May 21 – 27: “What’s love got to do with it?

This week join ITW Members C. J. Greaves, Dianna Love, Mark Tullius, Lisa Brackmann and Raymond Benson as we discuss how love drives the plot of a thriller story, or in the words of Tina Turner: “What’s love got to do with it?”


Raymond Benson is the author of 27 published books. His most recent thriller is THE BLACK STILETTO: BLACK & WHITE (pub date May 30, 2012), the second book in his BLACK STILETTO series. Raymond was the 4th—and first American—author of official James Bond novels, and his work is collected in the recent anthologies CHOICE OF WEAPONS and THE UNION TRILOGY. Raymond is also a prolific tie-in writer, the most recent work being HITMAN: DAMNATION (pub date July 31, 2012).

Please visit Raymond on his website and Facebook.

NYT bestseller Dianna Love spent her early years creating unusual marketing projects for Fortune 500 companies. Now she writes thrillers and urban fantasy, which includes collaborating with #1 NYT bestseller Sherrilyn Kenyon. Their Belador UF series debuted on the NYT, USA Today, PW and Walmart bestseller lists. THE CURSE (Book three) is available September 18, 2012. Dianna speaks at reader events and has taught the popular Break Into Fiction® program nationally and internationally.

Chuck Greaves spent 25 years as an L.A. trial lawyer before penning his debut thriller HUSH MONEY (Minotaur), which has been called “an auspicious debut” (Kirkus) and a “stellar first novel” (Publishers Weekly, starred) and a “delightful debut” (Library Journal, starred.)  His second novel HARD TWISTED (Bloomsbury), a Depression-era saga based on a true crime, is due in November.

Mark Tullius is an Ivy League grad and former fighter who is launching his literary debut with BRIGHTSIDE, a thriller where telepaths are rounded up and imprisoned in a small mountain town. Mark is currently travelling across the country to promote BRIGHTSIDE (July ’12) and 25 Perfect Days (Oct. ’12) He is also training with and interviewing MMA fighters in every state for his nonfiction project: UNLOCKING THE CAGE.

Lisa Brackmann’s debut novel, ROCK PAPER TIGER, set on the fringes of the Chinese art world, made several “Best of 2010” lists, including Amazon’s Top 100 Novels and Top 10 Mystery/Thrillers. Her second novel is GETAWAY (May 2012), a thriller set in Mexico, which has been chosen as an Amazon Best Novel of the Month. She has lived and traveled extensively in China, the setting of her third novel, HOUR OF THE RAT, publishing in 2013.

  1. “How can love drive the plot of a thriller story, or in the words of Tina Turner: What’s love got to do with it?”

    Probably a better question is “What’s emotion got to do with it?” The answer is – everything, especially if it’s a romantic story. Commercial fiction fans read for tension. For example, there’s the kind of tension that terrifies us when a villain threatens thousands of lives or a serial killer stalks an innocent person. There’s also the tension that comes from worry over a character who is fighting to keep from losing a child in a court battle or to family services. Tension engages our emotions.

    Add love to the mix and the stakes spike.

    Too often, writers mistake sex for romance. What’s the difference? Romance is an internal journey for two protagonists whose emotional connection changes drastically from the beginning of the story to the end. If the story is a novel, these two may start out as enemies, but by the end they will be willing to risk their lives for each other. In a short story, they may only reach the next step in their relationship—perhaps going from being enemies to trusting one another—but this new level of personal commitment has clearly changed the way they will interact with each other going forward.

    Sex does not create emotional growth. Without the emotional arc, sex is merely a physical release. If you are creating two characters with a believable relationship, sex is another step in relationship development that requires trust, and moves the emotional arc of the romantic story forward.

    One of the most powerful tools a writer can use to drive tension is love. Empires have been lost over love. In a romantic thriller, the relationship arc drives actions and decisions when faced with the external threat. Those actions and decisions in turn impact the relationship. The more emotionally involved those two people become, the higher the stakes are when everything comes down to an unimaginable choice. Developing this chemistry in my short paranormal thriller, DEADLY FIXATION, for the LIM anthology
    turned out to be as much fun as it was challenging, and the end even surprised me.

    If romance and suspense elements are not intertwined tightly, one of those two elements will come up lacking and drag the story down. But weave them successfully, and your readers will fight someone who tries to take the book away before they reach the end.

  2. Hi folks, I guess I’ll start it off. Way back in the dark ages, I majored in theatre, specializing in directing. My illustrious directing professor, Dr. Francis Hodge (one of the most renowned and respected in the field; his textbook was in use for decades around the country), always told us that EVERYTHING was really about sex. Every story, every plot, every tale about human beings, it all came down to sex (sex = love, what’s the diff? 🙂 ). He may have said it facetiously, but in many ways he was quite serious. One could argue that the reason we have a plot about bank robbers is so they can get rich and powerful… and then have great sex the rest of their lives. Or that plot about terrorists blowing up a city, that’s so they can wreak havoc on America, destroy our economy, cause chaos… and then we wouldn’t be able to have sex for the rest of our lives. Aren’t most murders committed between spouses? Did I read that somewhere? Isn’t that about sex?

    Okay, I’m being facetious, too, but think about it. Good plots are driven by good characters, and good characters have relationships, and relationships are about… love and sex.

  3. To follow on Dianna’s analysis, the word “drive” has multiple meanings. One is to propel forward with force, while another is simply to goad. Love, or romantic entanglement, need not be front and center in your thriller – its main propelling force – in order to play a key role in goading the story forward.

    To my thinking, a great thriller should have many elements, many levels, and one of these can be romance. The best writers in the genre use all of the tools in the box – mystery, action, suspense, conflict, and yes, even romance – to continually raise the stakes for their protagonists. The underlying story needn’t be Fatal Attraction, or a girl tied to the railroad tracks. But introducing a love interest, something your hero cherishes, and placing that person or that relationship in jeopardy is a great driver of conflict.

  4. Dianna, it appears that we were typing our first entries at the same time, for when I clicked “submit” yours hadn’t appeared yet. Had I seen your entry first, I wouldn’t have been so facetious. HOWEVER, I do believe that sex is a more powerful motivation for many characters than love, especially in thrillers. Just look at the works of James M. Cain. In thrillers we’re dealing with crimes, usually, and sex as a primal *thing* fits into the world of crime more than love. The characters who kill for “love” are really killing for “sex.”

    Of course, I contradict myself in my latest thriller, the second chapter in my Black Stiletto series, THE BLACK STILETTO: BLACK & WHITE. In it, Judy, the costumed Black Stiletto, is in love with an FBI agent who has standing orders to arrest her alter ego. Thus a lot of the book is a playful and teasing, yet dangerous dance between the sexes as Judy seduces the agent as the Stiletto (without him knowing she’s Judy) while the agent works to uncover the vigilante’s secret identity. The conflict here *is* about love, but of course sex plays a big role in that love.

    But I totally agree with you that characters with love interests make them more interesting and better developed characters.

  5. Hey guys. Chuck makes a great point about the many elements of a thriller, but I think Diana is right on with the importance of emotion. Emotion is what drives us and there’s no stronger emotion than love. But I’m thinking of love in a larger sense, not just sex and romance. These are incredibly strong motivators that can really drive plot, but even more can be done if love plays a bigger role.

    By showing the love that was never had or a new found love snatched away, the protagonist becomes more human and the plot becomes personal. If the character is struggling to love himself or feels a love for his fellow man that’d make him risk his life, the reader will be rooting for him, hoping he’ll succeed no matter the plot.

    I realize this isn’t what most people think of when they discuss thrillers, but I do believe if done right, adding love to the mix can only make for a better story regardless of genre.

  6. We seem to have framed a nice spectrum, from the motivating power of sex (Raymond) to romance as a catalyst for suspense (Chuck and Dianna) to the humanizing aspects of love (Mark). But what about the nuts and bolts of working any or all of these themes into your thriller? I’ve posited the somewhat straightforward formula: Hero meets lover, hero falls for lover, lover’s jeopardy ups the ante for hero. Any other suggestions for working sex/romance/love into the fabric of your thriller in order to achieve a disired effect?

  7. Here’s a little on how and why I tried to work love into Brightside. The plot is straightforward with the hero, Joe, wanting desperately to escape the remote mountain town of Brightside, which is really just an internment camp full of telepaths. Joe’s a pretty flawed character who’s made a mess of his life, one failed relationship after another. Through a series of flashbacks that take us to his childhood where Joe knows exactly what his mom and dad are thinking, how classmates and teachers really view him, we see the lack of love and Joe’s desire for it. I believe this helps the reader better understand and relate to Joe as an adult.

    It’s Joe’s battle to believe that he’s worthy of love and capable of offering it that pushes the plot forward. The struggle between ending his life or risking death to escape is based on the love for himself, for his fellow prisoners, and his new love interest. Without showing this love and vulnerability, Joe would come across as a pretty crass character and no one would care whether or not he makes it.

    By focusing on the hurtful times in a character’s life, we can understand so much more about them. A peek at the failed relationships and awkward sex can do just as much for plot as the hot, steamy episodes that motivates others.

  8. Sorry for my tardiness in jumping in here!

    There are so many different ways in which love and/or sex can drive a thriller. Having to rescue a loved one is a time-honored plot driver, and one that works because there are real emotional stakes. I think of books by Harlen Coben, which often feature a married protagonist whose spouse turns out to be a Person With Secrets. With that kind of book, the question becomes, “Who is this person that I thought I knew? Is the love I thought we had real?” Then you have a nifty existential question along with the suspense.

    I’m particularly fond of the ambiguous lover, myself. For my second book, I wanted to do something different from Rock Paper Tiger. I decided to try and write a sort of noir thriller. My working definition of “noir” was, “Man/woman in trouble meets woman/man who IS trouble, and things go very very wrong.” So, in Getaway, the main character, Michelle, is trying to temporarily escape her considerable problems by taking a vacation to a Mexican resort town. She meets a good-looking guy on the beach, has a few too many margaritas, and things go very very wrong indeed. One of the main plot drivers becomes, “Can I trust this guy or not?” with signs generally pointing to “no!” But she’s in a situation where her other options are even worse. So he’s ambiguous and she’s ambivalent, to put it mildly: wanting to trust, unable to trust, very scared and having to pretend that everything’s fine.

    You know, just like dating!

  9. In HUSH MONEY, my lawyer/protagonist (Jack MacTaggart) meets a beautiful young equestrian athlete (Tara Flynn) who is either the best thing to happen to him in a long while, or else the mastermind behind a ruthless murder-for-profit insurance scam. When she becomes the apparent target in a failed assassination, Jack is torn in two directions — he loves Tara and wants to protect her, but still must wonder if he can ever really trust her. The point here, I guess, is that however you might choose to use lust/romance/love in your thriller, it is a bland soup indeed without that missing ingredient.

  10. Hi Everyone – What a lively and interesting discussion! I need to clarify that my comments were geared specifically toward a “romantic thriller,” as opposed to a thriller with romantic elements. As I understood it, they wanted romantic suspense/thriller for the Love is Murder anthology. That doesn’t mean we won’t have thriller stories in it with romantic elements (I can’t wait to read everyone else’s story!), but that was the origin for my post. If a story is truly a romance “and” a thriller at heart, that romance is generally arced all the way to the point of a commitment.

    But I’m a big thriller reader and enjoy a great thriller whether it has a romantic arc included or not. As for sex setting the stakes, I’m looking forward to reading how you used that in your story, Raymond. I’m always fascinated to see how others craft their stories. You’ll hear me often say, there is no one way to write anything.

    And you’re right, Chuck, when you say we don’t need a fatal attraction or girl tied to the tracks (which is funny, considering that today the girl is more likely to rescue the hero), and that there are many ways to up the stakes.

    Nice point, Mark, about a character struggling to love himself, a tortured hero, and that we want a character we can root for. There’s nothing I like better than that guy who is the last person expected to step forward, but does.

    I love that, Lisa – “Man/woman in trouble meets woman/man who IS trouble, and things go very very wrong.” – and “she’s in a situation where her options are even worse.” I like to call that the suck and suckier choice.

    Sorry I’m late jumping in today. I’ll be back tomorrow and will post on FB & Twitter now that I’m home.

  11. That’s the truth! Try to drag a good book outta my hands!! Romantic Suspense is my favorite Genre. I’ll read Romance and I’ll read Suspense, but I prefer them together. On another note, I CANNOT wait for Love Is Murder to come out!!!!

  12. Hey, this is fun!

    Reading everyone’s posts, one of the things that occurs to me is, we crave having love/sex in our thrillers because, while most of us have not been chased by serial killers/drug cartels/spies/government conspiracies, most of us HAVE had the experience of being in love. Or, lust. Or both!

    So this brings a relatable element to stories that are otherwise way out of most of our own, and readers’, experiences.

  13. Hi Kelli Jo –
    LOL – of course, you should be able to get BOTH romance and suspense together. I’m ready for Love is Murder to hit the stores too so I can read the other stories. 🙂 I’ll be riding my motorcycle across country the week it comes out, but I’ll stop in to say hello to booksellers and sign copies for fans out west. Thanks for stopping by!

  14. Hi Lisa – You’re so right. We read to enter worlds unfamiliar to us but we connect because of the elements we can relate to – like relationships. I like how you phrased that.

  15. Lisa, I really enjoyed “Rock Paper Tiger.” Just thought I’d throw that in.

    I’m also enjoying everyone’s comments.

    But I’m still juggling “sex” and “love.” Here’s how I differentiate the two in terms of thrillers. Love can be a strong motivator for the protagonist in that he/she may want to rescue the person he/she loves. We’re talking hero stuff here, just like what Chuck says above. In my new Black Stiletto book, Judy’s “love” (it’s really she’s just smitten) for the FBI agent creates a twist in the story and works very well as a subplot. But what about the criminals? Does love motivate a person to commit a crime? If it does, then I don’t believe it’s “love.” It’s sex. SEX often motivates people to commit crimes. And that’s the difference. I brought up James M. Cain earlier. “Double Indemnity,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice”… *classic* examples of how lust/sex propel characters to commit crimes. These folks might *think* they’re in love with the femme fatale, but it’s really all about the lust.

    I suppose I just have a more cynical outlook about “love” 🙂 When I think of characters “in love,” I’m starting to think of romantic comedies on one end of the spectrum (“Annie Hall”), or tragic love stories on the other, like “Wuthering Heights.” When thriller characters are in love, that adds to their personality, their depth, and their motivations, but you also have to examine if what they’re feeling is truly “love” or instead infatuation, they’re smitten, they’re horny, or whatever. “Love,” in my mind, conjures up flowers, puppies, and wedding rings. 🙂 “Sex,” however, for me conjures up the dark side, nasty stuff, jealousy, envy, betrayal, double-crosses, money, and murder.

    I know, I’m weird. Maybe that’s why I like James M. Cain.

  16. Raymond, thanks for the shout-out!

    You know, I’m not sure about the sex versus love distinction though. I guess it depends on your definitions. I certainly think there are very unhealthy obsessive relationships that I would not think of as “love” (because I like to think of love as a positive thing), but that are something beyond sex. I’m sadly unfamiliar with others’ work here (I can see my “to read” pile will be expanding again) so I don’t know how everyone deals with these issues in their work. But I’m thinking in mine, the relationship between the lead character in RPT, Ellie, and her estranged husband — I’m not sure how you’d classify that. Lust, certainly. Mutual guilt and shared secrets. If you asked the MC she would have called it love at one point. And I think if you ask a lot of villains, they would tell you that they are motivated by love. Of course, most villains are heroes in their own stories, too.

  17. You bring up a good point, Raymond, because I was speaking in the context of “motivation for protagonists.” A villain would be driven by just as much emotion, but for different reasons. I could see a villain killing for sex, which often happens. Like Lisa, I think of love, a deeply committed relationship between two people, as a positive thing that would motivate someone to sacrifice all to save the other. Guess I can’t see someone sacrificing him/herself purely for sex – unless it’s the only person the protagonist can find to have sex with. I love complex villains and can see a villain risking all out of lust, or what he perceives as love…except his on survival. Thanks for the pointing out how the dark side of lust is just as powerful as the positive side of love.

  18. Those mathematical captchka’s are getting more difficult. Math was not my strong subject. 🙂

    So what classic Love Stories would be considered Thrillers? Is “Romeo & Juliet” a thriller? It has elements of one, certainly. Is “Casablanca” a thriller? Is “Rebecca” a love story?

  19. That’s a great question for this group, Raymond. What’s everyone’s opinion on Romeo and Juliet or Casablanca since both are considered classic ‘love stories’ by many? Love stories or thrillers?

    To me, Romeo and Juliet is a love story (not a romance). I have a hard time classifying it as a thriller even though there are suspense elements, because the backbone of the story is really about an impossible love match. I could better see Casablanca as a thriller because the love story is secondary to the overall plot about the struggle between freedom fighters and the Nazis, the terrorists of their era. Although Rick and Ilsa once had an affair, once Rick realizes he’s still a patriot at heart he gives Victor and Ilsa the “papers” so they can escape because of Victor leading the freedom fighters as much as Rick recognizing why he could not be with Ilsa again. And Rick takes Renault with him in the end to return to fighting the Nazis, which puts the larger world threat at the center of the story, in my opinion (and if my memory serves me correctly on the details).

    But that’s just my opinion. I’d love to hear what the rest of you think. I enjoy the different ways we each look these things. (no math required, Raymond )

  20. I agree with Dianna. It really depends on what element dominates, and in Romeo & Juliet, the tragic love story is the main thing.

    Um. I’ve never seen Casablanca. I know, I know! And I worked in the film industry for several decades.

    And, sheesh, the captcha wants me to multiply now?!

  21. By Friday we’ll be doing calculus.

    “Casablanca” always ends up on “greatest love story” lists, and I actually see it more as a melodrama rather than a thriller, a good one at that.

    “Bonnie and Clyde” is a good one. Lovers on the run, that’s a nice sub-genre. “Gun Crazy” is another example of the same. “Natural Born Killers.” “Badlands.” It’s the characters’ mad love for each other that propels them forward on a dangerous journey toward eventual deaths. These are thrillers *and* love stories!

    Are there any equivalents in literary form?

  22. LOL Lisa on having never seen Casablanca and being in the film industry. I didn’t see it for a long time then used it as one of the story examples for a power plotting workshop, which means I had to watch it over and over to catch things (got real tired of it then). But I haven’t watched it in a few years. I hope we don’t have to do calculus next. It’s enough having to get the little security box right every time.

    Yep, Raymond, Casablanca is always on a greatest love stories list. I just see it as more than a love story since it isn’t focused as much on those two as R&J was. I think you’ve tagged it well with melodrama. But at the time it was made, I’ll bet viewers had a similar emotional reaction to it that we have to a thriller today. Casablanca was made in 1942, right in the middle of WW II – pretty scary time for them where it’s history for us.

  23. I’m enjoying the discussion but don’t have much to add on this part. I last saw Casablanca some twenty years ago and the dozen viewings of Gnomeo and Juliet have destroyed my ability to comment on the original. That said, I think both of these stories, and nearly every other one that’s been told, could be turned into a thriller with some tweaks here and there. Turn up the tension, speed things up, cut half the cuteness. I’d read that version.

  24. Absolutely, Mark. Those versions were for a specific target audience, much like how the children’s books of Snow White is targeted at a far different group than the movie adaptation called Snow White and the Huntsman. So some people who love the cute version might not enjoy the edgier one and vice versa. Amber Entertainment is remakng the original version of Romeo and Juliet. I’ll be curious to see what their approach is with so much of entertainment leaning toward the dark and edgy these days.

  25. Thanks, Dianna. I’ll watch for the remake, it will be interesting to see their take on it.

    Sorry to go off subject here, but I had a question for you and the others about which of your books you would recommend a new reader (me) to start with. I haven’t read many thriller writers other than Morrell and Coben, and would like to start mixing it up a bit. I’m curious how much you guys feel you’ve grown as authors and if you prefer readers starting with your latest piece.


  26. I’ll answer Mark’s question; I think I grow as a writer with every book. I’d definitely recommend new readers to start with my Black Stiletto series. I personally think they’re the best things I’ve written. You only get better as time goes on. I started doing this in the 1980s.

    And Coben and Morrell are great guys to read, too.

    I suppose we’ve gotten off-topic. Not sure what else to say about love and thrillers. Bottom line: love interests always enhance characters, no matter what the genre.

  27. I agree that we get better as we write so it’s natural to want readers to pick up more current books. We have a saying with motorcycling – the more you ride the better you get. I feel the same way about writing. But when someone asks me for a suggestion of which book to start with I base my answer on their particular taste in reading and figure the voice will either grab them or not.

  28. Thanks to all of you for taking time from your busy writing schedules to develop another great Roundtable discussion, full of insight and examples.

    Just be sure to assume a posture of respect when you talk about Casablanca. 😉

  29. Howdy, Mark!

    I’ve only written two, and yeah, it’s a matter of taste. Rock Paper Tiger is probably the more unconventionally structured — I’m always a little, “well, it’s sort of a suspense book, kind of, maybe, not really,” but if you like reading about contemporary China and the War on Terror, that one (it usually gets shelved in literature). Getaway is the more pure thriller of the two, so if you’re reading for the genre, I’d pick that one.

  30. Thanks guys. I appreciate the suggestions and all the insight. I’m off for the weekend, wife’s orders, no computer allowed. I look forward to reading your work.

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