This week: Mixing Mystery With RomanceEdited by: Lonewolf
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My name is Lonewolf and this week I'll be talking about mixing Mystery with Romance.
A mystery is about a crime, usually a murder, and the process of discovering who committed it. The hero(ine) is usually a detective or an amateur doing detective work.
Romantic fiction is about love and passion. Normally, the focus is on two characters who fall in love but have problems or obstacles keeping them apart, and there is a happy ending.
Let's start with a good definition of what romantic suspense is. Many people believe that any romance that includes a mystery or suspense subplot constitutes romantic suspense. In my mind, however, a romantic suspense mixes both genres fairly equally. Neither (romance or suspense) significantly overwhelms the other. From the beginning of the story, the reader knows that your protagonists will both A) fall in love and B) solve whatever mystery you have set up.If in fact, at first, they don't like each other at all. Falling in love is what will happen on the way to solving the crime.
Romantic suspense provides instant tension in a story. Something dire or at the very least something suspicious has happened. Maybe a child is missing or your heroine receives a threatening note possibly someone has turned up dead. If you've done your job right, the reader is immediately hooked wanting to know more. What happened to the child? Who is threatening your heroine? Who is that dead guy and how did he get that way? Nothing stimulates readers to turn pages like the burning curiosity to know what happens next.
But for the romantic suspense to work, you need more than a dynamite opening. You need follow-through on both the mystery and the romance. It's a tall order to pull off, so let's examine each individually.
In the mystery community, distinction is made between a mystery (where your protagonists must figure out who is responsible) and suspense (where your protagonist knows or finds out early in the story who is responsible. The question is how much damage this person will be able to cause before he or she is stopped). Linda Howard's Now You See Her is a good example of the former. A woman is dead and the protagonists must find out who killed her. Lisa Gardner's The Perfect Husband is a perfect example of the latter. Everyone knows the husband has gone off his rocker. The problem is catching him. The line between the two is not absolute, but acknowledging the difference can help you figure out exactly what kind of story you want to tell.
Of the two, the true mystery is the more difficult endeavor. You're goal here is to plant enough clues to help your protagonists (and the reader) figure out who the villain is, without giving away the villain's identity too soon. You may also want to incorporate one or more red herrings-folks who come under suspicion for being the villain but prove not to be. It all depends on how involved your plot is and how long your story is. A longer story will require a more involved plot to keep the reader interested and still guessing until the end of the story.
Gone are the days where a writer could describe his/her villain as just plain crazy. Readers are far too sophisticated to buy that. Every human being acts according to motivation. In The Crime Writer's Reference Guide, Martin Roth gives several common motives for murder, which include: ambition, blackmail, to cover another crime, sadism, thrill, fear, jealousy, as well as self defense. Now every romantic suspense revolves around a murder, but every villain does have a motive, whether it is warped and bizarre, whether it is only known to the villain himself until the end of the story. Studying some of the criminal "personalities" can help you create a believable, three dimensional character.
Another trap to avoid is the bumbling or incompetent villain. Your protagonists need a strong antagonist to play against. How brilliant is your hero to be foiled by someone who bungles their way through the story? You want your villain to be smart, but your protagonists to be smarter and more tenacious, and that's why they get the job done.
Just because you have provided your readers with suspense doesn't mean you can skimp on the romance. If anything, readers expect more of a distinctive chemistry between the protagonists. Romantic suspense necessitates a short timeline for the story, no weeks or months in which feelings grow. After all, someone(s) life or sanity or reputation hangs in the balance of a quick resolution. So the reaction of the protagonists to one another has to be immediate and strong.
This at-a-glance chemistry doesn't mean your hero and heroine have to fall in love on sight, but they have to notice each other, they have to have an immediate reaction, even if that reaction is hatred. You just have to make sure you show the reader why and how your protagonists get from one emotion to the other.
As in any other romance, your protagonists will need to have internal conflicts about falling in love, regardless of any conflicts you have set up in terms of solving the mystery or resolving the suspense.
Blending the two
As with any kind of story that mixes two elements, the romantic suspense works best when one plot-line is dependent on the other to work or make sense. If the protagonists meet and are forced to interact because of whatever mystery or suspense you have set up, this heightens the tension of both the romance and the suspense elements.
Undoubtedly, protagonists will be working together closely to solve the suspense element you have developed, which will give them plenty of time to learn about each other through conversations, observations, and how they deal with others. However, unlike a straight romance, you probably won't have too much time for long narrative or introspective passages, as it will disrupt the pace of the mystery. If you plot out your stories in scenes and sequels, you will probably end up with a lot more scenes than sequels in order to keep the action going.
The Happy Ending
Both romance and mystery demand a happy ending. For romance, the happy ending is that the couple ends up together. For mystery/suspense, the happy ending is that the bad guy(s) are brought to justice in one form or another. Both of these endings have to leave the reader emotionally satisfied.
For a romantic ending, you want to show that the hero and heroine make a commitment to each other. How much of a commitment is needed for the reader to be satisfied depends on how close your couple has gotten during the story. Remember, the romantic suspense tends to take place over an abbreviated time period. Promises of undying love, marriage proposals or other signs of "high" commitment may seem out of place. A commitment to working things out or seeing where things lead may be all that's needed to convince the reader that the couple is on the right track.
For a mystery ending, you can't be afraid to have one of your protagonists kill off the bad guy. Realize that the more heinous your villain the more readers will want him or her to have a horrible end. Give them one.
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