All my novels are seasoned with suspense. I write romantic suspense, and the characters in my stories fall in love during times of adventure and risk. They’re in danger while evading stalkers or staying one step ahead of a murderer.
But today, I want to talk about a different kind of suspense. Whether the book is a thriller like The Da Vinci Code or the first of a vampire saga like Twilight, the riskiest ingredient in any romantic plot or subplot is the characters’ developing relationship.
Novels are built around conflict, and relationships are overloaded with conflict and risk. The suspense sparked when two potential lovers meet comes from the questions: is this person ‘the one’, will our romance last, will I find happiness, or will I be hurt? Relationships are complex and difficult, and choosing a person to love and marry is a major decision involving a monstrous emotional risk. Because of the risk, falling in love is thrilling but dangerous, and the characters involved are usually seeped in conflict.
When a woman first sees a man, she may experience a rush of adrenaline. The otherwise-strong man may feel confused whenever a particular woman is near. Deep inside, they’re drawn to the other person, they want to love and be loved. But their subconscious warns of danger and screams for caution. One or both resist because of a perceived risk.
We all want to protect ourselves from hurt. We all have inner fears. What if the other person rejects me or hurts me? What if I make a fool of myself? Will this person accept me as I am or try to change me? If I admit my deep secrets, will this person use them against me?
We want to be one with the other person, but still retain our individuality. We worry they will try to control us or expect us to give up part of ourselves. Will their love be conditional? What will they demand in exchange? Being the first to say ‘I love you’ gives power to the other. Men may worry that needing someone makes them appear weak.
For many people the questions loom large, and they find physical intimacy easier than emotional intimacy. Falling in love becomes an agonizing experience.
Courtship is a process of learning about the other person and looking for assurances they’re worth the risk of dropping our defenses and standing exposed to the potential for pain. Love happens when we can allow another to see our vulnerabilities, when the pain we’ll feel at losing someone is great enough that we’ll risk allowing them intimacy. The crisis in a book is often the moment of insight when the character is forced to choose between loneliness and courage. They realize they need the other person’s love and take the risk of leaping into the unknown.
Novels are often about relationships, and every relationship is risky. A good story lets us face adversity without being exposed to real danger, lets us live the adventure without taking the risk. So the next time you open a book with characters who fall in love in the main plot or a subplot, prepare to devour a delicious serving of suspense.