In a world where romance is sold at all levels of spice from the cool sweetness of a bell pepper to the seeming death-breath of the new Pepper X, I had to decide early on where in that lineup I would place the inevitable romance that shows up in my romantic fantasies.
I will admit, I experimented with quite a few levels of heat on my nice, safe, Word document (where no one but me could read it), before I ever settled into my place in the pepper system.
I suppose if you must place me somewhere, my characters and their romances might fall somewhere between a banana pepper and a jalapeño, depending on the story. I made the decision to stay away from Pepper X gardens for a few reasons; they are threefold.
1.) The Story First: In a society where sex sells, I look on subtlety as an extra challenge. Not many things bother me more than when I pick up a book, plunge into a story that seems wooden and unrealistic, and the only thing that appears to be selling the book is the gratuitous pages filled with acts that have nothing at all to do with the romance or the story.
What?! Sex that has nothing to do with romance? Is such a thing possible? I say yes. To use a pop culture phenomenon as an example: E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy were wild best-sellers, yet, after the first half of the first book, more and more gratuitous sex scenes cluttered the pages with less and less romantic story development. All romance novels, ultimately, are about an emotional arc between the two leads. The tensions that drive a romance are the internal and external forces separating our hero and heroine–until they can overcome those forces and be together, happily. By the time I finished Fifty Shades Darker, the basic romantic tensions between the two leads had fizzled, because the storyline had played itself out. There was nothing but more sex with less feeling behind it, because the conflicts and tensions between the characters no longer interested me. Sex does not make a story, and it doesn’t make for a conflict, either, no matter how dark or dominating the hero. True romantic tension always comes down to the emotional arc between the two leads, and sex becomes quickly unsatisfying (in books as in life) if there is no emotional connection or development underpinning it.
Story always comes first. So–a good romance, whether it is the main plot or a subplot in service to a larger story arc–should stand on its own at the level of the emotional connection between the characters involved. That means romance writers are free to explore any level of heat they wish–because their romance isn’t depending on sex for its excitement, it’s relying on the strong foundation of good storytelling.
When plot and characters get pushed to the backseat, shifted around and tumbled out of the way to make room for sex, the bottom drops out of a story arc, and the romance no longer holds together because it feels fake, fake, fake. This is my number one pet peeve with so many of the romances I see on the shelf at a bookstore. While some authors manage to pull off a beautiful romance with the story and characters first, many authors fall into the trap of the story coming secondary to the “sex-sells” paradigm, and thus sacrifice the potential for a wonderful story on its altar. Rather than Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy or Rochester and Jane Eyre, you feel like you’ve just picked up Casanova’s diary for a little light reading rather than a well-told tale of two people falling in love.
As I worked through various levels of heat in both of my working drafts (River Running and The Eighth Octave) I realized less was more. By making my romantic scenes less graphic, I had more room to hone in on the emotional connection between my characters, thereby bringing much more tension and excitement into the scene.
2.) The Slow Burn: I want to give readers a chance to fall in love with my characters, to feel the attraction and the resulting tension without them acting on it immediately. I want to see the tiny steps that lead to love unfurling like the slow opening of a rose rather than the explosive-but-quick energy of lit kerosene. As I fall in love with the characters I’m writing, I want my reader to fall in love with them, too.
It isn’t an easy ambition to pursue. We are all attracted to pretty, high-flying sparks and leaping flames and fulfilled excitement. I have to be patient. I have to remind myself that I began to plan these characters weeks, months, sometimes years, before I ever allowed them to meet on the page. Sometimes, given my familiarity with my characters from months of planning, what may seem natural to me for the romantic timing may seem forced and wooden to a reader. It’s important to carefully vet the romantic arcs. A resolution too soon or too late: either one will kill the romance.
I spent several summers of my teen years as a camp counselor. One of my responsibilities was building fires and cooking for my campers—one to two fires a day. By the time the summer ended, I was an expert. I knew the best kinds of “quick fires” and the best kinds of “long fires.” I could lay a fire in five to ten minutes in pouring rain.
It took me a while to learn the tricks of that trade, but by the end of the summer, I had figured out that mostly, the best fires came down to two things:
a.) Dry wood. If I tried to lay a fire with green wood or wood that had been left in the rain to saturate, it didn’t matter how much skill I’d picked up, the fire would burn out quickly and leave a sickening stench.
b.) Coal bed. All that dry wood makes excellent embers. The “quick fires” were pretty, but not all that hot. They burned out swiftly and certainly couldn’t be used to cook meat. A coal bed held heat much longer, and while it wasn’t as sparkly and flashy as a big bonfire, it never left undercooked meat, and it kept us warm in the freezing outdoor mornings.
Hot romance holds the same principle. I’m not afraid to “dry out” my characters. I make them wait, even when they don’t want to—especially when they don’t want to. When the time finally arrives, they’ll light up with a single spark and they’ll burn for a long time. All that tension is going to hold heat way longer than the quick set-up and tear-down.
3.) The Staggering Embarrassment and the Straightforward Innocence: This is mostly a post-script to the other two points, but still valid nonetheless. Like most people, I have friends, relatives, and co-workers. Simply put, I blush when I think of someone reading a graphic scene that flows from my thoughts to my manuscript. I would love to make my work available to everyone who loves a well-done romance, and because not everyone is comfortable reading about flying clothes and descriptive petting and clenching wombs… I try for more subtlety. Circling back to point #1: I look on it as a challenge. Can I write believable, tension-filled, beautiful, and yes, hot romances that are suitable for most audiences? I like to think so.
What about you? As a reader, what kind of romances do you enjoy? Or if you are a writer, do you struggle with the tiny variances of timing and arc that make a romance succeed or fail? What do you do to work out those issues as they come? I’d love to know!