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View Full Version : Romantic Suspense, pacing/plotting questions


StoryG27
02-17-2009, 01:40 AM
So here's my conundrum, I write RS (and read tons of it) but apparently I don't follow the formula, as an agent once declined one of my books, citing, "It's an interesting story but doesn't fit the typical RS formula." I get there has to be the threat of danger, the hope of romance, and usually (not always) the HAE. But I need some pacing advice for the beginning of my new WIP because the words of that agent are never far from my mind.

Here's my questions to you RS readers and writers:
1. Is it okay to begin w/out the heroine knowing she's in danger as long as the reader knows it? (reader knows it because the first chapter, only 300 words, is in the antag's POV)

2. Is it okay to begin in the antag POV? Or should I flip my first two chapters and have the antag sandwiched in the middle of protag's POV chapters?
Chptr 1-- Antag, basically thinking about her, knows where to find her, and is coming for her.
Chptr 2-- Protag, arrives at a large estate she is now contracted to manage. This place has personal history, it's where her mother died, and a few months later where her brother and five other boys were slaughtered while on a survivalist camp out many years ago.
Chptr 3-- Protag, runs into old flame, thinks he now has a kid and wife (he doesn't, but shhh, you don't know that yet), and is struggling with those emotions.
(all three chapters total only 2,200 words)

3. After Chptr 3, I am considering another short jaunt into the antag's POV, just basically to show he is stalking her at this point. Or should I skip that and go to this chapter 4?
Chptr 4-- UNWRITTEN, this is where I was going to have her wander up to the attic, searching for some docs her boss mentioned, but finds something much more sinister.

I feel conflicted. I want to get this plotting and pacing down right, and figure out what the hell this "formula" is before I get too far into it.

This isn't a thriller, she's not running for her life in the very beginning, she doesn't even know there is someone after her at first, is that okay? Is putting the antag's POV in there to heighten suspense acceptable?

I'm not worried the start is slow, it's not. There's a lot happening in a short amount of words, I'm just worried I'm not following the "formula" correctly, and more importantly, I want to pace and plot it to move quickly yet reveal the deep plot secrets slowly.

I guess an even better question would be, does any one know the "formula?" And, how do you prefer your pacing, as a reader and writer?

I just want to get this straight before I get too far into it this time. I've read Lisa Gardner's Seven Secrets of Writing Romantic Suspense (http://www.lisagardner.com/tricks/article_pdfs/7secretsofromanticsuspense.pdf)along with numerous other articles from various people, but there seems to be no "typical RS formula," at least not one that doesn't closely match how I write. I love writing, but I want my books to be salable, so if a formula is what it takes, I can manage it, as long as I know it is. Suggestions? Advice? Anyone?

Chumplet
02-17-2009, 02:01 AM
I honestly don't think there's a 'formula'. I wrote my second novel as a romance, but it is often placed in the 'thriller/suspense' category. The antag doesn't show up till the second or third chapter, and her shenanigans build up throughout the story.

That particular agent might have their own opinion about what goes where, but your characters really call the shots. As long as the reader is sucked in and wants to stay for the ride, you're almost there. Another agent will surely clue in.

Karen Duvall
02-17-2009, 02:11 AM
I have a couple of published RSs, a novel and a novella, and I never considered the genre formulaic. The element of suspense is high, and therefore so is the danger. The reader should be worried about the protagonist and her problem at all times, but that's true of all fiction. And the romantic interest needs to be deeply involved in the plot, as well as the developing romance. It's not a good idea to have the hero and heroine apart from each other for long periods of time, or if they are, they should be in each others' thoughts. The pace should be fast, and the danger should build to a crescendo. Romantic suspense is what you read late at night and don't get to bed until 3 a.m. because you can't put the book down. It's not a leisurely read.

The fact that the first chapter has the antagonist "thinking" is worrisome. The first chapter of suspense is not a time for deep thoughts. Start with action and get the danger on the page asap. It's about reader expectation. The reader bought your book for spine-tingling suspense, so you better deliver.

Regarding the agent's comment, that's one agent's opinion, nothing more. If another agent comes at you with the same criticism, that's when you consider it a problem. Good luck!

StoryG27
02-17-2009, 02:22 AM
Chumplet, thanks. You're completely right, I'm just a very gifted obsessor. :D

Karen, yikes, you're right on the first part. He is actually doing something at the time to get to her, but he does think of her and that's where the reader knows there's danger, so I might need to rework that part. The suspense is part of her first introduction, just because of the setting, so I may start with that and figure out a new way to get the antag's POV in there afterward, oh, I just got an idea. Gotta go find my writing notebook.

Gillhoughly
02-17-2009, 03:09 AM
1. Is it okay to begin w/out the heroine knowing she's in danger as long as the reader knows it? (reader knows it because the first chapter, only 300 words, is in the antag's POV)

Yes, but I question the need for a chapter that's only a page and a half long.

2. Is it okay to begin in the antag POV? Yes. But considering how short it is, that may be putting off agents and editors.

The nature of the genre is that the MC is going to be in peril sooner or later. This means you don't absolutely have to open with the antag, can plunge in, and get on with things.

(all three chapters total only 2,200 words)By my reckoning, you've got 8.8 pages of double-spaced exposition and this may be what's screwing you up in the "pacing" department.

Not a lot of writers are able to get away with "mini-me" chapters. Some newbie writers write until they get tired of the scene, bored, run out of "what happens next" ideas and put in a break just to have a change. I did it myself!

Short chapters make it difficult to build momentum in a scene. Just when things start to get interesting the writer intrudes herself with a chapter break. Maybe the next chapter starts where she left off, but if so, then why put in a break in the first place? Besides, a chapter break gives a reader an excuse to put the book down. You don't want that!

Just so you know, chapters were invented back in the day when books were chapter-a-week novels selling for a penny. The writer had to give the reader their money's worth with enough interesting things going on in that installment, ending on a cliffhanger, so readers would buy next week's chapter. That's why many Victorian novels are so danged FAT!

Most of my chapters--and this is just me!--run 20-35 double-spaced pages and cover two to three plot points along with character development and interaction.

it's where her mother died, and a few months later where her brother and five other boys were slaughtered while on a survivalist camp out many years ago.If that was me I wouldn't go near the place! (I still don't drive along a certain road any more because I saw a truck run over a poor turtle there! http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/images/icons/icon9.gif )

Your MC better have a realistically STRONG reason to go back to such a place!

A parent dying of natural causes is one thing, but a murdered sibling is very much another. That is a highly traumatic event in your character's life, and it also raises the bar when it comes to the level of violence you're putting in. Whether it's on stage or just referred to, your body count/ victim choice may be too intense for the genre.

Six dead children would absolutely freak out ANY community. Certainly it would be the topic of TV documentaries, relatives of the victims would be in for lengthy media attention, interviews from true-crime writers, and ghoulish exploitation for the rest of their lives. (I watched a docu today about 4 children murdered in the 70s by a predator [never caught], and 30 years later the community and the cops still agonize over it.)

Depending how seriously you plan to explore such a horror, then yes, you may be knocking yourself from romantic suspense and into another genre altogether.

It's okay to do that, though--they have love stories in those plots all the time! http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/images/icons/icon12.gif

You mention "formula" a few times, and I can't say that there IS one except to tell a cracking good story--the kind you'd like to read yourself.

You can assemble the various elements for a cake, mix them up, and bake. One cook will have a masterpiece; the other will have a mess, yet they have the same ingredients and measuring of portions.

At this point, since you're not far along in the story, I'd suggest you put it up in SYW for some initial feedback.

And rather than checking that forum every two minutes, get your fine self down to the library and read more books.

It is extremely important that you read outside the RS genre. It doesn't matter whether you like those other books or not, you can learn from them.

Read some classic RS--what used to be called "gothics."

I didn't think I'd like some of the old stuff by Daphne DuMaurier or Mary Stewart or The Gordons (husband/wife team) but they turned into my beloved mentors when it came to crafting a good RS. All have strong female characters.

Good modern writers to check out include Lillian Stewart Carl, Shannon K. Butcher, Sharyn McCrumb, Bethany Campbell, Barbara Michaels, and Marjorie M. Liu.

Hope this helps! http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/images/icons/icon7.gif

Cathy C
02-17-2009, 04:05 AM
storygirl, Gillhoughly's advice is terrific (as always). But since I didn't know she was going to post in such detail, I thought you might enjoy to hear from an old friend of mine who writes RS for a living. I asked NYT bestselling romantic suspense author Brenda Novak to weigh in on your questions, and she was happy to oblige. :)

Here are her responses:

Here's my questions to you RS readers and writers:

1. Is it okay to begin w/out the heroine knowing she's in danger as long as the reader knows it? (reader knows it because the first chapter, only 300 words, is in the antag's POV)

ABSOLUTELY!

2. Is it okay to begin in the antag POV? Or should I flip my first two chapters and have the antag sandwiched in the middle of protag's POV chapters?

AGAIN, YOU CAN DEFINITELY DO THIS. THE ONLY CAVEAT IS THAT IT'S EFFECTIVE. AS WITH ANY GOOD BOOK, YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH ANYTHING AS LONG AS IT'S INTRIGUING AND WELL DONE.


Chptr 1-- Antag, basically thinking about her, knows where to find her, and is coming for her.
Chptr 2-- Protag, arrives at a large estate she is now contracted to manage. This place has personal history, it's where her mother died, and a few months later where her brother and five other boys were slaughtered while on a survivalist camp out many years ago.
Chptr 3-- Protag, runs into old flame, thinks he now has a kid and wife (he doesn't, but shhh, you don't know that yet), and is struggling with those emotions.
(all three chapters total only 2,200 words)

3. After Chptr 3, I am considering another short jaunt into the antag's POV, just basically to show he is stalking her at this point. Or should I skip that and go to this chapter 4?
Chptr 4-- UNWRITTEN, this is where I was going to have her wander up to the attic, searching for some docs her boss mentioned, but finds something much more sinister.



YOU COULD GO EITHER WAY. IS THERE SOMETHING YOUR VILLAIN NEEDS TO DO TO GET PREPARED FOR WHAT HE HAS PLANNED? IF NOT, IT'D SUGGEST NOT DOING A BIG BLOCK OF INTERNAL THOUGHT, BUT YOU COULD DEFINITELY DO SOMETHING SHORT AND EFFECTIVE THAT RACHETS UP THE TENSION.

I feel conflicted. I want to get this plotting and pacing down right, and figure out what the hell this "formula" is before I get too far into it.


I'VE NEVER HEARD OF A FORMULA. THERE'S A CONVENTION--IT MUST HAVE A MYSTERY OR SUSPENSE ELEMENT THAT YOU SOLVE AND IT MUST END WITH A HEA. ANYTHING ELSE IS FAIR GAME.

This isn't a thriller, she's not running for her life in the very beginning, she doesn't even know there is someone after her at first, is that okay? Is putting the antag's POV in there to heighten suspense acceptable?


YOU BET!

I'm not worried the start is slow, it's not. There's a lot happening in a short amount of words, I'm just worried I'm not following the "formula" correctly, and more importantly, I want to pace and plot it to move quickly yet reveal the deep plot secrets slowly.


FORGET THE FORMULA. I DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT AGENT WAS TALKING ABOUT, BUT YOU'LL RUIN WHAT YOU'RE TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH BY TRYING TO SECOND GUESS HER. WRITE FROM YOUR HEART. TRUST YOURSELF. MAKE IT EXCITING AND RIVETING AND UNIQUE. GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO GO WITH WHAT *YOU* THINK WORKS BEST.

I guess an even better question would be, does any one know the "formula?" And, how do you prefer your pacing, as a reader and writer?


I LIKE A MIX. IFYOU CARE ONLY ABOUT PACING, YOU OFTEN SACRIFICE CHARACTERIZATION. YOU WANT A DEEP, LAYERED READ SO I FIND A PACE THAT ISN'T BREAKNECK ALL THE WAY BUT IS DEIFINITELY INTRIGUING TO BE BEST.

I just want to get this straight before I get too far into it this time. I've read Lisa Gardner's Seven Secrets of Writing Romantic Suspense (http://www.lisagardner.com/tricks/article_pdfs/7secretsofromanticsuspense.pdf)along with numerous other articles from various people, but there seems to be no "typical RS formula," at least not one that doesn't closely match how I write. I love writing, but I want my books to be salable, so if a formula is what it takes, I can manage it, as long as I know it is. Suggestions? Advice? Anyone?

THERE IS NO FORMULA, NO MORE SO FOR THIS SUB-GENRE THAN ANY OTHER. ACTUALLY, I'D SAY THERE'S EVEN LESS OF A FORMULA. IT SOUNDS LIKE YOUR INTERNAL EDITOR IS THWARTING YOUR MUSE. DON'T LET IT!

HOPE THAT HELPS!!

BRENDA NOVAK

Brenda Novak
NYTimes Bestselling Author of TRUST ME, STOP ME & WATCH ME
http://www.brendanovak.com

Deb Kinnard
02-17-2009, 05:44 AM
Wow. You've heard from someone I consider among the best, and I don't even read r/s!

I have been told, though, that one convention is to solve the suspense problem, whatever it is, before the relationship problem. That way you end truly on the HEA and not on whatever was menacing the main characters.

StoryG27
02-17-2009, 06:56 AM
Short chapters make it difficult to build momentum in a scene. Just when things start to get interesting the writer intrudes herself with a chapter break. Maybe the next chapter starts where she left off, but if so, then why put in a break in the first place? Besides, a chapter break gives a reader an excuse to put the book down. You don't want that! I'm exact opposite as a reader. If I see it's a short chapter coming up, I'm much more likely to keep reading. I'll sit and read a hundred short chapters because I think, oh, it's short, I'll just read one more, then one more turns into another and on and on. If the chapters are long, I'll read one, put down the book for later because I just don't have the time. It's all a mental thing for me, and I guess that's the only way I was looking at it. I totally see your point.

Your MC better have a realistically STRONG reason to go back to such a place! Her mom's death was an accident. Her reasoning is realistic to me, but maybe I better get other opinions on it first, and yes, the murders garnered national attention, tons of media coverage and such. It was twenty+ years ago and is still the topic of much discussion in the town. Maybe I should lessen the body count. Hmm, these are some things I'm going to have to consider.

I lived in a tiny town (we didn't even have a gas station and there were thirty kids in my graduating class) and had four teens die (not murdered, it was an accident). So I am somewhat familiar with the frenzy afterward, but I won't be focusing on that in my novel. I don't plan to go into a lot of detail about the murders, no horror or lots of blood and gore, nothing like that.
You can assemble the various elements for a cake, mix them up, and bake. One cook will have a masterpiece; the other will have a mess, yet they have the same ingredients and measuring of portions. Ohh, sage saying there. I may have to write this one down.

Thanks so much for your help and suggestions!

StoryG27
02-17-2009, 07:15 AM
storygirl, Gillhoughly's advice is terrific (as always). But since I didn't know she was going to post in such detail, I thought you might enjoy to hear from an old friend of mine who writes RS for a living. I asked NYT bestselling romantic suspense author Brenda Novak to weigh in on your questions, and she was happy to oblige. :)

Brenda freaking Novak!!! Are you kidding me???!!!!
:e2thud:

OMG. I love you! I love you! I love you!

I just read one of her older ones, but I have more that just the one, it's actually sitting right here on my desk. Every Waking Moment

Here are her responses:
Again, :e2thud:

Sorry, I'll try to stay conscious from here on out.



ABSOLUTELY!



AGAIN, YOU CAN DEFINITELY DO THIS. THE ONLY CAVEAT IS THAT IT'S EFFECTIVE. AS WITH ANY GOOD BOOK, YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH ANYTHING AS LONG AS IT'S INTRIGUING AND WELL DONE.
:D
Okay, whatever you say Ms. Novak.

No actually, I rewrote the beginning, still starts in the antag's POV, but he's actually meeting up with the person who is bringing him in contact with the antag, it's good, a bit longer, and shows his frustrations more. . .so YAY!



YOU COULD GO EITHER WAY. IS THERE SOMETHING YOUR VILLAIN NEEDS TO DO TO GET PREPARED FOR WHAT HE HAS PLANNED? IF NOT, IT'D SUGGEST NOT DOING A BIG BLOCK OF INTERNAL THOUGHT, BUT YOU COULD DEFINITELY DO SOMETHING SHORT AND EFFECTIVE THAT RACHETS UP THE TENSION. No big block of internal thought or anything, but I will try it both ways, with and without the antag's view there and see which way is more involving.



I'VE NEVER HEARD OF A FORMULA. THERE'S A CONVENTION--IT MUST HAVE A MYSTERY OR SUSPENSE ELEMENT THAT YOU SOLVE AND IT MUST END WITH A HEA. ANYTHING ELSE IS FAIR GAME. Good, I thought I missed a memo somehow.




YOU BET!
Phew, because it really puts the suspense up a notch or two to have that antag being the introduction to the novel.


FORGET THE FORMULA. I DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT AGENT WAS TALKING ABOUT, BUT YOU'LL RUIN WHAT YOU'RE TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH BY TRYING TO SECOND GUESS HER. WRITE FROM YOUR HEART. TRUST YOURSELF. MAKE IT EXCITING AND RIVETING AND UNIQUE. GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO GO WITH WHAT *YOU* THINK WORKS BEST. You know, I used to do this with such confidence, I need to find that strength and rhythm again. That trust in my writing.



I LIKE A MIX. IFYOU CARE ONLY ABOUT PACING, YOU OFTEN SACRIFICE CHARACTERIZATION. YOU WANT A DEEP, LAYERED READ SO I FIND A PACE THAT ISN'T BREAKNECK ALL THE WAY BUT IS DEIFINITELY INTRIGUING TO BE BEST. Oh yeah, my stories are character driven, the layering of the characters is the easy part for me, so I guess that's why I freak out about the plotting and pacing. . .That's where I lack confidence.



IT SOUNDS LIKE YOUR INTERNAL EDITOR IS THWARTING YOUR MUSE. DON'T LET IT! Ugh, I know. I need to give the bigger room in my mind to my muse and make the editor take the little room in the corner, where she's still there, just not so intrusive.
HOPE THAT HELPS!! Yes, it did. Helped me boost and restore a bit of my confidence. Thank you, thank you, thank you!


Cathy, thank you sooooo much for passing my questions on to her, and please, thank her for answering them. That was awesome!

Susan Gable
02-17-2009, 06:38 PM
Most of my chapters--and this is just me!--run 20-35 double-spaced pages and cover two to three plot points along with character development and interaction.



I don't write RS, but most of my chapters also average about 20 pages. :)

Susan G. - who agrees, there is NO FORMULA. <G>

job
02-17-2009, 06:55 PM
I don't speak from any special knowledge of RS and I could well be wrong. So take all this with a grain of salt.

First -- in re opening with the antagonist.
In mystery genre or suspense genre or SF or action adventure, the reader is looking for an intellectual puzzle or horror or a sense of impending doom or a new and exciting setting.

Romances tell a love story between the H&H.
Even Romantic Suspense has a love story at the center of it. ISTM a Romance reader wants to connect with the heroine and/or the hero right away.

If you open with the antagonist -- which is cool -- you might show the antagonist targeting the heroine's doorstep. The antagonist is given to the reader not as himself, so much as a menace to the heroine.


Second thought -- 300 words at the beginning of a manuscript, not part of the ongoing action, sounds more like 'Prologue' than 'Chapter One'.
Prologues are iffy. Their iffy-ness has been exhaustively discussed elsewhere.

I'd leave the 300 words in place for now and write on. You can always pull it out later.

Third thought --
if Chapters Two and Three are three pages each ... I can't help but feel you may not have given your reader a chance to cuddle down deep inside anyone's head or get involved with the situation.

My initial chapters are longer than that -- 6700, 3200, 2600, and 3600 words. Admittedly, those are for single title, which may not be where you're aiming.
But I'd suggest you look at the page count in your favorite RSs and see what these authors are doing. I do not think many of them will start with 300, 1000, 1000 words for the first three chapters.

A scene of a thousand words may not be enough to build the kind of immersion you need. Scenes are rich and compelling because there's story action and stage action and dialog and description and internals and conflict and ... I dunnoh ... stuff happening. A sketch or an outline doesn't involve us.

My advice would be to keep writing onward into Chapter Four. There's nothing necessarily wrong with what you're done so far. Bare bones is fine for the first draft. But you may eventually need to come back and expand those two initial scenes

Cathy C
02-17-2009, 07:46 PM
Cathy, thank you sooooo much for passing my questions on to her, and please, thank her for answering them.

You're very welcome and I already did thank her. Sometimes it really helps to hear from someone already writing in the genre that you're on the right track. Since it's not my current genre, I figured I'd ask. :)