Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Romantic Suspense Openings...Tension, Setting and Character

Murder, mayhem and romance…today, I’ve invited two of my favorite Romantic Suspense authors – JB Lynn and Adrienne Giordano – to compare and contrast opening scenes with me. (I was a lit geek in college, so I’m excited to flex those muscles again!) At the very end, you’ll find blurbs for each book and links where you can find out more about the author.

First up is the introduction of the kickass heroine from JB Lynn’s THE FIRST VICTIM:

“Does your palm itch?”

Engrossed in paperwork, it took Emily Wright a moment to realize that her assistant, Ruth, was talking to her. She looked up at the older woman as Ruth placed a cup of coffee beside Emily’s telephone. It was only then she realized that she’d been rubbing her left thumb across her right hand.

“Does your palm itch?”

Emily nodded. “Thanks for the coffee.”

Ruth beamed. “That’s good news. It means you’re going to come into money.” Her unspoken message was that it boded well for the presentation Marisol, Emily’s business partner, was probably making at this very moment. All nine of the advertising firm’s employees were eagerly waiting to hear whether they’d landed their biggest client ever.

“Do you really believe in those old superstitions, Ruth?”

“They can’t hurt. Can I get you anything else?”

“No. This is great. Thanks.” Watching her newest employee, a woman old enough to be her mother, leave her office, Emily secretly hoped she was right.

She looked down at her palm. The scar that stretched across it had faded over time and was now nothing more than a thin raised line. No doubt there were a hundred doctors in Manhattan who could remove the physical reminder of what she’d suffered, but to her the scar tissue was a talisman of sorts, proof that hope could triumph over evil.

She’d learned an invaluable lesson the day she’d earned this scar. She’d learned that she was capable of more than she’d ever imagined, that help came from the most unexpected places and to never give up.
Those lessons had served her well, which was how she found herself a co-owner of a Manhattan ad agency, waiting to hear whether they’d landed their first national account.

Feeling the distant rumblings of a tension headache, she rubbed at her temples, and then made a grab for her coffee cup. She needed caffeine!

Her cell phone buzzed. Hoping that it was Marisol calling with good news, she snatched it out of her
purse. An icy tingle of fear ran down her spine when she recognized the area code. Home.

It rang three more times before she took a deep breath and answered.

Next, we’re introduced to the hunky hero in  RISKING TRUST by Adrienne Giordano :

“Mr. Taylor, do you want to make a statement?”

Michael remained still, his hands resting on his thighs, his shoulders back. He’d been in this Chicago P.D. interrogation room for the better part of an hour and hadn’t said a word.

“Mr. Taylor,” Detective Hollandsworth repeated, “your wife was murdered last night and you have nothing to say?”

Oh, he had a lot to say, the first being he didn’t kill his wife, but if he’d learned anything running one of the nation’s most elite private security companies, it was to keep his trap shut. “Not until my lawyer gets here.”

An alien sensation settled on him. Shock? Disbelief? Maybe even sadness because a woman he had loved, a woman who had once been vibrant and fun and sexy, a woman who had grown into a greedy, unhappy wife was dead. Jesus. He may have wanted to end the nightmare of a marriage, but murder? No way.
In his worst bout of rage he wouldn’t have done that to her. Sure they were finalizing a brutal—and costly—divorce, but money he had and if giving up some of it meant getting her out of his life, he’d do it. Simple arithmetic.

Right now, the only thing Michael knew was that these two detectives banged on his door at 8:00 a.m. to haul his ass in for questioning.

He flicked a glance to the two-way mirror behind Hollandsworth’s head. The room’s barren white walls and faded, sickening stench of fear-laced sweat made Michael’s fingers twitch. He’d keep his hands hidden from view. No sense letting his nerves show.

And now for my example, meet the tortured hero of my paranormal romantic suspense, SOUL SURVIVOR:

Hundreds of Virgin Marys stared at Rife St. Cloud from every surface inside the old church, their serene eyes in direct contrast to the bloody bodies of the six dead women at his feet.

Staring at a grisly multiple homicide and running on less than four hours of sleep, Rife slid his car keys into the worn pocket of his jeans and wondered what he was doing back in Wolf River. What he was doing on the West Coast in general. This is what I get for taking a vacation.

Vacation or not, his mind automatically registered the stats of the six women as crime scene techs buzzed around them. All Native American with matching tribal tattoos depicting a quarter moon over waves above their left breast. All early to late twenties. Stab wounds and an assortment of symbols carved into the skins of five of the bodies who were staged to circle a sixth.

A ritualistic killer. Rife eyed the various wounds and estimated the depth and number of marks on each woman. Or just a disorganized one trying to cover his tracks?

A heaviness knocked him in the chest. During the past five years as a profiler for the FBI, he’d seen a lot of brutality, but he never got used to the sight of murder victims, especially women and children.

Okay, so let’s talk about similarities between these three scenes. First, we’re introduced to a main character (Emily, Michael and Rife) and their jobs (ad executive, security expert, FBI agent). Second, the authors ground us with setting (an advertising firm, an interrogation room, an old church). Third, we get a peek into the main characters’ present conflicts (waiting for a big deal to come through, being accused of murder, a serial killer on the loose) as well as a symbol of the past wound that plays a role in their emotional/psychological growth during the story (the scar on Emily’s hand – a literal symbol, btw, the brutal and costly divorce Michael is in the middle of, the vacation Rife doesn’t want to be taking). These symbols should raise questions in the reader’s mind and draw them into the story, looking for answers.

All three openings have a great deal of tension. Right off the bat, we see or sense conflict and know that while each of the characters has achieved a certain level of success in their life, there is still something holding them back. Something big. Something that could ultimately break them.

Aside from the unique writers’ voices of each author, there are clear differences in technique as well. JB’s character Emily is in a comfortable setting and engaged in conversation with her motherly assistant, but JB builds tension and suspense with words like ‘superstitions’, ‘evil’, ‘icy tingle of fear’. The itchy scar warns us that Em’s past is coming back to haunt her even before the phone rings. We know Emily has faced and overcome something horrific and we want to know what happened and how she got that scar. This scene is very psychological, from the significance of the scar to the ringing phone.

Adrienne’s character Michael is in the exact opposite situation. He’s had police show up at his door at 8 in the morning. He’s been hauled into the police station and is sitting in cold, sterile interrogation room. He’s being accused of murdering his wife, and although his instincts cry out in defense, he’s keeping his mouth shut. Direct confrontation. Hard dialogue. Internal turmoil, not only about being accused of murder but he’s upset his wife is dead. We want to know who did kill his wife and why. This scene is very emotional – sadness, shock, grief, nerves.

My character Rife is somewhere in between. The scene of the mass murder is grisly, and although he doesn’t like it, he’s in his element dealing with homicide. He’s on vacation and out of his jurisdiction, but that doesn’t stop him from logging details and starting a mental profile of the killer. The tension is all internal. He doesn’t want to be on vacation, doesn’t want to be back in Wolf River and the sight of murder victims hits him hard even though he’s a seasoned profiler. Now we want to know why he hates being on vacation as much as we wonder who killed the women in the church. This scene is very mental, right down to his internal dialogue.

Readers, what other similarities or differences can you pick out between these three openings? When you read romantic suspense, what grabs you? The characters? The plotline? The opening scene?

Thank you to JB and Adrienne for joining me today at Just Romantic Suspense. Here’s more information about each of their books! If you’d like to find more about SOUL SURVIVOR, please visit .

She was like all the other victims. Naked, flawed, helpless…

Fifteen years ago, Emily Wright barely escaped from a serial killer dubbed the Baby Doll Strangler. She wants nothing to do with the small town where she was abducted, but when her father is hospitalized she reluctantly returns home to care for her teenage sister.

When her sister’s friend is killed and left in front of Emily’s house, Emily begins to relive the nightmare she endured long ago. Soon she realizes that her sister, too, is in danger from the killer—and the only person who can help is the man Emily left behind: Deputy Bailey O’Neil. Together, Emily and Bailey must discover the killer’s identity before he claims his next victim…

Roxann Thorgesson's world is out of control. After her father suffers a fatal heart attack, she must take over as publisher of Chicago's second-largest newspaper. Then her ex-boyfriend Michael Taylor, CEO of his own security company, shows up needing a favor. The last thing Roxann needs is Michael around causing trouble—and potential heartbreak—but he's involved in a scandalous story she can't pass up.

Twelve years ago, Michael walked out on Roxann without explanation. Now he needs her help. Michael's estranged wife has been murdered and he is the prime suspect. He offers something no newspaperwoman could refuse: exclusive access to his headline-making murder accusation, in exchange for her help in uncovering the true killer. When their investigation leads them to a city hall conspiracy, both their lives and their newly reignited flame could be permanently extinguished…


  1. While answering the question what other similiarities and differences do I see reminds me of school, I will skip that question. As much as I love to read you would have thought I would have enjoyed donig book reports (even when I write reviews I can't quite make them as formal as the professionals do). I can tell you that when I do read I get totally lost in a book. I am an emotional person, so emotion plays a big factor. I like to laugh and cry in a book, but if it is too evil I can't do it because I have dreams and nightmares over the books I am reading. The characters are the biggest draw for me. If I can relate to them and feel their pain, joy, hope, love, passion, etc, it is a good book. While I may never be involved with the CIA, FBI, Vampires, Demons, Witches, Terrorists, etc (I sure hope not anyway) I can relate to the emotions these characters experience.

  2. Engrossed in paperwork, it took Emily Wright a moment to realize that her assistant, Ruth, was talking to her.

    “Mr. Taylor, do you want to make a statement?”

    Hundreds of Virgin Marys stared at Rife St. Cloud from every surface inside the old church, their serene eyes in direct contrast to the bloody bodies of the six dead women at his feet.

    These are the opening lines of the three books. I see they are similar in that they all introduce the name & they are different, for example one opens with dialogue.

    When I read a romantic suspense the opening line for sure grabs me but then I really want to believe in the character.

    This is a fun blog & I want to read ALL your books. Thanks too for being so thorough I learned a lot here.


  3. Amy and Jan, thanks for stopping by today and leaving a comment. Amy, I agree, as a writer and a reader, I have to care about the characters and relate to what they're experiencing emotionally to love to story. Jan, you're right, all three of us introduced our characters up front. No guessing. And all three of us hopefully grabbed your attention!

  4. Thanks for stopping by Amy and Jan.

    Amy, I agree with you. Sometimes when I'm writing a scene and it doesn't feel like it's working I have to evaluate if I'm emotionally invested in the scene. Those are the scenes that usually get cut! LOL. Jan, I'm glad you liked the excerpts.

  5. Very interesting questions. I see the similarities in introduction and it introducing character's conflict right away. All three have something about a character that interests me, and would keep me reading.


Sign up to receive our newsletter