Exploring Romantic Suspense: Tension

Tension (along with its sibling, Conflict) is my favorite part of any story. It’s also absolutely necessary to keep me engaged and reading (or writing) all the way to the end. I’ve read books with little or no tension in them before…or nearly read, I should say, as I get bored with them quickly.

In romantic suspense, there are generally two main tension threads throughout – the tension between the hero and heroine (internal), and the tension that carries the suspense element (external). I’ve read a lot of romantic suspense where the romantic thread is dropped, sometimes numerous times, in favor of the suspense thread. I’m not sure why, but I haven’t really seen much of the opposite happening – which is interesting, I think. Perhaps romance writers who can keep that romantic tension tight have an easier time carrying the suspense tension through as well?

For me, part of keeping the romantic tension high between the main characters is keeping them at the forefront of each other’s thoughts as much as possible. Even when they’re separated for whatever reason, they need to always be thinking about each other in some sense. Because tension is something you feel rather than read (in my opinion), this is something best done through emotional distress. The character shows distress/emotion in some way (introspection, action, dialogue, whatever), and we as readers are right there with them emotionally. A heroine gets kidnapped? Even if she’s going to save herself, she’s still thinking about the hero, wondering where he is, if he’s okay, if he’ll get there in time to help, etc. The hero isn’t around for any of this, of course, but when we jump to his perspective, he’s worrying (in a macho sort of way), trying to figure out how to help the heroine, feeling incompetent, etc.

I think just in writing this post I see why it’s easier to keep the suspense tension high if the romantic thread is tight – as long as there’s action and the chance of someone dying or getting seriously hurt, suspense will pretty much take care of itself, depending on the writing. If I, as the reader connect with the characters on an emotional level, the tension I feel when following the suspense thread will be that much greater by default. I don’t think for it works as well the other way, due to romance being an emotional thing by it’s very nature…

So what’s your take? Do you think that the romantic tension in a romantic suspense novel increases/enhances the tension of the main suspense plot? When you read a straight suspense novel, does the presence/absence of romantic tension affect your enjoyment of the story?


For a list of romantic suspense books I’ve read or want to read (plus my own), check out my Listmania list on Amazon. I’ll be adding to it occasionally.

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8 comments on “Exploring Romantic Suspense: Tension

  1. Liana Brooks

    Romantic tension is my favorite part of any book with romance involved. Even more than the first kiss, the lead up to the kiss has the most impact on me.

    And I notice when it’s missing.

    My problem in writing romantic tension isn’t so much in keeping it around, but keeping it on the right characters. My current WIP starts with the FMC engaged to a man she loves… but that’s not coming across.

    In the edits I can see her initial attraction to her eventual BF, but the romantic tension with her soon-to-be-ex is superficial at best. Knowing what happens next is coloring the writing.

  2. Carol

    The romantic tension in a romantic suspense novel can’t help but enhance the suspense plot. The characters have so much more to lose, even if it’s only the possibility of romance.

    I can’t say the absense of romance bothers me when I’m reading a straight suspense. There’ve been a couple of times where I’ve thought the injection of a little romance might have been a good idea, but it wasn’t my book. 🙂

    However, I have read a couple of romantic suspense novels that didn’t use the romantic tension fully, and this always makes me question the author’s intent. Was it supposed to be romantic suspense, or just suspense?

  3. Brooklyn Ann

    I don’t often read romantic suspense and besides my lack of interest in contemporary settings, I believe that THIS is the reason. Bad guys coming to get you are a dime a dozen in books. I want some freakin’ sizzling chemistry…and a HEA.

  4. Dolly

    Tension definitely is one of the best thing that could be in any book, regardless of the genre. It keeps me on the edge, and makes me keep turning the page. If I feel that tension that means I care.

  5. Jamie D.

    Oh me too – really, the anticipation should be just as rewarding as the actual climax (uh, no pun intended, but since it’s there… LOL).

    On your tension…not that I know anything about your WIP aside from what you’ve shared, but it seems like it would be good for the tension with her soon-to-be-ex to be superficial? Since they’re splitting up, that could be one of the causes…maybe your subconscious was locking on to that? Just a thought. She could love him without that strong chemistry, for sure.

    Now I’m intrigued by your WIP.  When you’re looking for beta readers…

  6. Jamie D.

    I’ve had that same thought, Carol, on “romantic suspense” novels without enough chemistry/romantic tension. But then, someone had that same thought about mine, so now I’m wondering if the author saw it, and it just didn’t come across to the reader. Interesting how personal perspective colors things, isn’t it?

  7. Jamie D.

    I appreciate you reading mine, for sure.

    I like a lot of sizzle too (as you might have guessed). And even in romantic suspense, I feel cheated without an HEA. I don’ t know if I’ve ever seen a historical romantic suspense – I wonder if anyone’s writing those? Might be an interesting twist. Sadly, I’m far to lazy to do the research required for historical writing, or I’d try it myself…

  8. Jamie D.

    Exactly, Dolly.