Some Write it Hot (Or, How to Make Your Editor Blush)
I read a lot. For work, for fun, and sometimes, just because it’s there (hello, cereal boxes!). But I can count on one hand the number of times a manuscript made has me blush. Romantic subplots are hard to do, despite being a fantasy staple. The lines between saccharine and sweet and sexy and crude are razor thin, and too often romance is thrown into a book haphazardly like a bit of spice, without first building up the proper heat to let the flavors sing. And even if your sexy scene is comfortably toasty, making the tension fierce enough to steam up the glasses of an experienced editor is something else entirely. But if you can make an editor blush? Then you can make anyone blush.
The key to a sizzling romantic subplot lies in the foundations of strong writing: evocative descriptions, sound climactic structure, and characters that don’t open their mouths and ruin the moment. But, of course, applying these techniques to one of humanity’s most controversial and central themes is no easy task. Here are a few tips to help you turn up the heat.
Love the Way You List
“O, sir, I will not be so hard-hearted; I will give out divers schedules of my beauty: it shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labelled to my will: as, item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth. Were you sent hither to praise me?”—Olivia, laying the smack-down in Twelfth Night, by Shakespeare
This bit by Olivia always cracks me up. But it perfectly hits upon the point: a collection of statistics does not a beautiful woman make. Helen of Troy we know was beautiful because her face launched a thousand ships--and face with that kind of a naval effect has to be beautiful. But your characters don’t need to incite WWIII for us to find them attractive. It’s enough to show their effect on others. If others find a character attractive, your reader is likely to find them attractive. As an added bonus, delving into their attraction and interaction gives you a chance to shed light on both characters.
The Take-Away: Don’t list someone’s attributes to make them attractive. A slender blonde with long eyelashes, longer legs, and crimson lips is easily forgotten. Even adding a more interesting word for red would be helpful—are they the color of blood? Are they crayon red?—as it adds character by association. If you really want to turn up the heat, focus on the sensations, feelings, and reactions of other people when they come across your character.
Touchin On My (Structure)
But to Farideh, he looked like sin. He looked like want. He looked like all the thoughts she couldn’t let herself have, bundled up in a skin and watching her drip snowmelt on the floor.
Handsome was a paltry word for him. Tiefling, human, or anything else—boys didn’t look like this. Boys didn’t make her feel as if someone were pulling seams loose inside her. He smiled, and his teeth were so like hers—even but for the sharp points of his canines that were too large by human standards, and pitiable by dragonborn. She had never thought so looking at her own teeth, but the devil’s looked like a wolf’s. Like something ready to take a bite of her.
Is it just me, or is it getting hot in here? Without even showing us what he looks like (that was in the previous paragraph), this steamy little section is enough to get more than a few readers loosening their buttons. Aside from her effortless use of metaphors and similes, and her focus on the effects of the devil on Farideh, Erin M. Evans does one more thing that turns this from being merely informative into a fiercely sexy, blush-inducing scene: she uses structure. By playing with the structure, length, and focus of each sentence, she is able to not only mimic the sensations and feelings of attraction, she is able to also mimic her self-restrained character’s loss of self-control.
Here, Farideh’s reactions to the devil in the room—and his reflection of her need—take center stage. She starts by using short, tightly controlled sentences that punctuate her loss of self control, one forbidden thing at a time. As she slowly loses control, the sentences grow longer and more intensely introverted, thickening the sexual tension. You can see her character’s frustration and restraint in her inability to even think the word “man.” The focus on teeth brings our attention to their lips and how she feels both drawn to him and set apart with him. The move to an aggressive, suspenseful verb brings the paragraph to a climax—and results in her dropping a book. A real, physical reaction, and the perfect loss of self-control.
The Take-Away: Think about the reasons behind an attraction, as well as its manifestation. Then, think about how you can use the structure of your sentences and the scene to reflect that. In some cases, like this one, in which a character is experiencing her first real feelings of attraction and in which the feelings of attraction must break through her self-restraint, structuring it like a mini-climactic scene is very effective.
Tonight (I’m Describing You)
“She sighed, then leaned back into him. His arms wrapped around her slender form without conscious direction. Her scent overwhelmed him, and her warmth brought blood to his face. He rested his chin on her damp hair.”—Japheth experiencing acceptance for the first time in City of Torment, Bruce R. Cordell
When you are attracted to someone, it is not merely a visual registration of attractiveness, it is a full-on sensory experience. Time slows down, and all of your senses are heightened. You are mesmerized by the most mundane of details you might not even notice on a normal occasion—as though you are trying to memorize every breath of that perfect moment. Writing a properly steamy scene means embracing that level of detailed, trancelike sensory overload while avoiding the temptation to write crudely.
What I love about this scene from City of Torment is that it not only embraces that sensory story—I’m keen on the damp hair in particular—it also tells us a lot about their relationship by what he chooses to describe. When woman sighs and leans back into him to start the action, it speaks of his yearning for acceptance and of his respect for her. When he rests his chin on her damp hair, it tells you he craves intimacy, with the bonus of giving you the sensation of wet hair on your chin. This concentration on the emotion behind the moment keeps the exchange sweet, vulnerable, and very human. Rather than a conquest or aerobic activity, this is a truly romantic scene—and hot, because of it.
The Take-Away: Use evocative description writing techniques when writing a romantic scene, thinking about every sense. Think about what you notice when time stops in the embrace of a loved one—be it damp hair, the feathery feel of eyelashes, or the peachy scent of someone’s shampoo. In addition, think about things like who would make the first move, and whether someone is more attracted to the intimacy of someone freshly clean and smelling of shampoo—or the glided glamour they evoke when dressed to the nines. That way, your sexiest scenes can double as informational scenes.
For practice building a romance, check out my list of 52 Writing Exercises, inspired by some of my favorite books. There are a number of exercises in there specifically focused on writing romantic scenes. Choose one or two, and try writing a scene that would curl any editor's toes, keeping in mind all of the tips listed above.