEA. These books have the same lead hero and heroine over several books, where in romantic suspense, there is a different primary hero and heroine in every book.
    Two totally different reader experiences with the same payoff for the reader. A great romance and a great mystery/thriller/suspense story.

  2. Great info, and wonderful points, Rita. I hadn’t heard that particular phenomenon called “survivor sex” but that’s the perfect term. 🙂 Writing RS is such a delicate balance, mostly with creating the believability factor, and we have to do it with both the danger and the relationship elements. We must love to torture ourselves! LOL

  3. Tracy Brody says:

    Great points. I’m not a fan of the hero & heroine getting in bed before we care about them and lots of time the suspense aspect can delay gratification – “no, we don’t really have time for a quickie while being chased by bad guys or trying to save the world.” But the intense situation can speed up the romance and take the place of dating.

    • Rita Henuber says:

      Tracy, how you feel is exactly what makes writing RS so dang tricky. We have to strive to give them universal goals, motivation and conflict the reader can identify with immediately. Anchor the character and give the reader a reason to care about them fast.

  4. Lara Archer says:

    Really smart points! Thanks you for this, Rita.

    I think the expectation for almost all genre fiction these days is that plot moves fast…readers don’t seem to have the patience for much slow and steady buildup.

    My books are historical erotic romance, so I’m constantly having to get creative with getting things heated up quickly despite historical settings in which hook-ups were strictly forbidden.

    Creating the right emotional condition is definitely the key.

  5. Great post, Rita. I’ve hit the wall a few times with RS reads where h&H stop in the middle of the action for a booty call. Sorry, if I’m running for my life I ain’t stopping (yes, I used the word ain’t). The sex can wait until I’m feeling safe and can enjoy. I like the term survivor sex and will remember it.

    • Rita Henuber says:

      Yes. Been there with a scene like that. I think it comes from not understanding the complicated internal and external emotions involved in the act. Or just throwing in a sex scene because.


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