Walking the Spooky Tight Rope
by Shannon Donnelly
When you tackle paranormal romance (or romantic suspense) you’re actually taking on TWO plotting challenges.
A romance has the romance as its main plot line. That’s pretty easy to understand—the story revolves around two people who meet, who have problems, and who eventually manage to build a relationship.
A paranormal (straight without the romance) is a story that has at its main plot line a weird situation/setting. As in there’s a ghost, a greater than normal ability/skill held by the protagonist, or a world where there’s more than normal stuff going on. This tends to be an action-oriented plot and often involves saving the world (particularly when this shifts into Urban Fantasy).
Now if you’re writing Urban Fantasy—which is an offshoot of the paranormal—you can have a romance as a subplot and all is good. You don’t have to worry about pushing the romance to the back and you don’t even have to have a happy ending.
However, a paranormal romance means you need both a romance that works as a main plot line AND you must balance in the paranormal elements so they are also vital to the main plot line. Neither one of these can be a subplot. And that is asking a lot. But here are a few tips to help you.
- Look to see if the paranormal elements are really vital. This is easy to do. If you take out the paranormal elements and the story still works, then the paranormal elements are not important enough. An example of this is that your heroine sees ghosts. Great! However, her conflict with the hero is that he is a playboy and she’s a stay-at-home girl. Do you see how if you take out the heroine’s ability to see ghost the story still stands as a viable story. That means the paranormal element is not strong enough. But if the heroine can see ghost and the hero is a skeptic who busts fraud psychics, now you’ve got a paranormal element that cannot be taken out without removing the core romantic conflict.
- Is the romance overshadowed by the paranormal? This is also easy to evaluate. If you look at the story—in either idea, outline, or first draft form—look at the action. Does the action shift so it becomes all about the hero/heroine fighting the bad guys? Is the dark moment all about the paranormal action? Do you have lots going on with no mention of any kind of relationship (either personal problems between the couple or the relationship not progressing)? Remember that what you give pages to takes on more importance. So if the paranormal action gets lots of pages and the romance doesn’t, you don’t really have a paranormal romance. This is where you have to ask yourself—what do I want to write? Is it really an Urban Fantasy where more focus can be on the action? Or do you want to bring more focus to the romance so you balance this back into a true paranormal romance? You want to be honest when asking these questions—or get a friend to help you see what’s developing. Even if you self-publish you still have to know how to market your story.
- Is there really good motivation for the romantic conflict? This is where you have to look at the conflict between the characters—you want more than a misunderstanding and more than just external issues. Your heroine may hate werewolves—but the why of this is even more important. You want to step past clichés—meaning the first few reasons you think up will be ones you’ve already read in other stores. To go past these, don’t settle for the first few ideas that pop into your head—keep digging. Maybe idea one is that heroine’s brother (or family) was killed by a werewolf (an overdone idea). Maybe idea two is that heroine is a werecat and so has all a cat’s dislike for wolves (also overdone). Or maybe the heroine is also a werewolf and her pack is…well, you can see how the first few ideas are those you’ve read before. Keep digging. Make sure your conflict is strong and well motivated.
- Is there a bad guy who is there to just be bad? Weak or cardboard villains can really kill a story because they’ll make your protagonist seem weak, and suddenly everything in the story—even the romance—suffers. Bad guys need love, too—meaning you need to love them. Give them attention and development. Give them good reasons for why they do what they do and want what they want. Go past the desire for power just for the sake of power. Dig into their backstory and make them a threat to the characters and to the character’s relationship. See how these folks cannot just threaten the world but also threaten the characters’ romance.
- Give everyone a past. This may seem obvious but it’s surprising how often this is overlooked when it comes to a sexual past. Know who your heroine dated, had a crush on, and who she had relationships with. And go past the cliché—it doesn’t have to be all bad. There are plenty of reasons why a relationship can fail. It doesn’t always have to be that the ex is a bad guy or a bad girl. Same goes for the hero. Give him past relationships and figure out why they worked or didn’t work. These can be great material for both the romantic and the paranormal stories. Use the past to shape the romance and the paranormal elements.
- Use family. This is another overlooked area. Too often characters’ families are left out or just ignored. Family can provide conflict and context. That heroine who can see ghosts—what if her mom really is a fake psychic. See how that instantly provides more conflict into a relationship between the heroine and a skeptic-hero? Or what if heroine’s whole family is a bunch of con-artist and only the heroine has real talent? That ups the conflict and the tension for the romance, too—and for the paranormal elements. Look to do the same with the hero. If you have a hero werewolf, don’t settle with giving him a generic “pack”—give him complex relationships within his pack. Maybe he has a younger brother he’s trying to train and it’s driving both of them nuts since they have different approaches to life. Or maybe he’s got an old dude who is a pain since the guy is always telling him ‘how it used to be done.’
The most important thing is to know your intent—so you can better pull it off. Know if you really want to write a paranormal romance, or if you’re trying to bust genres know that you’re taking on a lot and settle in to take on the work.
Shannon Donnelly Bio
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.” She is also the author of the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire. She is currently working on her next Regency romance, Lady Chance.
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