(First published in Hearts Talk
magazine in April 2000)
We all know the importance of a
sizzling love scene. The annual Love Scene competition reminds us that these
scenes are vital to a great romance story and often stay with the reader long
after the book is set aside.
But what I want to focus on in
this article is the need to create sensual/sexual tension throughout the
entire novel and not just in the all important love scene.
No matter which line you are
targeting, romance novels must make the reader aware of the underlying sensual
tension almost from the first page. It's probably the most important element
that keeps your reader captive - turning the pages - spellbound!
I was reminded of this the other
day when I was listening to a very special piece of music. Edward Elgar's
Enigma Variations was playing on the radio. About two thirds of the way
through this orchestral piece there is a very beautiful and moving moment - the
music is well known, extremely romantic and emotive and often brings me close to
tears. (It was used to great effect in the movie Elizabeth.)
To my mind, this musical moment is
very much like a particularly touching, emotional and pivotal moment in a
romance novel - the part we're all hanging out for. But what Elgar does, leading
up to and away from this moment, is to tease our sense of hearing with
tantalising little hints of that beautiful melody, so that we long to hear its
entirety. He gives us just a few notes here, a phrase there and we think - oh,
it's that beautiful tune - I can't wait to hear the whole thing!
Sometimes he gives us a brief
taste of the melody played by a single instrument like a violin; sometimes it's
a cheeky, upbeat, almost unrecognisable version played by the brass section. It
becomes wistful at times, at others triumphant; but it's never the entire melody
- just enough to keep us hanging out for the BIG MOMENT. Finally we hear the
complete melody played by the full orchestra at its most moving and stirring.
This composer has created a
brilliant musical example of sensual tension!
We can draw parallels in our
writing. Readers of romance novels know that down the track in a good romance
there will be a BIG MOMENT. Emotionally charged and beautiful, this moment often
comes close to the end of the novel. It might make the reader cry or just go
"gooey". I sometimes feel a delicious physical pain, especially in my arms, when
I read such moments in my favourite books.
But to get our readers to that
point and to make that moment even more effective, we have to build up the
intensity of the readers' feelings from early in the book by never letting them
forget the very real sense of tension zinging between our characters.
We have to keep teasing our
readers, giving them little glimpses of the characters' feelings, showing in
every way we can that, while there seems to be too much conflict keeping the
hero and heroine apart, this couple are hot and if you hang around, you'll be
In many ways an entire how-to book
could be delegated to this topic, because all elements of the novel (characters,
motivation, conflict and pacing) contribute to successful sensual tension.
* The tension won't seem real
unless it is backed by a well thought out conflict.
* The tension won't be believable
unless the characters' motivations are made clear.
* The readers won't care about the
tension if the characters aren't likeable.
* The tension will either
dissipate or become unbearable if the pacing isn't carefully controlled.
I don't have time in this article
to explore all those points, so what I want to concentrate on now is what I call
"the almosts" - a concept that Julia Roberts took to extremes in the movie
Runaway Bride by almost getting married and then dashing from the altar -
four times. It's the same technique Elgar used by never letting us hear the
whole tune, but veering off on a different tack after giving just a few notes.
I'm referring to all those moments
in a romance when the hero and heroine almost say something, when they almost
touch, or almost kiss, almost walk towards each other, almost make love... but
because of the underlying conflict, they hold back at the last minute.
Sensual tension can be
delivered through dialogue "almosts" in many ways - in the stammered or broken
sentences that reveal underlying strain or the heated sparring between hero and
heroine, or when they almost say sorry, or almost call out, "Come back!" We all
enjoy the verbal games played by a hero and heroine, who are desperately trying
to deny their attraction. Sometimes, what the characters don't say can reveal
just as much about their feelings as what they do say. This can be particularly
effective if the reader is privy to those feelings and is rooting on the
sideline: "Go on, tell him now!"
Of course the book can become a
wall-banger if this device is overdone or if the reasons (characters'
motivations) for holding back are not believable.
Another trick is to provide
internal thoughts that contradict what the character is saying. This can alert
the reader to a tense situation. A heroine might tell the hero he "has as much
sex appeal as frog's droppings", but the reader knows that only minutes earlier
she had trouble keeping her eyes off him. Again, there must always be good
reasons why she is being offensive. Does she mistrust him? Has he hurt her in
Body language can be a very
effective way of showing sexual tension. There are the familiar clichés like the
heated glance, the blush, the clenched jaw and freezing when touched, and while
the challenge is always there for writers to invent new ways of showing tension
through body language, these well known images convey underlying tension in a
kind of romance shorthand. Like the contradictory thoughts, it can be
particularly effective to make your character's action contradict his or her
words. For example, the hero might claim loudly and clearly that he's unaffected
by the heroine's proximity, while drumming his fingers on the desk or balling
But perhaps the most effective of
the almosts are to do with touch. Coming so close to touching, kissing,
consummating physical desire, but not quite completing the action creates
wonderful tension. It can be done on a micro-scale within a scene or on a bigger
scale over the whole novel, where the "almosts" become more significant, and
more tension-building as the plot unfolds.
If a couple do kiss or make love
early in the novel, the underlying conflict needs to be reasserted, so that
plenty of tension resumes.
As the plot unfolds, tension is
best maintained by having the protagonist (usually the heroine in a romance)
appear to be falling back further and further from her goal. For the reader, the
goal is to get this couple together for the happy-ever-after ending. So great
sensual tension can be achieved by ending a scene or a chapter with yet another
moment that makes the desired outcome seem impossible - or almost impossible.
Now the "almost" technique comes
with a WARNING. Obviously these ideas need to be used sparingly. Anything that's
overdone loses its effectiveness.
To return to Elgar's Enigma
Variations - in between the tantalising snippets of the main theme, he provides
other pleasing music, so that on occasions we can almost forget we're waiting
for the central melody. But then, when we least expect it, there's that snippet
of tune again, reminding us of what is to come and heightening our sense of
And this is what we must do -
through dialogue and body language, through introspection and action, we must
never let our readers forget that, in spite of the conflicts keeping hero and
heroine apart and the larger than life issues they are dealing with, they are
also experiencing an overwhelming, startling, once in a lifetime passion and
their BIG MOMENT will come.
All articles copyright
© Barbara Hannay,
not to be reproduced without permission.