HEA vs. Suspense: How To Keep Your Readers Nervous

by Christina Lay

I recently took part in a conversation among writers in which the question was asked “How can you create suspense in a romance novel when everyone knows the two main characters will end up together?” One answer offered was along the lines that suspense in romance is always built on a misunderstanding that drives a wedge between the characters, leaving the reader to wonder if they’ll ever be able to overcome the damage done. I protested, saying, well, that’s one hoary old device, which sometimes works, but in a good romance novel, there’s much more going on, and so many possibilities, just like in any other type of fiction.

I should point out that The Misunderstanding isn’t necessarily bad. After all, misunderstandings happen in real life all the time. In this age of communication, we seem to communicate successfully less and less, especially when texting is the preferred method. The most important thing to remember is to make whatever happens a believable, and not annoying, occurrence. The Misunderstanding should not make your characters look stupid, petty, or hysterical, unless you’re writing a comedy, and even then, make sure it doesn’t just make your reader despise your hero. And, if The Misunderstanding could be cleared up with one question, like “Did you really sleep with my sister?”, then you’d better make Damn Sure your character has an excellent reason for not asking the question.

One complicated doohickey

But really, The Misunderstanding is just one device that writers might use to drive a wedge between their would-be lovers. Whatever serves to keep the romantic interests apart helps to create suspense.  It may or may not be crucial to the plot. In a light romance, or comedy, The Wedge might be a lie told by a jealous rival, a piece of conversation heard out of context, or a meaning ascribed to an action that wasn’t intended. It is also possible for two intelligent, rational people to have entirely different perceptions of an event or conversation. In budding romances in particular, this can work, because it’s such a sensitive and vulnerable time, but again, make sure the motivations and reactions of the characters are believable and not insipid.

In a more serious romance, suspense is created by giving the characters motivations or values that are at odds. The police woman who falls for a possible crook. The betrothed king who falls for a landless nobody. The democrat who falls for a republican, and so on. The question then revolves around whether their love is strong enough to overcome the difference, or if they’re doomed to failure.  If you really want to up the odds, you’ll give the characters friends and family who are also in opposition to the lover’s values/family/job/quest. Then romantic love is pitted against familial love, or tribe loyalty, or an oath sworn to a vengeful god. The more pressure you can put on the two lovers to stay apart, the better. But then, of course, you’ll need to make their passion for each other greater and more compelling than the value/family/tribe/quest they are putting at risk.

A great way to make readers fidget is to make them unsure of what is of greater importance: the cause or the lover? Make them seriously doubt if there is any way the two can exist in the same world. Make the future of their love look bleak, maybe impossible.

Suspense depends on how great the stakes are in your story. Not all romance has to be about The Wedge. It is possible that the lovers are together, deeply in love, and it’s the outside world that is threatening their bliss. One might be in physical peril and the other must risk all to save them. One might be called to sacrifice something important in order for the other to achieve a dream. Maybe they are an interracial couple moving to an intolerant community, or a gay couple being threatened with the loss of job, status, familial acceptance.

Now, you might be thinking, but it’s a romance, of course they’ll work it out, no matter what IT is. Usually, readers of romance do like their HEA (Happily Ever After), but not all romances end that way. Even when they do, there’s no reason at all to think they lack suspense. Suspense can come from many and all quarters, and if done right, will force the characters to face their fears, their weaknesses, even their possibly misplaced desires, and either grow and triumph, or fail, miserable and alone (MAA is nota recommended ending, but still possible).

When you pick up a mystery, you pretty much know the detective is going to solve the crime and probably not die. You get wrapped up in the personal life of the main character(s) as you get nervous about whether or not the killer might strike again, and maybe even you start to worry the detective will end up a victim after all. Likewise, in a romance, you’re pretty sure the main characters will end up together, but along the way, you get involved in the challenges they face, the sacrifices they might have to make, and hopefully, you get nervous about whether or not they will be able to work things out.

A hard fought love scene is truly a wonderful thing. That’s one reason I enjoy writing the enemies-to-lovers trope. So many reasons for them not to get together and yet, they can’t live without each other. Such a dilemma. Such juicy territory for the writer. When are we more vulnerable than when in love? When most likely to risk all? A character in love lives in suspense, every minute they are not with their true love. And most of us can relate to relate to that kind of separation anxiety, even if it is all due to a terrible misunderstanding.


I Know It When I Read It

By Alexis Duran

When I first began my foray into writing erotic fiction, I discussed the “ins-and-outs” of the biz with a writer friend of mine.  I noticed very quickly into the conversation that whereas I always used the term “erotica”, she always said “porn”.  It rankled me.  Eventually I expressed my enranklement and she explained that in her opinion erotica is just porn dressed up in a more marketable guise.

I beg to disagree.  I believe there’s a significant difference between the two genres, though there is a point at the extremes of both where they overlap.  This is not a judgment call or anything to do with morality, but simply that, as a writer, I have no interest in crafting porn, just as readers of erotica and readers of porn have different tastes and come to the page looking for different experiences.

Pornographic fiction and erotic fiction share one major thing in common: hot, graphic sex.  It’s my opinion that while in porn the sex is the reason d’etre, in erotica it is the icing on the cake, sometimes the filling as well, but never the whole cake.

Eros & Psyche by Antonio Canova

Eros & Psyche by Antonio Canova

In porn, there is a setting; a roadside bar, an office, a castle on the hill. There are characters defined by easily identifiable labels; bored housewife, rebellious biker, lonely traffic cop.  There is a very brief set-up; bored housewife stops at seedy bar and meets rebellious biker.  There is action; hot, graphic sex on a pool table.  That’s it.

Erotica has these things as well, of course, and depending on the style of the writer and the subgenre, these elements are developed and complicated to varying degrees.  In erotica, the setting becomes a more richly detailed world designed to heighten the senses and provide both opportunity and challenges.  The characters become actual people who transcend labels. They have lives beyond looking for sex. They have complications and maybe as many reasons to avoid their destined mate as to jump their bones.  There’s not only action, but plot.  Here is where things really diverge.

In porn, there’s very little resistance between contact and coitus.  Readers of porn aren’t interested in watching characters overcome obstacles to be together. As a matter of fact, I’d guess the reason they prefer porn is that they are tired of obstacles and just want to have fun. Porn is lust at first sight. Complications, if they exist, involve questions like “how many bikers will this pool table support?” not “if I have sex with this stranger, will it be the end of my marriage?”

Essentially, erotica offers two major elements  porn doesn’t: Romance and suspense.  By romance I mean a developing relationship at the core of the story.  By suspense I mean obstacles, doubts and delays that get in the way of the romance, or in other words, the grand human mess that is human intimacy.  Erotic fiction ranges from pure fantasy to gritty reality, but always, there is some element of that most delightful state of being: anticipation.  You might scoff and say there’s no suspense in romance because we know damn well who’s going to boff who.  Well, that’s just like saying there’s no suspense in your average mystery because we know the detective will solve the crime.  The suspense lies in the journey. What twists and turns shall we endure? What challenges will the lovers face? How often will their fatal flaws get in the way? Will X panic when he falls in love with Y? Will Y go back to her old boyfriend, or run away with Z?  It’s all deliciously complicated, frustrating, and if done well, arousing.

And speaking of sex.  Porn goes straight for the hot sex with a sprinkling of story on the side. In erotica, it is the story that makes the sex hot.  It hardly matters who does what with which parts, or how large or slippery those parts are. The reader has already slid beneath skin of the characters and ridden out the storm with them. The sex will be hot!

I believe we all dream of that perfect mate, that awesome, mind-blowing connection with another human being. That’s what erotica offers that porn doesn’t.  The purely realized fantasy of love achieved, love expressed in its rawest form; hot, graphic sex. Dirty sex. Kinky sex. Sad sex. Angry sex.  There is physical bliss but there is also emotion. Doubt. Fear. Longing. Rejection. Joy. Erotica removes sex from the realm of simple fantasy to that of complicated fantasy. Characters in erotica earn their orgasms, by golly.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but in this world we market and shop in, labels are important. While I will click on a book labeled erotica, I’d never click on one labeled pornography.  So maybe my friend is right? Maybe it’s all just lipstick and fishnet stockings and fooling the search engines?

Call me a romantic, but I don’t think so.

On Writing Romance

Heart and Soul

Heart and Soul

An original painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

When I think of romantic stories filled with eternal love I’ve always equated them with dashing men and perfectly coifed women, and as their story ends or the movie fades to black, I see them silhouetted in a passionate kiss against a brilliant sunset.  It’s February, a month where unless you never leave your home, you are inundated with these concepts.  It’s a time of year when people everywhere profess said undying love, in the form of large heart shaped boxes of chocolate, sentimental cards and massive bouquets of flowers.  Stores also feature every romantic movie or book ever written.  Which leads me to…have you ever written, or tried to write a romance? I’m talking a heart thumping, Harlequin, type of story.

I’ve tried to write such a romantic story.  I can hear a chorus of instructors in the many writing courses I’ve taken over the years. “Your assignment is to write a romantic story; not a sexually laden story. I want a tale filled with love. I want to hear violins playing; I want to not only smell roses, I want to see them strewn about. You have one hour, now get started.”  Well maybe they didn’t put it quite in those words, but it was implied. Yes, very much implied and I tried, I really have tried. I visualize a Fabio male character and add in an Angelina Jolie type female. They court or date, for a brief period of time, they have the major obstacles to overcome, finally their over-the-top passion for one another solves said issues and at that point the violins are cued and across the bottom page in frilly font I should be placing, “And They Lived Happily Ever After”. Right? Well, as I said I’ve tried and not just with the beautiful people.  I’ve attempted it with pimply-faced youth and average, slightly over-weight, non movie star types as well. But here is what ALWAYS happens in my attempts to write a Harlequin romance, type story.

I kill one of them. Yep, one of them always has to die. Until recently, this was most upsetting to me. My trash bin is filled with dead lovers.

Please note, I said until recently. Because just as I was berating myself for yet another deceased heroine at the hands of her knight in shining armor no less (accidentally of course), I had one of those “aha” moments.  I, in that fleeting moment, stumbled upon a most astonishing fact.  In most of my favorite love stories, someone dies.  Yes, I’m going to say it; think, “Love Story” with Ryan O’Neil and Ali MacGraw, or the classic Romeo and Juliet or how about a more current story, Downton Abbey?  We rejoiced when Lady Mary and Matthew finally overcame all their roadblocks; they were blissfully happy; new baby and all.  Then with the stroke of a writer’s pen, Mathew is gone. I could’ve written that; I have written it!  Thus, my “aha” moment, it’s so very freeing when we as writers, can overcome any preconceived notion we have about a particular genre, is it not?  Most of my fiction is considered “Southern Gothic”.  Hard to think about love when, a voodoo doll wearing your face, is being poked and prodded.  But I now realize that does not have to automatically exclude me from the romance of the month club. Yes, a most liberating realization.

So here I am once again, at this fluttering heart time of year, contemplating writing a romance.  But this time I’m not fretting or preparing my trash can for yet another failed attempt. No this year, if one of my lovers has to take a leap off the cliff, which always overlooks Lovers’ Lane, so be it.  Yes, this year I’m going to take my couple on an obstacle filled odyssey where their love will be tested, yet it will prevail. They may not prevail, but their eternal love will and who knows, maybe with this newly found freedom I feel in writing a romance, just maybe, it will all end with the flowery script, “And They Lived Happily Ever After”. But just in case, I’ll make sure I cue the violin and have plenty of flowers. Love is eternal after all, even if one of them doesn’t survive the Lovers’ Lane leap.