Balancing Romance with Mystery, Suspense, or Fantasy

Balancing Romance with Mystery, Suspense, or Fantasy

The first rule of romance is that the relationship between the couple is the primary focus of the story. This is straightforward in traditional romances involving two people coming together, having problems that tear them apart, and eventually coming back together again. But what if your story involves a mystery, suspense, adventure, or a quest (e.g. fantasy stories)?

I’ve had many people tell me that there is romance in their cozy mysteries, which isn’t wrong, but cozies aren’t romance. If the romantic character in a cozy was turned into a friend, the mystery elements of the story would still work. It’s not a romance because the characters’ relationship isn’t central to the story; solving the murder is.

When writing a romance that has mystery or suspense or adventure or fantasy, you’re essentially combining two genres and you need to meet readers’ expectations for both. This isn’t always easy. You have to balance the elements that make a good romance while also supplying the action and danger of the other genre. Focusing too heavily on the romance plot can result in a lack of tension or conflict, while neglecting the romance can leave readers feeling unsatisfied.

Here are tips for writing a romance combined with another genre:

Sketch Out the Key Plot Elements for Both Genres

Even if you’re a pantster, because readers have an expectation of both genres, plotting out the major elements for both is helpful. In a romance, you need to have couple with conflict, which can include the other genre, but also personal challenges. They need to come together and then appear to come apart, before coming together again. A mystery needs a victim, suspects with motives and means and opportunity, clues, red herrings, and danger. A quest generally follows the hero’s journey, with the call to adventure, the refusal, the quest, the failures, and eventually success. All these need to be integrated into a cohesive story.

The goal here is to identify the key plot elements that will complement and enhance both genres while ensuring that neither element overwhelms the other. To do this, start by determining the central conflict and the stakes of the story. In a romance, this should be the couple first. In Sandra Brown’s books, there is a crap ton of danger and suspense that the couple is dealing with, but in fact, it’s this part of the story that pulls them together forcing them to deal with their personal conflicts and feelings for the other. Remember, in a romance, there has to be a reason for the couple to be in each other’s orbit. In Sandra Brown’s books, the suspense plot does that. Without it, the two people wouldn’t meet and if they did, they’d go their separate ways because usually one or both isn’t interested in a relationship.

In Deadly Valentine, Tess doesn’t like that Jack’s back in her life. It reminds her of a painful past. It’s the murder and the fact that he’s a suspect that keeps her in his orbit.

When integrating the other plot elements into the story, writers should ensure that they don’t overshadow or overwhelm the romance plot. Remember, it’s the relationship first that readers want. One way to do this is to use the elements of the other genre to develop and enrich the romance plot. Finding a clue or overcoming danger can reveal character in a way that brings the couple together or add more conflict. In Deadly Valentine, Tess is nearly run over by a car and later, the detective suspects Jack is the driver of said car, which is possible because he had the means, motive, and opportunity. This puts a damper on the budding relationship.

In another scene, Jack is about to kiss Tess when he sees a photograph and realizes the woman in it is linked to the murder. Romance and clue woven together.

However, this is a romance, so there should be romance plot beats. While a pinch point can be danger, it could also be one character not trusting the other or lying to the other. In Deadly Valentine, Tess is almost killed again, but the black moment for the relationship is really when she tells Jack she can’t represent him as his lawyer or see him personally anymore because doing so is costing her friends and her business. She changes her mind, but he doesn’t take her back. The relationship is severed and while it’s related to the murder mystery because her representing him is what caused the problems that scared her away from him, it’s her personal fears and lack of trust that really drive the break up.

Use Pacing to Balance Romance and Other Plot Elements

Suspense is about avoiding danger that’s out to get one or both of the characters. Fantasy involves magic and quests and overcoming impossible foes. Mystery requires finding clues and solving a puzzle. They each have their own pacing that involves action and danger. Within the fast action of these genres, you need to weave in the slower pace of a building romance. By slower, I don’t mean being boring. I mean drawing out the elements that show a growing relationship.

If the pacing is slow and languid, readers may become bored with the romance plot, while if the pacing is too fast and action-packed, the romance may be overshadowed. The trick is to create pacing that ensures that both elements are given adequate attention and development.

This is where pre-plotting major beats can be helpful as you can also plot pacing elements. If the couple is on the run from a gunman at pinch point number one, the pacing will be fast and there isn’t much room for romance there. But once they’re safe, even if just for a moment, you can slow the pace down and focus on the relationship.

Make Sure the Romance is Fulfilled

Remember when I said a cozy with a love interest isn’t a romance? If you took out the murder mystery in a cozy, there would be no story. The romance in a cozy can’t stand on it’s own. Because the romance comes first in the romance genre, you need to make sure you’ve fulfilled all the expected elements of a romance. If you can change the love interest to a friend, then it’s not a romance. Yes, you need to fulfill the elements of the other genre as well, but if you’re goal is romantic suspense or romantic fantasy, the romantic element must be met. While the danger or action may be a major aspect of the plot, we need to see the romance beats fulfilled.

Growing up, I used to like a show called, Hart to Hart. I’m a big fan of sleuthing sexy couples (hence writing the Valentine mysteries). Hart to Hart was a crime show where each week the Harts stumbled into a murder. But talk to any fan and they’ll tell you that it was the Harts and their relationship that made the show. Ask them about their favorite episodes and you’ll learn that it’s less about the mystery and more about something sweet or sexy that occurred with the characters. The mystery created the situations, but it was the characters and their romance that made the show. This is what you want in a romance that involves another genre. The second genre may create the situations, but it’s the relationship between your characters that readers are really wanting to know about.


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