Romantic Suspense


According to Joyce G. Saricks, “Before the line ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ became a cliché, it was the phrase (and the introductory sentence of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford) that epitomized the Gothic novel, the forerunner of the Romantic Suspense genre. In these prototypes, the final scene often did take place on a dark and stormy night, with the innocent young heroine on the battlements of the isolated, crumbling castle, forced to choose between the two men who have promised safety and, ultimately, happiness. Tension has built throughout the story, and it is only in this last, fateful encounter that she can distinguish between the two, one the hero and the other the villain. Although the trappings have changed, the essence of that story remains in today’s novels of Romantic Suspense. The threatened heroine is placed in jeopardy, and even though she now may save herself rather than relying on a hero to rescue her, she is still faced with a dilemma concerning the good and the other bad, or she must reconcile her feelings toward the traditional bad-boy hero and learn to trust him, appropriating a theme from the Romance genre.” (p.35)

Romantic Suspense is a genre with roots in both the Romance and Suspense genres. Elements from Mystery, Espionage Thrillers, and especially Suspense combine with Romance to create a story that does not fit comfortably in any of the genres it draws from. The best examples blend Romance and Suspense so completely that it is only possible to consider them as their own genre.” (p.35)

This genre has changed dramatically in the last thirty years. Traditionally, Romantic Suspense was a Romance with an element of danger introduced. Classic authors – Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, and Barbara Michaels – rarely included actual violence, just the underlying suggestion that violence was possible or that it had occurred sometime in the past. The language was gentle, the romantic interest asexual, and any true violence offstage. In the 1980s, popular Romace writers such as Nora Roberts and Sandra Brown began writing romances with edgy Suspense, explicit sex, strong language, and graphic violence. This style transformed the genre. These Romance authors brought many of their readers with them, and this hot new version of Suspense attracted others to make this a very popular and viable genre today, one read by men and women.” (p.36)

Point of view is key to the appeal of Romantic Suspense. Although readers appreciate the suspenseful and romantic story line, they also demand the reassurance that the heroine has survived. The story needs to be told from, filtered through, her point of view. If it is not, fans may consider the story suspenseful but will also recognize that something is missing. And even though other points of view are often represented – including the hero’s and, as in all good Suspense stories, the villain’s – the heroine remains the central character. It is for her story, because they identify and sympathize with her, that readers flock to to novels of Romantic Suspense.” (p.37)

The most dramatic changes in the genre over the past few years have been in the increase in explicit sex and violence and the addition of strong language. In the hands of classic writers Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Holt, and Whitney, these were books one could hand ‘safely’ to any reader concerned about that content. Today, the genre is dominated by Romance writers who have turned to Suspense writing, and, interestingly, it is their contribution that has altered the genre’s tone from softer- to harder-edged. Although these authors – [Sandra] Brown, Robards, Iris Johansen – made their names and reputations writing Romances, they have added so much suspense to their novels, as well as violence and strong language that they are no longer considered Romance writers by fans of that genre. Yet the romantic language, tone, and situations in their novels play too important a role for them to be considered writers of straightforward Suspense. In fact, many have drawn their Romance fans with them to the reimagined Romantic Suspense genre, and although the readers may not find the Romances they expect in current titles by their favorites, author loyalty and strong romantic elements have encouraged them to stay fans.” (p.38)

“Crossover dominates the Romantic Suspense genre as it does most others. In addition to the expected overlap with the Romance and Suspense genres, there are increasing elements of the Mystery and Thriller genres in order to accommodate those more dangerous and investigative professions necessary to sustain a series character.

Paranormal elements have long been popular in this genre with its roots in Gothic Romances, but that trend has become even more pronounced. Popular Romance writers Kay Hooper, Roberts, Krentz/Quick, Johansen, and Lisa Jackson have all become known for the effective use of paranormal elements in their novels.

Fans of the traditional Romantic Suspense have likely seen the death of that type of novel, for the time being at least. As Gothics and Paranormal Romantic Suspense become more popular, they also tend to reflect the more modern values of today’s Romantic Suspense, with graphic language and descriptive sex and violence.

Historical Romantic Suspense seems to on the rise, as authors such as Quick have moved from Historical Romance to Romantic Suspens. Strong elements of suspense and danger blend with historical details and Romance in these novels.” (p.48)

Characteristics of Romantic Suspense

“1. Pacing is fast. The action often starts on the first page, sometimes in a prologue, and continues relentlessly at a breakneck speed, driven by the danger to the heroine and frequent plot twists.

2. The story is told from the threatened heroine’s point of view. Heroines are increasingly resourceful and independent, and their survival usually depends on their own skill, with minimal help from the hero.

3. Edgy tales of Suspense combine with sensuously explicit Romance in these blended stories. Story lines may include graphic details, reflecting the harder-edged end of the Suspense genre and the more sensual end of the Romance genre.

4. A sense of uneasiness prevails even in quieter moments and affects the tone of these novels.

5. The language shares similarities with Romances, as smart dialogue and witty repartee, along with sensual descriptions, characterize the style. Strong language and explicit sexual descriptions are also common.

6. Intriguing, detailed backgrounds and exotic settings often frame these stories.” 9p.37)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago


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