the suspense genre....


Written on Wednesday, May 06, 2009 by haleigh

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

My craft/how-to book for this semester is "How to Write Killer Fiction" by Carolyn Wheat. The book is focused on mystery and suspense novels - the first half focuses on mystery, the second half on suspense.

I found the history of the suspense genre interesting, because it was new information to me. Did anyone else know that Jane Eyre is essentially the first romantic suspense novel? I put Pride and Prejudice on my reading list for this semester; Jane Eyre is definitely going on my list for this coming semester. And if Georgette Heyer's Fredericka brought romance into the modern age, then Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca did the same for romantic suspense. Another book which will be on my reading list next semester.

In looking at the suspense genre as a whole (because I've never looked at it outside the "romantic suspense" sub-genre), the theme I'm seeing is characterization. Wheat's book goes into detail on all the different sub-genres of suspense, and the common thing that stands out to me between all these sub-genres is character (not really a huge surprise there, but still interesting).

"Woman in jeopardy" (or child or man or alien in jeopardy, etc) is a common theme in romantic suspense. According to Wheat, the protagonist is a normal person, required by circumstances outside their control to become somehow stronger, braver, and more heroic then they were at the beginning. It's David and Goliath. As readers, we identify with that, because we want to think that in the same set of circumstances, we would be just as brave, heroic, and strong.

In Spy fiction (what I write - I guess it's more "romantic spy fiction"), Wheat advises being careful of the big, international stakes. It's great the the fate of the free world rests on the hero's shoulders. But as readers, we still need someone to identify with, someone to root for, and someone to blame. Without knowing those characters, it's hard to get invested in the big save-the-world stakes, even if we all, at an intellectual level, want the world to be saved. It's hard to get impassioned about the world - it's easy to get impassioned about a well-drawn character.

There were other sub-genres, which I won't get into. I will say that Wheat's description of romantic suspense was nowhere near accurate. In her description, there is a heroine and two men -- one good, one mean. The good one turns out to be the one trying to kill her and the mean one turns out to the be the hero. I think I have read a Mary Higgins Clark book like that, but it's certainly not indicative of the entire genre. Of course, there are as many types of romantic suspense novels as there are romance and suspense novels, so no one could accurately sum it up in two paragraphs.

I realize that my new and exciting revelation that characterization is important isn't really new information. Every writer knows that. But there are some genres where it's more important than others - for instance, in straight mystery, the plot is often more important than the characters. It's the puzzle the readers invest in (not always, but it can be the case). The Da Vinci Code, as well, had very little characterization. It was about solving the clues.

But Da Vinci Code aside, for suspense, the stakes have to be constantly going up (see my little chart in last week's post :). For that to resonate with the reader, the stakes for the reader have to be going up too. Which brings us back full circle to characterization - that's the reader's stakes.

I'm going in circles here, I realize. But I have a point. Usually, when I write, I think of the romance side as the characterization and the suspense side as the plot. I think of them as almost two separate story arcs. I concentrate on one, then the other. But this is making me realize that characterization is just as important on the suspense side. Maybe they go more hand in hand than I thought.

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  1. Melissa |

    I have to get my hands on this book - - but then again, I'm enjoying your observations so much that I'm not sure why I have to. :) Jane Eyre as the first romantic suspense novel is very interesting! I didn't know that but it certainly builds suspense.

    In my own writing, I can identify with the point you make on being careful with "big, international stakes" or "saving the world." While not spy fiction, my herione in my Guardian story has to save the world, but it's the hero's worry over "picking up the pieces" if she fails that I tried to concentrate on.

    Great stuff Haleigh! I can't tell you, as I dive into the suspense genre with my next story, River, how timely this is. :)

  2. haleigh |

    Hey Melissa - I thought you did great at making Ariana's concerns more personal than just saving the world (though that's important too :). But it was very much focused on her sense of duty to her charges, which is good stakes for the character (and thus, for the reader). It works!

    This book had lots of good stuff on building suspense - very helpful!


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