Dance of the Veils
Recently I was asked how I build suspense in my books. As a writer of romantic suspense, I admit that at first I had no idea. CRYSTAL UNICORNS just poured out of me as I released a lot of angst. It was with my second, SHARK BAIT, that I realized I needed to know more about the bones (structure) of the genre. So I read a load of books on suspense…romantic suspense.
I learned that you had to several basics:
A strong protagonist. Male or Female. Old or young. All that matters is that your protagonist has the reader behind them from the beginning. They don’t even have to be all that nice. In SHARK BAIT, Kate starts out on the first page complaining about where she is and why she is there. But the reader soon learns she is a strong woman who is in a vulnerable position.
A worthy adversary/sidekick. I’m not talking about the villain but a person the protagonist can work off of…in romantic suspense it is usually the love interest. There needs to be interplay between the protagonist and other people in order to have dialogue. Dialogue allows for the story to move forward, to disclose information and backstory, and to relay human emotions.
An antagonist. Whether you know who it is from the beginning or are kept questioning till the end, the antagonist has the power to create dangerous situations that threaten the protagonist or the ones she cares about. He/She creates the fear, the dread, the confusion, the suspense with their interaction with the protagonist, even if it is behind the scenes.
Fully-formed secondary characters: I say fully-formed because, well I believe, all of the characters should be three dimensional. They have a role to play but that doesn’t mean they should be injected into the story whenever necessary without some form of identification with the reader.
There has to be high stakes and, preferably, a time limit. Even if the time isn’t a countdown, it needs to be present. Ultimately, it will all come to a point in time where the lines all converge. The stakes must be high in order to justify the growing suspense and the antagonist’s wrath.
A strong plot line that steadily rises but also allows for brief respite so the reader doesn’t burn out. I like to include humor to break up the suspense. You might have seen this image in last week’s column about plot lines. Here’s a download to help you: Plotting Worksheet
There are probably more must haves that I will remember right after I post this. With a little research you will find them. Hey, I can’t tell you all my secrets.
Ultimately, writing suspense is like the proverbial Dance of the Veils. A dancer swathed in veils enters the room. As the music swells, the dancer captures the interest of the audience. Slowly and at unexpected intervals, she drops one veil after another revealing a little more of why lies beneath. The tease of the unseen, the rhythm of the music, the undulating flesh all create an air of mystery and expectation. It is only after the veils are dropped that all is seen. And after all the expectation, it had better be worth the wait.
So that is my take on romantic suspense or suspense in general. I’m still learning but these are the basics. What makes a great writer is taking the basics and creating a believable world where the reader immerses themselves in danger and excitement…and yes, romance…without leaving their couch.