Mix One Part Mystery, One Part Action and How Many Parts Passion?

This Article was first published in August 2006 in the New Jersey Romance Writers Heartline Herald:

Mystery.  Action.  Passion.  These are the integral elements of the romance subgenre titled Romantic Suspense.  In the 2005 Romance Writers of America Market survey, “Mystery, Action and Thriller” were plot elements that nearly 48% of readers indicated that they enjoyed, a testament to the enduring appeal of the Romantic Suspense subgenre. According to industry statistics gathered by RWA, nearly 29.6% of popular fiction sales were for Mystery/Detective/Suspense novels.

But just how many parts of each of these elements do you need in order for a novel to be considered Romantic Suspense and not just a mystery, thriller or romance?

A balance of romance and mystery is key to creating a Romantic Suspense because readers of this subgenre expect two key things:  1) that there is some mystery that will need to be solved; and 2) that the protagonists will eventually fall in love.  With today’s trends toward stronger, more independent heroines, expect that many Romantic Suspenses may also have a fair share of action as part of the mystery subplot.  In addition, with the growing popularity of paranormals, you may also find paranormal elements creeping into Romantic Suspense.  For example, my first vampire novel, DARKNESS CALLS, was crafted to be predominantly a Romantic Suspense with a secondary vampire subplot.

What kinds of novels fit the mold of Romantic Suspense?  Single titles such as  BREAKWATER by Carla Neggers, CLOSE-UP by Virginia Kantra, and COLD TRUTH by Mariah Stewart exemplify the subgenre.  Single title novels generally run from 85,000 to 100,000 words and with the longer length thanks to this word count, both the mystery and romance elements may include secondary characters and plots, but key to having a Romantic Suspense will be the coexistence of both romance and mystery in the storyline and the resolution that Romantic Suspense readers expect, namely, a happily-ever-after for a hero and heroine who have found love along the way to solving the mystery.

Romantic Suspense single titles are being sought by publishers like Avon, Berkley/Jove, Dorchester and Harlequin just to name a few although there are many others (check out http://www.karenafox.com/publishers.htm for addtional information).

Series such as Silhouette Bombshell, Harlequin Intrigue and Silhouette Intimate Moments typify Romantic Suspense category novels.

Silhouette Bombshell personifies the trend toward action-packed novels with larger-than-life kick butt heroines.  Think Alias, Lara Croft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all of which contained peril, mystery and of course, romance.  For Bombshell, keep in mind that the guidelines stress that the heroine’s savvy, sexiness and strength will help her get herself and others out of difficult situations and provide a thrill-ride for the reader.  The novels, however, “also contain an exciting romance subplot, and, in the end, the heroine always gets her man!”  The Bombshell word count is from 70,000 to 75,000.

So if Bombshell is one part mystery, two parts action and one part romance, how can we categorize Romantic Suspense lines such as Harlequin Intrigue and Silhouette Intimate Moments?

Silhouette Intimate Moments seems to have struggled with its identity in past years, but the rebranding that will begin in October and finish with the line being renamed Silhouette Romantic Suspense in February 2007 makes it clear what this line is all about – action, mystery and romance.  But are Silhouette Intimate Moments one part mystery and two parts romance?  The guidelines available at eharlequin.com make it clear that “(a) strong, compelling romance should dominate the book, but there must be a suspense plot. Silhouette Intimate Moments romances are fueled by the romance and not the suspense.”

The Capturing the Crown Series from Silhouette Intimate Moments is one example of a Romantic Suspense continuity series.  A continuity series is a set of novels written by several different authors, but with a story arc that spans all the novels.  This involves working with a detailed “bible” created by either the publisher or the authors.  The “bible” will detail the elements of each novel as well as the continuing story threads that each author must place in their novels in order to keep the story arc going from one novel to the next.

The Silhouette Intimate Moments/Romantic Suspense word count is from 60,000 to 65,000.

Harlequin Intrigue, on the other hand, clearly places its focus on having two parts peril to one part romance.  As noted in the guidelines at eharlequin.com, “(w)hether a murder mystery, psychological suspense or thriller, the love story must be inextricably bound to the mystery where all loose ends are tied up neatly…and shared dangers lead right to shared passions.”  Kathleen Long’s WHEN A STRANGER CALLS is one example of  the kind of Romantic Suspense in the Harlequin Intrigue line, which has a word count of 60,000 to 65,000.

So what is the perfect recipe for a Romantic Suspense?

Regardless of how many parts action, mystery or thriller you include in your recipe, there’s one element you can’t be without – romance.  It’s the spice providing the essential flavoring to all the other elements in the subgenre known as Romantic Suspense.

Copyright 2006 Caridad Pineiro Scordato

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