We're creating a specific kind of "Woman in Jeopardy" type Romantic Suspense story as an example. You can have fun with this game as is, or adapt it to suit whatever kind of story you want to tell.
Situation Worksheet; a list of the major character roles and elements we'll have to chose for a basic story. These elements are supposed to be filled in with random choices.
Now we're going to start creating lists for those random choices -- or the "wheels" as Erle Stanley Gardner called them with his plotting game. He actually wrote his plot elements on cardboard wheels that he could spin to make choices. Which you can do if you want. (Look up "Game Spinner" or "spinning game board" on Amazon.) But that will limit your number of options. So I recommend just numbering the items on each list, and using Random.org to choose a random number. (Or put them on slips of paper and draw them, etc.)
Of course you don't have to use the random lists: you can fill in the worksheet from your imagination. However, randomizing these genre-specific elements allows you to jump deeper into the story sooner. The idea is to brainstorm the genre-specific requirements just once -- for the game -- and then when you create a story from it, you can save your energy for the specifics of the story.
So let's get to it:
Today we're going to create wheels for the Heroine's Secret, and the Hero Type. But before we do that, we have to think about the restrictions of the genre.
The Restrictions of Romantic Suspense
All suspense, romantic or not, is about an isolated protagonist. An ordinary guy or gal who has to deal, alone, with extraordinary and threatening circumstances.
A romance, on the other hand, is about a pair. It's about losing your isolation. That's part of why these two genres work well together. They have a natural tension. The isolation is a natural threat to the romance, and the romance is a solution to the isolation.
But, in my opinion, the driver of the suspense story is the threat to the romance. The romance is the prize. And since romance readers often consider different types of lovers to be different genres (young love, "second chance" older lovers, May December romance, gay or straight), I don't randomize this -- I just choose. The romance genre is just too restrictive to mess with this relationship when you're also juggling the suspense. And to keep it simple, I just picked the vanilla romance story: white, straight, around 22-35 years old. (You may pick any variation that floats your boat.)
Ironically, if I were writing a mystery suspense, and not worried about fitting it into category romance, I would definitely randomize the sex, age and/or race of the characters. Since this relationship is the key relationship of the story, cutting it free of category romance restrictions can really spark interesting ideas. You could even do things like (gasp!) have less than attractive people as the main characters.
The Heroine in Jeopardy
As I said above, the key element of a suspense story is that the heroine is isolated in some way. It might be physical isolation, like she's taken a job as a park ranger or a governess in a secluded estate. It could also be an internal factor: anything from a disability to extreme self-consciousness. (As often as not over some tiny blemish she thinks is disfiguring but nobody else notices.) Or it might be social isolation: she's a member of a dispised class or disgraced family.
In most romantic suspense stories, there will be more than one factor. However, for brainstorming we need to pick the most important one -- the one that drives the story.
For instance, if you had a character who was both a park ranger and was excessively self-conscious about some minor scars on her face, only one of those would really drive the story: Either she was so self-conscious that it hampers her entire life, and she took the job to get away from people; or she is an independant woman with a career as a lonely park ranger, who has this little self-consiousness problem. In the first, the villain will be able to play on this self-consciousness to defeat her. In the second, the self-consciousness will be like Indiana Jones and snakes; if the villain uses it against her, it will only piss her off.
This is not an action adventure story, though, so in either case, she will still be vulnerable. It's just that in the second case it's external factors that make her vulnerable.
Okay, so now we make the list.
There are two ways to go about it. You can really drill down and get detailed -- have choices for "Park Ranger" and "Governess" and "Suffers from positional vertigo" -- or you can just do categories, and leave the specifics to the brainstorming stage.
I prefer to go with categories, however sometimes to figure out your categories, you have to brainstorm the specifics first -- so go ahead and do that if you want. Also, to create a great wheel, you need to think about your own inclinations and preferences. If there are some tropes I really like, I'll get really specific on those so that there are more choices of that type. That not only means the wheel will favor that trope, but it will also force me to think deeper to come up with variations on each variation.
The other thing I like to do is intentionally put a few items that I don't particularly like - just to force myself to work at it sometimes. And sometimes to do that, I have to make an item very specific. For instance, one of the items is "Secret Child." I'm not really fond of that as a story trope, but it's common enough in romance that Amazon actually has a browsing category for it. So it's on there even if it is rather specific.
1.) Physical Isolation (isolated job, isolated living quarters)
2.) Social Isolation (servant, poor relation or step-child, lives in a country where she doesn't speak the language, etc.)
3.) Made a Terrible Mistake in the past
4.) Made a Terrible Mistake which was really someone else's fault.
5.) Made a Terrible Mistake that is directly related to the mystery
6.) Physiological Issues (scar, partially debilitating injury or disability, subtle condition like positional vertigo)
7.) Psychological issues (PTSD, Phobia, OCD)
8.) Hidden identity (heiress, movie star, princess)
9.) On a secret mission (revenge, needs to retrieve something, investigative reporter, must prove someone innocent)
10.) Convicted criminal (innocent of the crime, did something moral, or commited crime of weakness which she is working hard to overcome)
11.) On the Run from the law
12.) On the Run from bad reletionship
13.) On the Run from pressure of success
14.) On the Run from (fill in the blank)
15.) Secret Child
This is the second version of the wheel and still not done to my satisfaction. I'm not sure I like the "Terrible Mistake" trope that much (and the "Convicted Criminal" might be a part of that group) -- but yet I want to break it down for creative reasons. There are just too many cliches there, so I want to force myself deeper into sub-categories. In the meantime, I might prefer to expand on the physical location variants more.
One way to handle the way I want sub-categories is to create a second wheel. Have one slot on this wheel for "Terrible Mistake" and then if it comes up, roll the dice to choose one of several options.
Now, on to the dude....
The Hero Type in a Romantic Suspense
The dude is probably the single most important thing that defines where the story falls on the gradation from "romance with suspense elements" to "pure thriller with a romantic element."
In a pure suspense story, the hero might literally be no more than a lurking shadow. He is a scary mystery, until at the end she finds out he's a good guy. In that case, the romance only begins in that last chapter. On the romance end, he could be a full-fledged co-protagonist, with the mystery and suspense just being a subplot that complicates their relationship.
However, if she can rely on him to help her face the crisis, then it's not a suspense story. To be an actual Suspense story, something has to isolate her from him, so that she faces the danger mostly alone.
So for me, the key element of the hero for a romantic suspense is what keeps the heroine from relying on him.
The problem for creating this list is that the relationship is going to change throughout the story. For instance, he starts as a mysterious background character, but somewhere around the midpoint they get together. I'm not worried about that, though, because I can throw plot twists at that. He can be called away. He can be fooled by the bad guy. Heck, I can even put him in jeopardy -- locked up, drugged, knocked out -- and she needs to rescue him as well as save herself.
So this plot wheel really applies to the premise -- the situation as it is set up in the first half of the story. I can deviate from that at any major plot point.
Also because he isn't the protagonist, the "hook" into his character can be more colorful and interesting without throwing the story off. Also, since he drives the romance, his "type" should be driven by your hero preferences. And as with the "Heroine's Secret" wheel -- throw in some options that you aren't so fond of to force some creativity.
Here is my list (still working on this one too):
1.) Mysterious Background Figure -- undercover cop
2.) Mysterious Background Figure -- on a personal mission to do with the backstory. (I.e. someone wronged, or seeking revenge.)
3.) Mysterious Background Figure -- a rogue or thief
4.) Innocent But Interfering Bystander (neighbor, handyman)
5.) Overt Suspect (person with best and most obvious motive, or a close associate or enemy of the victim)
6.) Authority Figure -- arrogant cop ("Stay out of this, Miss. It's dangerous.")
7.) Authority Figure -- boss or trustee of her estate
8.) Flawed Ex-Lover or Ex-Husband
9.) Mr. Perfect -- she ran away from him out of inner conflict, and he persues her because he's Mr. Perfect (thus she avoids him)
10.) Overlooked Friend (someone she doesn't think of romantically -- they grew up together, he was once married and now widowed or divorced, etc. Too casual to confide in.)
11.) Idiot/Useless Boyfriend (he could really be loveable but useless, or he could be secretly very useful and she just doesn't know it -- as with the Scarlet Pimpernel or Clark Kent)
As you can see, I like the "Mysterious Background Figure" trope -- and that's because I like the mystery end more than the romance end. Also when I am on the romance side of things, I like the smoldering "Mystery Man She Can't Trust" trope. I think I should expand on the Authority Figure options, though. The friendly cop can still be someone she keeps secrets from. But then, of course, the reason she keeps the secret has more to do with her situation than his. So I might actually come up with a different list depending on what kind of options chosen for her.
One thing to keep in mind with all of those characters is that at some point, the heroine is going to look on him with suspicion, no matter what category he falls into. That's the nature of the story, that she is going to have to get paranoid, and trust no one.
That's enough for this week.
Next Week: The Villain, and His Plot.
Villain, the crime that drives the story, and we'll also take a look at the secondary characters on November 8. After that we'll talk about generating Title and Theme, and then, finally, we'll actually play the game! (November 22
After that, we'll take a break. I'll probably scatter a few individual game posts in December: maybe "roll" a couple of stories and talk about the brainstorming options. Or I might take some famous romantic suspense movies and break them down in terms of the character structure.
But in January, I'm going to talk about the next phase of the game: the 4-Act Plot Structure Game.
See you in the funny papers.
If you read this blog, and find it useful or entertaining, buy a book once in a while, or make a donation.
Here's a link to a list of my books. And ... hey, look at that! There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations are via Paypal)