Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Intriguing Romance By Sally Quilford

It may or may not be apparent that my favourite sub-genre of romance writing is romantic intrigue. I find it very hard to write a ‘straight’ romance, and am in awe of those who do. Part of the problem for me is keeping up the ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ question till the end. So the ideal way to do that, at least for me, is to throw in a bit of intrigue. It seemed to me that as most romances are predictable, in that there’s always a happy ever after, it helped to have something else to keep the reader interested in reading on to the end. But that’s just me. I know writers who write ‘straight’ romances (I’m talking as in traditional rather than ‘straight’ in sexuality terms here) perfectly. I just can’t do it very well. Even in Command Performance which is out in ebook form in January and one of the most conventional romances I’ve ever written, I manage to get in a bit of intrigue regarding the heroine’s trust fund. The only difference between that and most of my novels is that no one dies…

"That's it, darling. You rest and don't worry your pretty little head about things."

Romantic intrigue has been a staple of books and films for many years, going as far back as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and The Woman In White (and probably before that as Jane Eyre is something of a romantic intrigue), then up to Hitchcock’s wonderful films of the 30s, 40s and 50s, where the intrigue invariably involved a romance of some kind. The Lady Vanishes is one of my all time favourites, but Rebecca comes a close second. But for real intrigue and melodrama Gaslight, starring the wonderful Ingrid Bergman and the very underrated Joseph Cotton (who I wouldn’t say no to), beats them all. Charles Boyer’s increasingly unhinged role as the husband who is supposed to be driving his wife insane is a bravura performance and illustrates just how ‘good’ a bad guy has to be to up the psychological quotient.

"You may have murdered your first wife, but all you needed  to redeem you was the love of a woman who is so unimportant she doesn't even have a first name."

Of course, nowadays, women are not depicted as the victims of scheming husbands, and neither do they have their fears dismissed as hysterical ramblings. Much. They don't sit around waiting for things to happen to them. They go out and meet trouble head on.  I pride myself on my heroines being quite feisty and even if they turn to the hero for help, it’s as a last resort, and not because they’re too weak to deal with problems themselves.
"Admit it, you forgot to alphabetise my CD collection again, didn't you? I suppose I'll have to do it all myself, as usual!"

My first published pocket novel, The Secret of Helena’s Bay, was my first proper attempt at romantic intrigue. Though having a contemporary setting, I wanted to give it the feel of a film starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. I threw in the lot. A missing old man (a homage to the missing lady in The Lady Vanishes), Nazis (it is my belief that you can never have too many Nazis in a story of romantic intrigue) henchmen (ditto) and, of course, the McGuffin, which in this case was a set of rubies stolen from the chalice in a Greek church (more on the McGuffin later). I even had two elderly ladies called Caldicot and Charters, as a nod towards the cricket loving gentleman in The Lady Vanishes. In truth I borrowed from everywhere and left no romantic intrigue cliché unturned. And I loved every minute of writing it. And my latest novella, Mistletoe and Mystery is also a romantic intrique, though this time it involves cat burglars and missing schoolgirls (not a Nazi in sight, unfortunately).

So what do you need to write a romantic intrigue? I’ve mentioned a few things, but I’ll list them properly, with explanations.

Hero and heroine conflicted: This is important. In any romance, as I stated in a previous post, there will be an internal and external conflict that keeps the hero and heroine apart. We’re back to our Bruce and his vested interest again.
For the half a dozen people out there who don't know what Bruce Willis looks like in his vest

In romantic intrigue, the intrigue is generally the main external conflict. But as I said in that blog post, one has to compliment the other. So in romantic intrigue it helps if, for some reason, your hero and heroine distrust each other (or you could have just one distrusting the other). At the same time, they’re fighting against the growing attraction/love that they’re feeling. Can this person really be involved in the theft of Lady Wotsit’s cameo brooch inside which are hidden secret Nazi files? The mystery they face must have some bearing on their romance, and not just be something tagged on to add a few more thousand words.

A mystery: It goes without saying that there needs to be some sort of mystery to solve. Solving that mystery might even bring your hero and heroine together, or if one suspects the other, tears them apart, until the final happy ending.

Suspicious behaviour: Several of  your characters, maybe even including the hero and heroine, have to be seen to be behaving suspiciously. At the end there’s always a perfectly reasonable explanation, but keep the reader guessing.

A compelling and realistic bad guy/girl. As Charles Boyer showed in Gaslight, the bad guy or girl in any story has to be compelling. Of course, unless you’re writing a story where the bad guy is clear from the outset (and I’ve done that) you may hint at several people being the antagonist. But by the time the real villain is exposed, their motive must be plausible and they must receive a suitable punishment. I find throwing them off a cliff during a life or death struggle with the hero/heroine quite satisfying, even if it is a bit clichéd.

A McGuffin: The McGuffin is my favourite part of writing romantic intrigue, but probably one of the hardest to come up with. To explain, a McGuffin is an object that drives the plot and makes characters behave in the way they do, but is not important in its own right (The TV Tropes page explains it in more detail and gives examples). It has no particular importance outside the story. In The Maltese Falcon, it’s the falcon which drives everyone. It does not necessarily have to be a physical thing. It can be a secret inside someone’s head. In The Lady Vanishes, it’s the tune that the missing lady in question has in her head . And remember the Memory Man in The 39 Steps? To prove that the McGuffin could be absolutely anything, when I wrote My True Companion (which will be in libraries from 1st January 2012) I knew there were secret documents, but I had no idea what was in those secret documents until my heroine found them. It could have been the secret ingredient in KFC or Coca Cola, but was actually a secret weapon (that being more in fitting with the story I’d told so far). Similarly, in Sunlit Secrets, which is not quite a romantic intrigue, but has lots of secrets, I had no idea what my hero’s secret was until he revealed all to the heroine partway through the book.

A satisfying resolution: As well as your usual happy ever after for the hero and heroine, everything else about a romantic intrigue story has to be satisfying too. All loose ends must be tied up, bad guys/girls must be suitably punished, and the reader should not be left with any questions about what went on. Anyone who’s read Agatha Christie will know that this sort of reveal usually takes place with everyone sitting in a plush drawing room, as Poirot or Miss Marple tell each of them why they’ve been keeping a secret (as if they didn’t know). I generally cover this by having one of my characters ask the hero or heroine something like, ‘So what exactly has gone on here?’ In that way I can have my hero/heroine (it’s usually the heroine in my novels) give a précis of what’s happened, so that it clears up any confusion the reader might feel. In a lot of ways it helps me too, because if the heroine can’t explain it in relatively simple terms, that means I’ve messed up somewhere.

You may have to do this more than once, just as a reminder of what’s going on. Think of the précis as being a bit like the old films where part way through, the hero (and it was always the hero in those days) brings us up to speed. 

"Well, Miss Jones, my annoyingly screechy love interest, who is looking utterly gorgeous in her wet skirt and undone-blouse-that-shows-just-enough-cleavage-whilst-rather-phallic-snakes-thrust-towards-your-groin-area. We’ve swum through the  River of Crawling Death (we really should have known from the name not to get in) – where I had to save you TWICE. We tracked down Professor E. Ville and discovered the location of the secret Nazi weapon. Now we need to make sure it never sees the light of day. But first let me one-handedly grapple these last few snakes, whilst I keep the other hand dangerously close to your bosom. Because I'm a man and that's what men do. No, don't try to help me. You just stand there half-naked and scream - just like you always do."

It’s a way of bringing the reader or viewer up to speed. But hopefully you can do it in a way that’s not quite as clumsy.

The most important thing is that it all hangs together in the end. The romance must be tied up somehow in the outcome of the intrigue, in much the same was as any external conflict needs to inform the internal conflict.
If you’d like to see how I write romantic intrigue, it just so happens that my latest novella, Mistletoe and Mystery is in the shops from today. It has pretty much everything I’ve listed above, including a McGuffin, though I carelessly left out Nazis and their henchmen again. I promise to try harder next time, honest. But the hero, Matt Cassell is inspired by Matt Damon so that’s a bonus.
There is also a chance to win a signed copy over on my blog. I can't promise it's the perfect story of romantic intrigue, but I had a lot of fun writing it, so I hope you'll have a lot of fun reading it.

Just because...


  1. Well done on the new novel!

    I like the way this post sets out the key elements and, like you, I prefer a bit of a mystery to run alongside the romance thread. Very hard to keep up the tension with lurve alone!

  2. Thanks again, Sally, for being so generous with your advice. You make it seem so easy!!
    Glad you got a pic of Bruce in your post again.

  3. Sally, as always you give sterling advice in a lighthearted, witty way.

    Yes, a mystery makes for a more compelling story in my opinion. Keep up the good work. (Oops! I typed 'keep up the wood work')

  4. Kate: Thank you! I agree. It's really hard for me to keep the story going just with the romance. But as I said, I am in awe of those who can do so and still create a compelling story.

    Patricia: I think Bruce and his vest might just become a running gag in my posts.

    Jeannie: thank you! I'll leave the wood work to others, if you don't mind ;-)

  5. What a great post, very interesting.

    I think I prefer that pic at the end to Bruce ;o)

  6. Matt is a new crushette for me, but he's certainly grown on me lately.

    But if Bruce turned up to fight off terrorists in Chesterfield over xmas, I'd let him save me...

  7. Sally, thanks for explaining romantic intrigue in simple terms. Love all the examples. It's right up my street, as I love a bit of intrigue too. Sounds like an interesting format you're working with.

    Well done.

  8. You've given away all your secrets! So THAT's how you do it! Thanks Sally.

  9. Sally, lovely article. Loads of wonderful humour that lost my concentration so I had to keep refocusing ... in a good way. "Just because" is one of my faves.