Close to the Heart/Close to the Bone
Six years ago, in the run-up to wrenching political chaos in this country, I faced an important personal choice: continue on my comfortable path in romance as Victoria Dahl or try something terrifyingly new. I’d faced the question before and been able to ignore it. Romance is a blindingly busy genre, and I wrote two to three books a year and never had time to take a deep breath and look at the bigger picture.
But then everything in my writing world just kind of… stopped. I’d finished my last contracted romance, and after more than two-dozen books, I was struggling to think of another. Instead of new beginnings and sizzling hope, my mind was filled with growing anger and worry over the state of the world. But when my former editor Tara Parsons asked me to try my hand at something darker, I said no. I couldn’t wrap my mind around that big a change, so I tried my best to plot out a sexy future for some cute new characters, but my imagination began to churn with other ideas. I hesitantly sent Tara the outlines of a story, we hashed out some changes to the plot, and suddenly I was writing suspense as Victoria Helen Stone.
Still, I refused to give up the more sizzling side of things. After all, history proves over and over that people will do anything for love or lust, for the bolts of excitement and the primal need at the very heart of our survival. Humans are deeply driven by our most basic imperatives: get shelter, gather food, and find a mate. Or several mates. Or an endless series of mates all hidden from each other and obscured by elaborate illegal plots! I didn’t need to give up romance plotlines in the name of thrillers; these two genres blend into a perfect tangle. In fact, I’m shocked when romantic entanglements are skipped over in other genres. New attraction is an incredibly intense experience and adds delicious irrationality to a character’s motivation.
My first suspense, Evelyn, After, was centered on love and lust. A woman descends into stalking to find out the truth about her cheating husband, but she soon finds herself indulging her own desires in an act of revenge. My latest book, The Last One Home, begins right off the bat with a volatile romance, but it’s not a romance you would find in a love story. The protagonist’s pregnancy results from an extramarital affair, and that is definitely not the plot of a romance novel.
This is the true beauty of writing love in a darker genre. In romance, the characters’ actions must be redeemable. They must both be coming from a place of caring, protection, or a worthy goal. You have to be rooting for this couple to overcome every problem together, even the ones they’ve created along the way. They must earn each other.
There’s no need for redemption in thrillers or suspense. The darkest of motivation can drive the novel. I even wrote a sociopath looking for revenge in my Jane Doe thrillers. Embracing the gray areas of relationships frees up the possibility for a million more stories, because the reader is ready for any possibility. Romance promises a happy ending, but thrillers promise no such thing. The main character might make it through the story, but that doesn’t mean she survives intact.
Still, I believe the heart is always the key in every genre. In order to care about our characters’ safety, their souls must tug at ours.
Instead of distracting from the suspense, love and sex add another delicious layer of tension. Witnessing a character’s soft spots makes us root for them, and their vulnerability gives them even more to lose. But most important, digging into their darkest needs reveals the bits of people’s stories they hide in real life. The motivations they are too ashamed to share. Love, sex, and lust are so often the true drive behind our most desperate acts, and everyone we know can be driven to the breaking point by a cut too close to the heart. In the end, what better story than one you can imagine happening right next door? Most of us will never encounter a spy or a serial killer or an assassin. But we will all suffer the sharp-edged blows of heartache and need in our lives, so that’s a story we can each feel in our bones.