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.