Steam and Simmer, Part Two: Romantic Tension

The recap:

I taught a class at LDStorymakers 2016 called, “Steam and Simmer: Writing Sexual Tension without Crossing the Line.” People asked for notes from the class or for me to post my power point for download, but I thought it might be better for me to convert my power point into something a little more coherent (considering they would not also be able to download me to explain it). 

To see Part One and my thoughts on “the line,” go here. WARNING: that post is more of a theoretical discussion about whether or not it’s okay for LDS writers to include sex in fiction and not so much practical writing advice. For that, keep reading this post.

In this post, I’m going to briefly address the difference between romantic and sexual tension, then sort of broadly address romance. Don’t worry, the nitty-gritty of sexual tension is coming soon, but they’re so intertwined I couldn’t leave romance out completely.

Okay, so let’s talk about the difference between romantic and sexual tension. Here’s how I see it.

Romantic tension is any tension that comes from the emotions/emotional conflict between your romantically involved characters.

Sexual tension is any tension that comes from these characters’ physical interactions.


So let’s look just a little bit at how to build romantic tension. I’m not going to go too in-depth, but here are just a couple of important things I mentioned in class that I think you should keep in mind when you’re writing:

1. Well-rounded characters are the foundation of every good romance.

You can do a Google search and find a ton of articles about developing characters or go to the library and check out multiple books on the topic, so I’m not going to address how it’s done here. I’m just going to give you a few thoughts about character in relation to romance.

First, readers must be able to emotionally invest in your characters. If they aren’t invested, they won’t care about anything that happens to them–including whether or not they end up with their soul mate.

Second, both romantically involved characters (or three, if you have a love triangle) should be well-rounded as individuals. Their strengths and weaknesses should complement each other, and they should each have a strong arc that intertwines with the romantic plot at key intervals.

For example, these characters I just now made up. This situation would come later in the book, after the characters are basically in love with each other and ready to commit. Also, sorry if it’s cliché. It wasn’t part of my original presentation and I made it up as I went along.

Sophia’s mother has worn down her self-esteem for years. Then she meets James. James helps build Sophia up, and Sophia, through her relationship with James and her own efforts, starts to understand her true value. Finally, she stands up to her mother. But it goes badly and her mom embarrasses by making a scene at huge family dinner. Broken down and in desperate need of reassurances, Sophia gets in her car and heads for James’s house, struggling to see the road through her tears…

James is on the run from a sordid past. He left it behind, but doesn’t think he can be the man his parents wanted him so desperately to be (they died within a year of each other two years ago, never knowing he was turning his life around). Sophia has brought life to a life he thought was dark forever. After last night, when they hiked up to a waterfall and took a midnight swim, James has decided he’s in love with her. He’s going to tell her after her family dinner. Someone knocks on the door. Thinking it’s Sophia, he answers. Instead, Jill barges in. She’s on the run from the police for murdering a couple in a robbery gone wrong. The police are closing in on her, and she’s found James after two, long years, she’s got a gun, and her clothes are covered in blood…

Sophia arrives at James’s house and knocks on the door. He answers, looking guilty and stressed. He tries to keep her out. It hurts. She needs him, but he won’t stop being elusive. Finally, grasping at the bruised remains of her new-found confidence, Sophia shoves her way in. A gorgeous woman comes out of the bathroom. Her hair is wet, and she’s wearing James’s shirt and nothing else. 

James panics. If Jill knows how he feels for Sophia, she might take her hostage. Putting on his best sneer, he gets rid of Sophia as quickly as possible by shutting her down with a few perfectly-placed insults.  Saying the terrible things he says makes him sick to his stomach. When he sees Jill reach for her gun, he grabs Sophia by the arm and physically pushes her out of his house. She stumbles, but he slams the door on her. He turns to face Jill, who looks disgusted and tells him that she knew from the moment she walked in that he’s the same scumbag he was two years before.

So here we have the characters’ pasts (Sophia’s terrible mother and James’s shady, potentially criminal activities) and weaknesses (Sophia’s self-esteem and James’s conviction that he can’t be a good person) come into conflict with the romance right when they were about to live happily ever after. Hopefully this will have readers freaking out and flipping pages. Because now, even though we all know that romances generally end in happily ever after, we have no idea how these two are going to get there. All of these things would build tension on their own, but by intertwining them, the urgency readers feel becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Look to good contemporary romance writers for more examples of this, even if you’re writing romance as a subplot, because this is something they do all the time.

2. Build a nice, high wall between your characters.

The more insurmountable the obstacle that keeps the characters apart, the greater the tension.

I’ve noticed that walls–like all conflicts–come in two types: internal and external.

Let’s expand on the example above and talk about internal walls. Let’s say that Sophia met James when her outgoing best friend, Emma, convinced her to sign up for sky diving class. James is the instructor. He thinks Sophia is cute and flirts with her, but because Sophia’s self-esteem is so low, she’s convinced that guys only flirt with her to mock her. She shuts him down. For the duration of the story, Sofia’s low self-esteem is a wall they have to climb if they’re ever going to be together.

Other examples of internal walls include situations like an MC’s parents constantly divorcing, causing her not to believe in love. Or a main character who has been controlled by his mother for years, and now he’s paranoid that his girlfriend is trying to do the same.

Internal walls are fairly common in Contemporary Romance, but I know a lot of us write romance as a subplot in novels where the main genre is fantasy, sci-fi, historical, suspense, etc. When you have “romance plus” (meaning romance plus another genre) the “wall” is often external. For example, in Romeo and Juliet (which, okay, was a contemporary when it was written), the wall is their families’ blood feud. In Twilight, the wall is that Bella smells delicious and Edward wants to eat her. In The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, the wall is that the ruler of the MC’s city has killed her best friend, and she has sworn to kill him in revenge (that’s a pretty dang awesome wall, isn’t it? Highly recommend that book to anyone who likes YA fantasy).

The best walls force the characters not only to overcome differences, but to dig deep and fundamentally change who they are for the better. They force the characters to search their soul, examine everything they thought they knew, get rid of deep-seated biases, or forgive hurt so deep that forgiveness itself is gut-wrenchingly painful. A good wall doesn’t just cause tension, it drives change and results in an emotionally satisfying arc for each of the characters.

So much more could be said about romance, but that’s what I’ve got for now. Your homework? Look at your story and ask yourself three things.

  1. Are my characters complete people outside of the romantic plot?
  2. Does their personal growth intersect with the romance in meaningful ways?
  3. Is my wall high enough to drive both romantic tension and character growth?

Thanks for reading! For Part Three: Sexual Tension, go here!

About Caitlyn McFarland

Mom of three girls, writer of fantasy novels.
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2 Responses to Steam and Simmer, Part Two: Romantic Tension

  1. Pingback: Steam and Simmer, Part One: The Line | Caitlyn H. McFarland

  2. Pingback: Steam and Simmer, Part Three: Sexual Tension | Caitlyn H. McFarland

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