Love is a big deal. The romance genre is the largest and most widely-read genre of books. Just about every book, movie, and TV show touches on the subject of love in some manner. We have a whole holiday devoted to love. So it isn’t surprising that many thriller novels incorporate love, usually in the form of a romance subplot.
As a reader, I have mixed feelings about romance in thrillers. When done well, a romance subplot can add depth to the characters, raise the stakes of the story, and provide the vicarious excitement of experiencing the roller coaster-like emotions of love and desire. But when executed poorly, romance can feel forced and phony. It can induce eye rolls, cringes, or, in the worst case, abandonment of an otherwise enjoyable book. It’s a risky balancing act. As a reader and a writer, I’ve thought about it quite a bit.
There is a reason that romance subplots appear in a lot of thrillers. When two people are brought together in a situation of extreme danger, the circumstances become a kind of crucible, accelerating the bond between the two people which, in a less intense time period, might take much longer to form. We recognize this phenomenon as realistic, and are more willing to believe the rapid nature of the romance.
In addition, the romantic subplot itself can include thriller elements. I’ll give an example from my own work:
In my mystery novel Hardcore, the heroine, Ashley, returns to the adult entertainment industry in Los Angeles because she suspects her sister’s suicide was actually murder. While digging around, she meets Zack, a man who worked with her sister. Zack offers to help her, and they team up to search for the truth. Although a mutual attraction quickly develops, Ashley is unsure whether she can trust Zack. Is he helping her because he’s a good guy, or because he’s a killer trying to cover his tracks? Ashley doesn’t know, and neither does the reader.
In this example, the romance ratchets up the suspense, rather than slowing the pace. Ashley’s questions and doubts make the reader turn the pages even more quickly. I’m going to pat myself on the back for this one, because I think the romance in Hardcore enhances the book.
So why do romance subplots so frequently go wrong? Why does the introduction of a love interest often feel predictable, unrealistic, and cliched? I have some ideas.
Thrillers should be fast-paced page-turners. Unless it comes with its own conflicts and suspense (see above), a romance subplot runs a risk of slowing the pace and feeling like filler—something tacked on because it’s “supposed to be there.”
Balance is key. Romance can add to a thriller, but if the balance is out of whack, the result can be a romance novel with thriller elements. That’s fine if it’s what the reader expects (there is a popular genre called romantic suspense), but if the reader has been promised a thriller, then the thriller element needs to dominate.
If an author expects me to fall in love alongside the main character, then the love interest better be interesting. Too often, the love interest in a thriller is a one-dimensional, stock character whose only defining attribute is that he or she is smoking hot. That may work in a 2-hour James Bond movie, but it’s not good enough to pull me through a three-hundred page novel. In addition to being dull, a too-perfect love interest can also be irritating. The hero meets a beautiful, statuesque blonde with an amazing body, a PhD in astrophysics, and a net worth of ten-billion dollars. He falls in love, but the reader is probably rolling is or her eyes and thinking, Give me a break. Good romance requires that the love interest be a fully realized, three-dimensional, realistic character.
What do you think? Do you enjoy a little romance along with your thrillers, or do you find that the romance detracts from the experience? Do you have any favorite thrillers that incorporate romance in a satisfying way?
Let me know in the comments section!