A good romantic thriller is more than the sum of its parts. More gripping than a romance novel and with more emotion than a thriller, mastering the genre is no easy feat. You can’t just add a menacing character to your love story, or a love interest to your crime drama; you need to ensure both elements of the genre are fully fleshed out and integral to your plot.
International award-winning author Bronwyn Clarke, writing under the name Bronwyn Parry, is the author of five romantic thriller novels including As Darkness Falls, Dark Country and Dead Heat. She also teaches our creative writing courses at the AWC. Here are her 8 must-dos for writing a gripping romantic thriller novel.
1. Weave the romance and crime together
The stories should be intertwined so closely that one doesn’t exist without the other, Bronwyn says. To do this, the crime should clearly affect your main character/s and you need to make sure there’s a great deal at stake.
“Your crime really needs to be perfectly connected to at least one of the protagonists,” she says. “It's very usual that there is actually some aspect of physical danger to one or both of the protagonists, well both of them usually, as part of the crime. It's not usual that the crime is just, say, a financial crime that nobody cares enough about to kill anybody about.”
2. Protagonists must have agency to act
Both your central characters need to be able to take part in the investigation and resolution of the crime, Bronwyn says. You don’t want either of them to be a passive victim.
“A lot of romantic suspense involves police, law enforcement of some sort, Navy SEALs or a military investigation or something like that, but it doesn't have to be,” she says. “I've written a couple of national park rangers as main characters, and a journalist, and in even in my historical novel I have actually written a very feminine woman – she's not a kick-arse heroine or anything like that, but she does have some agency and she does act. She actually saves herself on a couple of occasions even though she has no experience in that kind of thing.”
3. Protagonists should be equal and both take action
The crime-solving element needs to be a partnership, and female protagonists shouldn't be made into helpless victims, Bronwyn says.
“Avoid the pitfall of making your female character the passive and the victim. Even if for some reason she's in a fairly powerless position, then use intelligence, wit, quick thinking – make sure that she does have some way of contributing significantly to the resolution of the problem.”
That progress in gender roles goes both ways: male protagonists don’t have to be one-note action heroes either, Bronwyn says.
“I've actually written a couple of beta men, it doesn't have to be the alpha Navy SEAL or whatever. For a lot of men, there is a kind of protective instinct that kicks in, they're fairly well-socialised for that, but he doesn't have to be that alpha he-man.
“You do still want him to be active as well: you don't want the over-the-top female character who just goes and saves the hero, not for the whole of the book.”
Plus, Bronwyn says your pair of protagonists don’t need to fall into that traditional male-female pairing at all.
“We often talk about heroes and heroines, but of course, romantic suspense can be gay, it can be anything: it doesn't necessarily have to be heterosexual.”
4. Make your villains interesting and powerful
Key to creating a good villain is making them equal to your protagonists – that way, they become a worthy opponent, Bronwyn says.
“The villain has to be equal in intelligence, in courage, in all those positive attributes because otherwise there's no courage in defeating them,” she says.
“It's always important to remember when writing a villain that he or she is the hero in their own story. There's always a logic – twisted logic, it might be based on a worldview or assumptions that most of us don't agree with – but there is a logical process to what they're doing.”
5. It’s okay to get quite gritty with regards to the crime
Bronwyn says the Australian market doesn’t quite understand romantic thrillers, known as romantic suspense overseas: here, her books often get categorised as crime novels, but that’s not a good fit.
“Crime goes from cozy to really hard and gritty – it's the cosy end that really concentrates on relationships and people, and the gritty end is not so interested in that at all,” she says. “The cosy readers don't really like the grit that's in my books and the gritty readers aren't interested in the kissy bits.”
Writing a romantic thriller novel doesn’t mean you need to minimise violence: readers can take it, Bronwyn says.
“It's actually quite a large genre, particularly overseas, and awareness of it in Australia has been growing. Romance readers do read very widely and they do read hard crime, cosy crime, paranormal fiction, so they're actually really quite comfortable with grit.”
“I had an autopsy in one of my books. There's murders and assaults and quite violent things, and my books have won awards. I think we need to understand that readers who read romantic suspense don't shy away from that kind of book; at the same time, they read for the relationship as well.”
6. Pacing, pacing, pacing
Your story should be fast-paced, with complications and consequences, twists and turns, Bronwyn says.
“As with any crime novel you normally start with the discovery of the crime, whether it's a body or whether it's a threat, or something happens in the beginning related to the crime,” she says. “That will often bring your protagonists together, if they didn't know each other before – maybe she's the investigating officer. In some way or another, the first act of the villain brings them together.
“From there you've got to just keep on ratcheting up the tension; now while you're ratcheting up the crime tension you're ratcheting up the romantic tension as well. You're juggling both these threads, criss crossing them and intertwining them. They really do need to wind together.”
To help intertwine those stories, you may end up with two ‘black moments’ in the novel; one in which the crime investigation seems certain to fail, and the other in which the romance faces an impossible crisis.
7. Give the readers emotional justice as well as moral justice
Both the love story and the crime need to be resolved in a positive way, Bronwyn says: you can’t break the genre contract with your readers.
“The end of a romance is about emotional justice; these people deserve love and they deserve to be together,” she says. “In romance, particularly contemporary romance, we're not talking about proposals of marriage and white picket fences at all. It's really just a case of the two characters do agree, either explicitly or implicitly, that this relationship is worth continuing.
“We often call that a ‘happy for now'. I do believe in love, but I do believe in hard work. Throughout the romance, I'm trying to create a relationship readers will believe is able to last.”
8. Good sex and respect
Respect is fundamental to making the romance storyline work: you need to build a relationship that, yes, involves sexual tension, but also has strong foundations.
“We've got to show the respect, the intellectual attraction, the way that these two people are committed to making things better for each other,” Bronwyn says. “It’s important that we recognize the impact of adrenalin and that is likely to heighten sexual tension; maybe after the climactic black moment there is that relief that everybody seeks. But the relationship has got to be about far more than that.”
You don’t have to include sex scenes – but, if you do, make sure you avoid your characters stopping for sex in the middle of being chased by the bad guys, or while the building is burning down around them, Bronwyn says.
If these tips have inspired you to work on your own romantic thriller novel, take the first step with our Creative Writing Stage 1 course. You’ll learn from successful writers (like Brownyn) and uncover how to write your own engaging, compelling stories.