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!

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Steam and Simmer, Part One: The Line


Last Friday at LDStorymakers I taught a class called, “Steam and Simmer: Writing Sexual Tension without Crossing the Line.” The topic was so popular and the room so small that they asked me to teach it again on Saturday. But the only time they had an open room just happened to be the same time Brandon Sanderson was teaching his plotting class. By virtue of the fact that he’s a genius, Brandon Sanderson happens to be a much stronger draw than I am. So I’m guessing several people who missed my class the first day missed it again because they were there (or unconscious in a corner somewhere, as it was the last hour of the conference and most of us were running on fumes).

People were asking for notes from the class, 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) and post it here.

Let’s get into it.

To accurately discuss the topic of “How to Write Sexual Tension without Crossing the Line”, I strongly feel the need to address the question of “the line.” What is it? Where is it?

Since this is a sensitive topic and has less to do with constructive writing advice and more to do with a theological discussion, I’m not linking it directly to any Storymakers sites. However, it was in my presentation, so I wanted to include it here.

I’m going to kick this off by reminding you all that I taught this class at LDStorymakers, which is a conference begun by and still largely attended by LDS (Mormon) authors (though all are welcome). The members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints think of sex as a supremely sacred act, and as such, it should only be shared with one’s spouse. So when I talk about “the line,” that’s where I’m coming from. A place where sex is sacred and where the portrayal of it can be a sensitive issue. After all, no matter how out there I seem the more conservative members of my faith, I am LDS.

So, what and where where is “the line?”

“What?” is easy. The line is the place where it becomes inappropriate to portray the physical goings on between two people.

“Where?” is a little more complex. A lot of us, including me, wrestle with what is and isn’t appropriate to include in a novel, let alone show.

First, consider your audience. What age group are you writing for? Who, specifically? Is your audience LDS or are you writing for a mainstream market? Covenant Communications and Deseret Book have extremely strict guidelines about what sort of physical intimacy they will and will not include in the books they publish. Mainstream publishers, not so much.

Also, you shouldn’t labor under the assumption that people will know you’re writing clean novels because you write YA. Plenty of YA novels include explicit sexual situations.

Second, consider your comfort zone. Remember, you write for you. Sometimes agents (not mine, she’s wonderful) and publishers try to push authors into including more explicit material than they’re comfortable with. Don’t give in.

Conversely, sometimes readers can be a little judgmental, especially when they find out an author is LDS. Some people in the church confuse “sacred” with “dirty.” But this way of thinking has its own pitfalls. I have more than a few friends who’ve had difficult times in their marriages because no one ever told them it’s okay to enjoy sex and that they should. Some people are so focused on preventing sex before marriage that no one got around to telling them how great it can be after. Some of these same friends happened to read a book with a sex scene that was so beautiful and spiritually moving that it vastly improved their marriage. To me, that says books that include sex scenes are not smut across the board. You may or may not agree.

Which brings me to my final thought on the location of “the line.” It’s highly personal and varies widely. Certain consideration must be given to the artistic expression of real-life relationships (which may include sex) because writing fiction is art and we want to portray things as genuinely as we can. However, don’t make excuses to go against the morals by which you live. What you write comes down to you and God. If you’re conflicted, pray about it. When you get your answer, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. In my opinion, the only wrong thing you can do in this situation is judge someone else’s morality by your personal line.

Now, onto more practical advice. Later tonight I plan to compile a post on the difference between sexual and romantic tension and then give some broad advice about writing romance. Following that, I’ll put up a post about sexual tension on a micro level (within the scene itself) and then on a macro-level. Then possibly some thoughts on how romantic and sexual tension can intertwine. As I put up more posts, I’ll put links on the bottom for easy navigation. I hope you enjoy!

Part Two: Romantic Tension

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It’s Been Awhile

Hey guys.

A few new things have happened since, you know, December. Mostly I’ve just been hanging out, parenting, and writing. I did start this thing where I assign myself a specific room of my house to clean for each day of the week. For the first time in my life, I don’t have to block the sight of my living room from people who show up at my front door unexpectedly. So that’s nice.

If you missed it, I also hung my shingle as a developmental editor/writing teacher/consultant. I have ambitions to make a career out of it (or half a career, since I do love writing my own books), and I’ve heard I’m pretty good, so if you’re interested, check it out here.

In other news, I attended the LDStorymakers writing conference this weekend. YAY! It is without a doubt my absolute favorite weekend of the year. This was the first time I’ve gone as a published author, and some awesome things happened. First, I got to teach. Second, I got to hang out for writers with three days straight and see friends I only get to see once a year at this conference. Third, I got to meet my amazing agent, Marlene Stringer, for the first time ever! And I got to meet more of the talented authors she represents! It was really fun.

Also, Truth of Embers was a finalist in the Adult Spec Fic category of the Whitney Awards! The coolest thing about that was that I was competing directly against authors like Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells. I ultimately lost to Dan Wells (I’d shake my fist at him, but I’d rather stay on his good side), but just being in the mix was an honor and I’m grateful.

On Friday, I taught a class called, “Steam and Simmer: Writing Sexual Tension without Crossing the Line.” The topic was so popular and the room so small that they asked me to teach it again on Saturday. But the only time they had an open room just happened to be the same time Brandon Sanderson was teaching his plotting class. By virtue of the fact that he’s a genius, Brandon Sanderson happens to be a much stronger draw than I am. So I’m guessing several people who missed my class the first day missed it again because they were there (or unconscious in a corner somewhere, as it was the last hour of the conference and most of us were running on fumes).

People were asking for notes from the class, 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) and post it here.

Since I’m not looking to make this The Longest Blog Post Ever, I thought I’d split the class into a mini-series of posts relating to the topics I covered in class. So, for the next few days, that’s what I’m going to focus on.

I hope you enjoy!



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I consider myself a fantasy writer. But secretly, all the wars, politics, power struggles, heartache, and death in my stories mostly exist so that my characters have adequate circumstances to overcome before they fall in love.

love disney romantic dinner lady and the tramp

Mmm. I would share spaghetti with you, fictional men that I make up in my own head.

And also learn things about themselves. That’s important, too.


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The End

Today was the day, guys. Today, I sent off the last version of the manuscript of Truth of Embers I get to see before it’s all formatted and finalized. About time, too, since the book is supposed to come out on December 14th!

It’s been kind of a crazy year. When I told my agent that I could handle writing two books in a year (plus editing both of them AND the first book) I had no idea how hard it was going to be–mostly due to the fact that I’m also the full-time mother of three kids. I think books one and two turned out all right. Let’s all cross our fingers for book three, which I had less time with due to editing both books one and two while I was supposed to be writing it. Still, I think I nailed the ending. I like it, anyway.

…more or less.

I love these characters. Yeah, they’re imaginary, but they’ve become so real to me. I’m so excited for the print version of Soul of Smoke to come out this December. Also, I found out that Shadow of Flame is slated for print in February 2016. At the moment, both books are only going to be available through Harlequin’s subscription program and I *think* directly from their website–so you won’t be able to get it on Amazon. I get a whole box of each though, so stay tuned for giveaways! I’m not sure yet if Truth of Embers will make it to print, but I’ll keep you updated on that, as well.

Anyway, I wanted to say more, but my brain is kind of fried. Today Soul of Smoke and Shadow of Flame are Kindle Daily Deals ($0.99 each for a few more hours!) and I feel like I’ve spent most of my day on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram trying to tell people about it.


Oh! Another thing. My friends and I are hosting a critique partner matchmaking event. Here’s a post–an updated version of one I wrote last year–telling you why you need a CP even if your sister/spouse/friend is an English major. That’s also something I worked on today. If you’re a writer without a CP, you should definitely check it out!

Here’s a question for you guys: now that the Dragonsworn trilogy is out there (or will be, in December), do you have any questions? Would you like to see more of that world? Short stories? Deleted scenes? More information? I’m always looking for material for blog posts, so I’d be happy to talk about any of that! In the meantime, I suppose I’m on to my next project, which is set in an enchanted forest. I’m pretty excited.

forest fog nature sky tree

Goodbye for now, dragon friends. May the wind carry you well.

Drogon dragon

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First ever Soul of Smoke fanart!

SO. I don’t know how many of you know this, but secretly one of the reasons I was so excited to get a book was that I suck as an artist and was hoping some awesome arty person would come along and love my books enough to create fanart. Because fanart is AMAZING.

I was messaging my friend, the amazing LT Elliot, about my dreams (she’s one of my favorite readers, a fantastic writer, and an amazing critique partner). She went quiet for a while and then messaged me THIS GLORIOUS THING. You might not get it if you haven’t read Soul of Smoke (What are you thinking? Here’s the link. You’re welcome.), but if you have, it’s hilarious.


Laura's dragon comic

Thanks LT!!

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How I Write Books

The story of my process told mostly in gifs.

First draft

Immediately veer off of outline. Write events, plot, dialogue. Things are out of order or don’t make sense. Drop/don’t develop minor plot threads. Overall, though, the story is there, even if it’s skeletal. Think, “Hey, I’ve got this.”

skeleton animated GIF

Second draft

Shove in ALL the backstory and do any major plot overhauling. Stuff in details and setting until draft is bloated and lumpy. Nothing flows. Think, “I hate everything because I suck.”

food animated GIF

This is both my draft and me.

Third draft

Pick apart the prose, smooth transitions so scenes work together. Add depth to emotion. Think, “This book is flawed, but I like it.”

supernatural animated GIF

I know what I’m doing. *hysterical laugh*

Fourth draft

Polish and add tiny details. Decide I need to go over it like five more times. Procrastinate because of burn out and barely have time to go over it once. Think, “This book is ONLY flaws.”

frustrated animated GIF

*incoherent weeping*

Finally, editors are like:

reaction animated GIF


Send in manuscript. Cry because I’ve survived writing another book.

Clean house. Color and binge-watch TV. Willfully forget I ever decided to be a writer in the first place. Attempt to tweet/Instagram/blog about book so as not to utterly disappoint agent.


Hide from the world.

Also: almost throw up every time someone posts a review. Obsessively check Goodreads for new ratings. Hate and love the story by turns. Make a decision.

Supernatural Spn animated GIF

Come across shiny idea.

other animated GIF


Immediately start new book.

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