Suspense Requires Jeopardy

It’s sounds like a no-brainer, but judging from the majority of romantic suspense and mysteries I’ve read lately, true jeopardy — of any kind — is a rare commodity.

I’m singling out romantic suspense because I had to stop mid-way through what began as a fun police procedural/detective novel. (The second in a series that started with a book I read with pleasure and reviewed favorably.) This follow-up novel devolved into a messy soap opera focused on the burning question of — will she make it down the aisle or not?

The interesting detective mystery plotline got lost in the fraught romantic suspense and I grew very, very bored. Since I was travelling with a fully loaded Kindle, I simply jumped to another mystery novel. This would have been harder for me back in the days of carrying stacks of paperbacks on trips where English language books are expensive or hard to come by. Back then, I might have stuck it out until the end of the book, while not really caring about the protagonist’s romantic quandary.

Suspense needs the reader to care about the outcome. It requires jeopardy, of some kind, to carry the reader along with the dramatic events. Make the wrong choice and the town is invaded by deadly creatures from another planet, open the wrong door and noxious gas floods the room, cut the wrong wires and the bomb explodes… The outcome is dire so the protagonist’s actions have meaning.

The author failed to make me care about the character’s romance and to believe that there was any true jeopardy.

(A) If she didn’t marry the man she loves would the world end?

(B) Would the killer escape justice?

(C) Would she never find love again?

(A) No. (B) Not truly relevant as the two issues were connected only in the protagonist’s mind. (C) I didn’t care, as I’m single and don’t buy that “never finding love again” to be the sword of Damocles-like pressure that it can be in romantic fiction. The author failed to convince me the wedding would not be rescheduled, so a lifetime of regret wasn’t really a possibility. It was a false drama with false jeopardy.

Come on storytellers, if you want to create true suspense make me care; make me worry; make me believe it all matters! Then I’ll be on board for the entire ride.


    • Candy Korman

      Thanks for the compliment, but I struggle with it a great deal. I think reading BAD books had been good for me lately. When I see what the writer is doing, I die a bit of embarrassment for having used some of the same bad techniques in things I’ve written. We are all works-in-progress, especially when we are in the middle of a work-in-progress!

      If some writer out there finds the key… share it please!

  1. Funny you bring up the life and death of getting married. I remember not too long ago when I was in school for my culinary degree and for a while after, it seemed that all these girls were in life and death melodrama about this very thing. It always baffled me that it was such a big deal in their lives and how they pursued it all.

    • Candy Korman

      Maybe I’m single because it didn’t seem like a life-or-death proposition? In fiction, when it’s posed as the HUGE thing, I have to wonder about the inner lives of the characters. Are they whole? Or do they need that “other half?” Maybe I’m the weird one?