February 10 – 16: “What’s love got to do with it?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5How can love drive the plot of a thriller story, or in the words of Tina Turner: What’s love got to do with it? That’s the question of the week for ITW members Allison Brennan, Saralyn Richard, Khaled Talib, J. H. Bográn, Frank Zafiro, Lisa Harris, Natalie Walters and Mitch Silver. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along. You won’t want to miss it!


Award-winning mystery and children’s book author, Saralyn Richard, is a writer who teaches on the side. Her books, Naughty Nana, Murder in the One Percent, and A Palette for Love and Murder, have delighted children and adults, alike. A member of International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America, Saralyn teaches creative writing at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and continues to write mysteries.


Allison Brennan is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of forty books and numerous short stories, including the Lucy Kincaid series and the FBI Mobile Response Team. She recently relocated with her family and pets from Northern California to Arizona and is looking forward to baseball Spring Training.


Natalie Walters is the author of Living Lies and Deadly Deceit. A military wife of twenty-three years, she currently resides in Hawaii with her soldier husband and their three kids. Natalie comes from a long line of military and law enforcement veterans and is passionate about supporting them through volunteer work, races, and writing stories that affirm no one is defined by their past.


Frank Zafiro was a police officer in Spokane, Washington, from 1993 to 2013. He retired as a captain. He is the author of numerous crime novels, including the River City novels and the Stefan Kopriva series. He lives in Redmond, Oregon, with his wife Kristi, dogs Richie and Wiley, and a very self-assured cat named Pasta. He is an avid hockey fan and a tortured guitarist.


Lisa Harris is a two-time Christy Award finalist, a Christy Award winner for Dangerous Passage, and winner of the Best Inspirational Suspense Novel twice from Romantic Times. She has over thirty novels and novella collections in print. She and her family have spent sixteen years working as missionaries in Africa. When she’s not working she loves time with family, photography, and heading into the African bush on safari.


Khaled Talib is a former magazine journalist and public relations consultant. He lives in Singapore. SPIRAL is his fourth novel.




Mitch Silver was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island. He attended Yale (B.A. in History) and Harvard Law School (“I lasted three days. I know the law through Wednesday, but after that…”). He was an advertising writer for several of the big New York agencies, living in Paris for a year with his wife, Ellen Highsmith Silver, while he was European Creative Director on the Colgate-Palmolive account. They have two children and live in Greenwich, Connecticut. The Bookworm, Mitch’s second novel following In Secret Service, just came out in paperback. His upcoming thriller, THE APOLLO DECEPTION—about what did (and didn’t!) happen on the moon 50 years ago—will be published this fall. Mitch also won the American Song Festival Lyric Grand Prize for “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.” His blood type is O positive.


J. H. Bográn is an international author of novels, short stories and scripts for television and film. He’s the son of a journalist, but ironically prefers to write fiction rather than facts. His genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. He currently divides his time as resource development manager for Habitat for Humanity Honduras, teaching classes at a local university, and writing his next project. He lives in San Pedro Sula, Honduras with his wife, three sons and a “Lucky” dog. His motto is “I never tell lies, I only write them!”


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  1. My most recent thriller, Gun Kiss, included elements of love though some bloggers and reviewers were wondering why I did not develop further; at least to show readers how rosy things get between the characters.
    I did not plan to write a romantic thriller, but an action thriller. However, I felt there was a need for the love angle at least to a certain extent otherwise it would appear awkward.
    I had placed my protagonist and co-protagonist, who are newly involved with each other, in a situation full of tension and obstacles. As such, there is little time to serenade. My intention was to leave the reader wondering if they’ll even survive.
    So, love can be there, but it doesn’t have to be silky.

  2. For some of us, love is every thing. My favorite thriller is Hitchcock’s movie, North by Northwest. Cary Grant’s relationship with Eva Marie Saint changes from attraction to suspicion to finally, passion. And it powers the forward momentum of the story the way a simple manhunt of James Mason’s smuggler Von Dam never would.

    My recent thriller, The Apollo Deception, wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if it didn’t have a female astronaut helping drive the story by capturing the affecftion of my protagonist, Gary Stephens.

  3. While I love the twists and turns of a thriller, for me it’s not quite enough. I always include romantic thread in my novels. Why? Because it automatically adds to the stakes on a very personal level. We all know that a thriller should jump off the page from the first paragraph, escalating until there doesn’t seem to be a way out. To me, that’s the perfect time to add the emotional rollercoaster of a possible relationship into the mix.

    I see my stories in layers. First there is the thriller, suspense plot that drives the story forward. When that plotline can become personal on some level for the protagonist, you have an automatic, deeper, second layer. Next, if you have a romantic thread running through your story, you have yet another personal angle that your protagonist is having to deal with while the bullets are flying.

  4. My first 12 books were romantic suspense, and in a true romantic suspense, love never drives the plot. The romance and the suspense are entwined, where you can’t have one without the other — where the romance plot compliments the suspense plot and the suspense plot compliments the romance plot. You need both elements to be strong and compelling for the overall story to work. When someone we love is at risk, we have more at stake.

    In most thrillers today, there are elements of romance — to a varying degree. Some thrillers like those written by Melinda Leigh, Kendra Elliott, and Laura Griffin beautifully blend suspenseful crime fiction with a romance between main characters. The suspense never suffers because two people are romantically involved. I think the best way to think of romantic thrillers is to write a great thriller — whatever thriller elements you love (I generally write crime thrillers) and then layer in a believable romance between two characters that increases the conflict and stakes of the suspense.

    There are some thrillers where romance takes a back page, but is still an important element of the story. For example, in the JD Robb IN DEATH books (one of my all-time favorites series), her main character Lt Eve Dallas is a kick-ass cop and her husband Roarke (wealthiest man on the planet) and they’re married. Eve drives the stories, but Roarke plays an important role in most books. Their relationship is important for character growth and providing a more complex and story — and provides a necessary breather after intense action.

    But “love” isn’t just romance. Anytime someone you love is at risk creates a far more immediate and universal thriller. A child in danger. A missing parent. An estranged sibling. These are all people that your reader can immediately identify with because they can put themselves in your characters shoes. Just how far would you go to save your child? What would you do to find your missing sister? Love layers in emotion in thrillers that might otherwise lack emotional intensity if no one cares for anyone else in the story.

    Those are my thoughts! What are yours? Questions?

    1. Allison, you make some wonderful points.

      While English is a very expressive language, I feel like it fails us when it comes to using the word ‘love’ to mean so many things. I saw, of all things, a commercial recently that used the fact that ancient Greek had four different words for love, describing each. I think this speaks to your point – love can mean a lot of different things, but it is a powerful driving emotion regardless.

  5. Excuse my typos — my kids had car trouble on their way to school and I was distracted! LOL …

    Mitchell, I move NORTH BY NORTHWEST! One of my all-time favorite movies, and you’re absolutely right in how the story would have been rather blah without the romantic element between Grant and Saint.

  6. The heart of any thriller is heightened emotion. We tend to think of fear as the primary emotion evoked by books in the genre, but other emotions are equally ripe for use in connecting readers with characters. Anger, guilt, revenge, grief, over-ambition–the plots of Shakespeare plays come to mind. But love? Many think love should be reserved for romance novels with happy endings.

    In my mind that is simply not so. Love is the most positive, universal emotion that all humans yearn for. The quest for love and the fear of losing it are driving forces in real life, and no less so in fiction. That’s why “love” is the 48th most common word in Billboard song titles from 1890-2014, and there are countless lists of books with “love” in the title. The tension that comes from the various stages of a love relationship can and does spin off into jealousy, self-doubt, and all the above-mentioned “thriller” emotions.

    Both Murder in the One Percent and A Palette for Love and Murder have plots centered around love and/or love-gone-bad. That’s what makes them so compelling. In what ways do you incorporate love into your settings, plots, and characters?

    1. Saralynn, I guess I answered your outro question in my own post, but I wanted to note that your take is very on point. Love is so basic to our human experience, which means it is everywhere – as you point out with the song title factoid.

      It’s universality makes it something that a reader can connect with, even if it isn’t a specific love we can understand. I mean, I can’t say I understand Jaime Lannister’s love for Cersei (his sister…ewww), but I don’t have to, because I understand love.

      I suppose that is another sort of tension, like the others you mention. Forbidden love, or a love that’s hard for us to imagine. Not only does it create tension on the page, but it might create some for the reader…

      1. I agree with you, Frank. Many times in thrillers, love is the lynchpin, the motive. I think of the classic movie, “Body Heat.” It seemed to be about two lovers who were paving the way for them to be together. Of course, it turned out to be quite different–less about love than about manipulation, but love still had everything to do with it!

  7. Love is the root…that drives all things. Nothing motivates a person better than love and it’s not always the romantic kind. Love of money, power, control, freedom, and vengeance are the perfect motivators for an antagonist. The best thrillers reveal characters, good or bad, who love something enough it drives their thoughts, behaviors and actions.

    1. BAM! You nailed it, Natalie. I like how you also point out that these emotions matter to more than just a protagonist… I think that love is one of those motivators that people don’t allow an antagonist to explore very often.

    2. You’re so right, Natalie, that love motivates our characters, both for good and for bad. That’s such an important angle to dig deeper into, especially when putting our villains down on paper. And it’s those ‘motivating love factors’ that drives the story and adds those necessary layers and conflict.

  8. Coming to the conversation later in the morning (the perils of being on the west coast!), a number of the points I would have discussed have been well done already.

    I have to echo some of those sentiments however. Love, like hate, is such a core emotion that it can drive a character’s motivation, even in the extreme. Even as a secondary element, it is powerful. Regardless of how it exists (or doesn’t!) in a character, it has an impact, so I don’t think it is something we can overlook.

    Love plays a role in my most recent book, IN THE CUT. Boone’s love for his brother, for the woman he’s with, and for the motorcycle gang he is prospecting for all factor in to his mental state, driving his actions and decision-making, especially when love for one comes into direct conflict with love for others.

    Plus there’s a few twists, which I know is nothing special in a thriller, but this title is more of a thrilling bit of crime fiction than a classic thriller.

    Which love wins out? That’s the crux of the conflict, and THAT’s what love has to do with it.

    1. Saralyn (love that name, btw – have to confess right here and now it will find its way into a story at some point!), great point. I see love and hate as continuum, a circle that almost meets at its extremes, but all one circle, as you point out.

      To answer your question, I’d say that the main character, Boone, is struggling more with being true to himself and what he loves, and that struggle leads him to doubt what his real feelings are for some people and institutions. I know that’s a little cryptic, but the book is a mystery and I’m avoiding even mild spoilers!

      Is this Yin/Yang aspect of love/hate prevalent in your work?

  9. This is the quote at the beginning of A PALETTE FOR LOVE AND MURDER. I’m interested in your comments: “In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.”–Marc Chagall

    1. Wow. That is a fascinating statement, and really makes one think.

      I read this last night and waited until this morning to commment. It seems to me that he has the right of it. Because ‘love’ is such a malleable concept, you could likely cite love as the reason for virtually every motivation out there…pure love, tainted love, misaligned love, lost love, and the list goes ever on.

  10. Love in a thriller, as a theme, brings out all kinds of emotions, which the author could inject into the characters: mood, anxiety, restlessness, worry, anger, frustration. These emotions can place the characters in different situations as part of the story developing process.
    An author can use these ingredients to add chaos or unpredictably. Or even test the level of that love by putting characters in extreme situations, thus making the thriller a tasty page-turner. There is plenty of room to play.

  11. As a romance and romantic suspense writer I agree with everyone’s comments about love being a driving force! Now how about the lack of love? Or the striving for love in a twisted way? That can lead to some very warped characters and tension filled plots.

    1. That’s right, Elisabeth. In this context, love falls under many categories, so the lack of love (and what accompanies it) is an angle that can be pursued thrillingly.

    2. Your questions, Elisabeth, are a great springboard to adding depth and motivation to our characters–and especially, when talking about a lack of love, the motivation for our villains. It could also be a roadblock for our protagonist in his or her quest for romantic love.

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