Should There Be Romance in a Thriller?

My writing brand tagline is “Real Spies, Real Lives–a Hint of Romance.” In truth, I added the final phrase a few years back because I thought it might stir more interest and because, well, the two main protagonists are married. There’s romance, and, per the “real lives” theme, there are squabbles and the usual complaints that spring from a long association with each other.

You’ll find even a smaller hint of romance in John le Carre’s work. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Russia House are the two that have somewhat romance-centered plots. In most of his books, wives or girlfriends are in the background, supportive and turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to what their spouses really do.

What appears in Ian Fleming’s books, with the exception of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I don’t consider romance. They’re one-night stands, usually to either attempt to compromise or kill Bond or for Bond to elicit needed information or gain access to something. In Fleming’s eleventh book, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond and his love interest marry but (spoiler alert) that ends badly. And in other books, like The Spy Who Loved Me, the love interest falls in love with Bond, but never he with her. He exploits and is off to the next conquest on the next mission.

“Romance” Runs the Gamut

In most thrillers I’ve read there’s sexual tension even, sometimes, explicit sex, but the relationship amounts to that. The focus is on the non-sexual action, and in a thriller that’s exactly where it should be. Sometimes, though, that reads as if an editor has said, “This needs some sex,” and the author obliges by peppering the book with gratuitous sex.

Now, I have nothing against sex in real life or in books, but like any scene in a work of fiction, it needs to advance the story. It needs to be logical, i.e., this is a point in the story where it feels right for the characters to have sex. It needs to flow in the overall story arc. Some authors do that well, for example, J. D. Robb and Janet Evanovich.

In thrillers sometimes the sex is explicit, almost to the point of erotica, and sometimes it’s more a “fade to black” interlude. I generally go for the latter. My two protagonists use their banter almost as foreplay, but what goes on after, even though I know exactly what happens in my head, I prefer to leave to the readers’ imagination.

On occasion, I have been more explicit than usual. For example, sex between Mai and Alexei after a long bout of Mai-induced celibacy because Alexei took a tumble off the fidelity wagon. I’ve had no complaints from readers on this approach; however, I wouldn’t go so far as to call my books “cozy thrillers.” Indeed, the only complaint I had was a scene in my debut novel A War of Deception, where I want to show the antagonist’s psycho-sexual hang-ups and included a fairly explicit sex scene. One reader didn’t see the point and gave me a three-star review. But that was in England, where some people are a bit prudish about sex.

The one literary device I’ve always hated is “sexual tension.” We’ve seen this in many television shows. I’ve recently re-watched six of the eight seasons of the “dramedy” Castle, and once Castle and Beckett give into their sexual tension, the episodes become much more relationship-focused rather than focused on the crime to solve. Didn’t bother me, but I’ve never gotten why people get hung up on the sexual tension. I think the best sexual-tension-becomes-sex scene came from the X-Files. The Mulder-Scully thing was there from the beginning, but once they consummated their relationship, it was simply a scene where Scully is getting dressed, and as she leaves the bedroom, she looks over her shoulder, and there’s a sleeping Mulder in bed. And then it’s never really touched on at all–until Scully turns up preggers.

Romance Shouldn’t Overshadow Action

Action and tension are the core tropes in thrillers of every type. They have to be front and center or you don’t have a thriller. I sometimes hesitate to call my work thrillers because I do focus on the background that has to come before the action–the planning, the intelligence-gathering, the analysis, the preparation. Now, that can be tense, but those scenes are far from action-oriented.

Again, the theme of my work is how real spies operate. I can’t leave the action out, but I try not to make the action overwrought. It has to advance the story. In real espionage, for example, it’s not like in the movies or a Bond book. One tumble between the sheets won’t turn a potential asset, nor will one clandestine conversation. The intelligence officer has to build a relationship with the asset and understand when to present the proposition that the asset needs to betray his or her country. True, not very action-oriented, but perhaps it does heighten the action when it does occur.

However, nothing should overshadow that, not even romance. Now, I don’t mind an HEA–a happy ever after, which is a must in a romance novel. Le Carre’s and even Fleming’s books generally come to a resolution but most of the time not an HEA. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are two perfect examples of that.

If you’re looking for hardcore action, there are plenty of offerings out there. If you don’t mind a “hint” of romance, why not give my work a try?