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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Writing Conflict and Tension In A Romance Story

Elizabeth Black lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and four cats. You may find her on Facebook and on her web site.


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Since it's Women In Horror Month, I thought I'd talk about my favorite female horror writer - Shirley Jackson. Discussing one of the most powerful horror writers may seem out of place on a romance blog, but hear me out. There are plenty of romances with some scary and tense elements to them. The Gothic romances come to mind; books like those written by Daphne du Maurier, the Bronte sisters works "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights", and "Thunder Heights" by Phyllis Whitney. Putting a woman in distress in a romance novel heightens the relief felt when the hero rescues her.

Despite opinions to the contrary, women can write scary and suspenseful books. Shirley Jackson is the perfect example. I discovered Jackson in high school when my English class read "The Lottery". I had never before heard of a writer whose story so incensed people they they'd boycott a magazine. I wanted to have that kind of effect on readers. Angry readers cancelled their subscription to The New Yorker because they didn't believe Jackson's upsetting story belonged in their highbrow magazine. Jackson laughed all the way to the bank and into literary history.

At the time I hadn't known I had already been exposed to another one of Jackson's works, but it was in movie form. I couldn't identify the scariest movie I'd ever seen for nearly a decade. The only thing I could remember about it was that it ended with a woman driving a car and a figure in white running in front of her. She lost control of the car, crashed into a tree, and died at the scene. I only knew that movie scared the piss out of me when I was 10 years old and I watched some of it on Thanksgiving with my aunt and cousins. My mother probably didn't want me to see it, but with the other relatives around, who was going to stop me? :)

I learned many years later while watching a horror movie in the dead of night that the movie was Robert Wise's "The Haunting". I didn't recognize it until I got to that last scene. When I saw Eleanor Lance dodge the woman in white and crash her car into that tree, I went nuts. I found that scary movie from a decade ago! When I learned it was based on a book written by the same woman who wrote "The Lottery", I borrowed the book from the library and read it in a couple of days.

Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting Of Hill House" scared the hell out of me. To this day, it's one of my favorite horror novels. I've read some of her other works, notably "We Have Always Lived In The Castle". Jackson was adept at showcasing people's fears and prejudices, which if you think about it are offshoots of each other.


Yes, women can write pants on fire scary shit. Jackson is proof of it. When it comes to writing conflict and tension in a romance novel, look to darker fiction to get it right.

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