I read and write (under different pen names) almost all levels of romantic “heat” from the sweet to the steamy. Interestingly, I find that, while yes, the steamy books get more into the physical elements of the relationship, that what I love best about the romantic tension in these novels is found in every heat level.
For me, a terrific romance is about the connection built between the H/H and the tension of not knowing (even though we really know) if it will all work out. Here are 5 techniques I use to build both!
All of the first three I give total credit to a fantastic book called “The Complete Guide to Heroes & Heroines.” I use these for building the interactions between my main characters in every single book I write.
Putting the hero/heroine’s goals at odds with each other often helps that spark show through. For example let’s say she works at and wants to run the B&B his aunt owns, and he wants to sell that B&B so that his aunt can take a break. Both goals are fine individually, but the clash between them will help put question marks around the relationship.
I also look for ways their personalities might clash, might rub up against each other for those fun sparks. For example, if he’s a charmer he values having a good time with a variety of people, but if she’s a librarian, maybe she’s more about family, hearth, and home. That can set up an interesting dynamic between characters.
Next from the Archetypes book is looking for ways the H/H mesh. What foundation of common ground can they build their relationship on in the first place. Following the charmer/librarian example, maybe they both tend to keep part of themselves back. They could recognize that in each other, and appreciate it when they share those parts with each other. Or, in that B&B situation, they both agree that his aunt needs to take it more easy and once they’re on the same page, work together to figure it out (until the black moment of course).
Part of finding that special someone is that you find someone who knows everything about you and loves all the parts of you–easy and hard. At the same time, a relationship is special (to me at least) when it’s about compromise and how the other person changes you (in a good way).
For example, the charmer might learn to look beneath the surface with the librarian because he has to in order to figure her out. And he loves what he finds! And the librarian learns that, with him at least, she’s happy to be coaxed out of her hole and enjoy adventure in ways she wouldn’t otherwise.
Along with how they mesh, this is important to how they will work together at the end. The reader has to believe that once they reach the HEA, nothing will ever pull these two apart again.
WHAT’S ATTRACTIVE IN THE OTHER
I love to find elements in both characters that the other, in particular, will find attractive. This includes both physically and personality wise.
For the physical – Don’t go for the cliche “tall, dark, and handsome” because every other person would see that too. What if you had the heroine (or other hero) notice his capable hands, or a small scar over his eye that he got protecting his niece from a dog? Put a story behind those elements and have the characters share that story with each other, building that connection further.
For the personality – This will take the other character paying attention and even digging to find elements that they find fascinating/important/interesting/relatable. Maybe the charmer’s kindness isn’t obvious until he helps a baby bird? And the librarian values kindness after being raised by unkind parents. Tie these elements to something important to the other person. Something they would notice because of who they are, too.
USE THE STAGES OF INTIMACY
A myth in today’s society is that sex=intimacy. In a world of swipe right, that is certainly not true. True intimacy is built through knowing and accepting the other person. Physical touch means so much more because of that.
In a sweet romance, the focus is the same. Building that connection and that true intimacy over the course of the story. The reader knows without having to witness those more private/intimate physical moments that this couple is meant to be together. There is a ton of tension to be found in a longing stare (Oh, Mr. Darcy!) or a hand brush if done the right way.
One of the ways I work though this is by using 8 of the 12 stages of intimacy as building bricks. An author can layer the development of the emotional relationship with small physical signs that are still sweet.
- Eye to body. You notice the person. You are interested.
- Eye to eye. Your eyes meet. You notice each other. You are interested in each other. Lovely tense stares fit well here.
- Voice to voice. You talk. You call. You text. You email. This should be a pretty long stage. You start emotionally bonding. (Sharing who you are underneath!)
- Hand to hand. You hold hands. It may be accidental touch that is kept in contact or deliberate.
- Hand to shoulder. You put your arm around a shoulder, or squeeze a shoulder. Do this in public, or as a casually easy moment and you build that tension even more!
- Hand to waist. Your arms around each other’s waist or a hand to the lower back is also lovely. You know this person about as well as you know your best friend, let them close enough to touch you this way, and you like what you know.
- Face to face. You hug and kiss. You start physically bonding which is an extension of the emotional bond you have taken time to establish. (In sweet, the kisses here will vary in wording and intensity depending on the level of sweetness.)
- Hand to head. You run your fingers through their hair. They cradle your face. You stroke their face. This shows a deepening trust.
The last 4 stages happen in steamy but not in sweet romance.
For me the breath-stealing part of romance happens in the anticipation and each new step the couple takes toward their HEA so that the reader gives a great happy sigh at the end when it’s reached. Find that connection and the tension and build on those step by step and the romance will sing!