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.
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.