Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that I am addicted to romance. I suppose that’s not as bad as being addicted to Twinkies or Ho Hos because at least it won’t slap extra pounds on my hips. But it does compel me to hunt down romance in every conceivable form like a heat-seeking missile. Books, movies, date night with my husband or just getting a “fix” by writing my own romantic novel—to me, it’s all good.
And God help me, I don’t think there’s anything I love more than writing romantic tension. Every writer has their own style, of course, but being a drama queen, I tend away from subtle and sweet to that heart-pounding, breath-halting emotional tension that, for me, sets the page on fire. I suppose you could label me a romance arsonist because you see, as an edgy Inspirational author, it is my goal in life to set the reader on fire—both for God and for romance.
So recently, when I had several people express an interest in learning how I create romantic tension in my books, I had to sit down and really think about it. And what came to mind for me is drama – “raising the stakes,” as Donald Maas taught me in his excellent novel, Writing the Breakout Novel. Taking normal, loving characters and ratcheting up their emotions to the next level with dramatic situations that push them to the extreme. Upping the ante, if you will, by infusing the page with emotions and words that escalate the heartbeat, cause the breath to still in your throat.
Now, every writer has their own methods of adding romantic tension, but how do I like to do it? Well, one of my favorite ways is with ANGER, because let’s face it—nothing is more tense than anger! Following is a scene from the third book in The Daughters of Boston series, A Passion Denied, which releases May 1st. In this scene, we have the mother and father, Marcy and Patrick, who, by the way, have the best marriage on the planet, in a tense fight scene that is almost foreign to their characters (i.e. raising the stakes to the next level). Not only do I utilize gruff action to build the tension, but at the end of the scene, I use short, bullet-fire dialogue to escalate it even more.
She was met with a cool blast of air when he snatched the covers from her body and flipped on the light. “Get up, darlin’, I’d like to hear all about your evening.”
Marcy sat up and put a hand to her eyes, squinting at the blinding light. “Patrick, have you been drinking?”
His laugh was not kind. “Yes, Marcy, I have. A man will often do that when he learns his wife has been unfaithful.”
She pressed back against the headboard, alarmed at the brutal look in his eyes. “That’s a lie! I have never been unfaithful.”
“Not physically, I’m sure.” His look pierced her to the core. “At least, not until tonight.”
Fear paralyzed her. “I fought him off, Patrick, I swear I did. He’s a liar.”
“Funny, he said the same about you.”
He took a step forward, and she cowered back. Her husband had never laid a cruel hand on her. But this man was not her husband. “Patrick, you’re tired, and you’ve been drinking. Come to bed, and we’ll discuss it in the morning.”
“Did you kiss him?”
“No, of course not!”
“Did he kiss you?”
She gasped for breath.
He gripped her arm and shook her. “Answer me!”
His eyes glittered like ice. “Well, Mrs. O’Connor, and how do I compare?”
Another way I like to create romantic tension is through the element of SURPRISE. Have the characters do something unexpected that jolts the reader as much as it does the character it’s happening to. Here is a scene from my current WIP, Refuge From the Storm, which is Katie O’Connor’s story, the fourth daughter in The Daughters of Boston series. I tried to build tension by implementing surprise with a touch of humor.
He nudged her chin up with his thumb, and her lips parted with a sharp intake of breath. And then he saw it. The gentle rise and fall of her chest, the soft rose in her cheeks, the skittish look in her eyes, flitting to his lips and then quickly away. Comprehension suddenly oozed through him like heated honey purling through his veins, quickening his pulse. Could it be? Was it possible that cold, callous Katie O’Connor was beginning to warm up? To him, of all people—Cluny McGee, the leper from her past? The thought sent warm ripples of shock through his body, thinning the air in his lungs.
His gaze gentled, taking in the vulnerability in her eyes, the fear in her face, and all he wanted to do was hold her, reassure her. As if under a spell, his gaze was drawn to her lips, parted and full, and the sound of her shallow breathing filled him with a fierce longing. “Oh, Katie,” he whispered, no power over the pull he was suddenly feeling. In slow motion, he bent toward her, closing his eyes to caress her mouth with his own. A weak gasp escaped her as she stiffened, but he couldn’t relent. The taste of her lips was far more than he bargained for, and he drew her close with a raspy groan. With a fierce hold, he cupped the back of her neck and kissed her deeply, gently, possessive in his touch. His fingers twined in her hair, desperate to explore.
And then beyond his comprehension, her body melded to his with an answering groan, and he was shocked when her mouth rivaled his with equal demand. Desire licked through him, searing his body and then his conscience. With a heated shudder, he gripped her arms and pushed her back, his breathing ragged as he held her at bay. “We can’t do this,” he whispered. He dropped his hold and exhaled, gouging shaky fingers through disheveled hair. His gaze returned, capturing hers and riddled with regret. “Believe me, Katie, as much as I want to, I’ve learned the hard way to take things slow. I should have never started this, and I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
Forgive him? She stared at him through glazed eyes, her pulse still pumping in her veins at a ridiculous rate. She never wanted this, couldn’t stand the sight of him, and now here she was, tingling from his touch and desperate for more. Addicted to the “King of misery.” The very thought inflamed both fury and desire at the same time, muddling her mind. Dear Lord, she was torn between welding her lips to his or slapping him silly. With a tight press of her mouth, she opted for the second and smacked him clean across the face.
Of course, One of my favorite ways to escalate romantic tension is through INTERNAL MONOLOGUE, those deep, dark thoughts inside the characters’ minds that tell you they’re heading toward trouble. In my opinion, nothing builds tension better than internal monologue. Here is a scene from book 2 in The Daughters of Boston series, A Passion Redeemed, where the hero wants nothing to do with the heroine, but finds his defenses slipping as he helps her do the dishes. I start off in her POV and then switch to his to give the reader the impact of both of the character’s thoughts.
He moistened his lips, then slowly lifted his eyes to hers. “I need this.” His fingers skimmed across the towel on her shoulder, causing the air to still in her throat.
Dear God, what was happening? It was as if he had no control over his hand as it strayed from the towel to the soft curve of her neck. A tilt of her head, the blush of her cheeks, and suddenly he was two different men. One whose every muscle, thought and desire strained toward wanting her. The other, a distant voice of conscience and memory, quickly fading with every throb of his renegade pulse. Curse the effect of the wine! What else could explain this driving insanity pulsing through him right now? His fingers burned as they lingered, slowly tracing to the hollow of her throat. Against his will, he fixated on her lips, lush and full, staggered at the heat they generated. What was he doing? He didn’t want this.
Yes … he did.
All night he’d felt it mounting, a desire in his belly that grew tight at the sound of her laughter, the lift of her chin, the light in her eyes. A woman with cool confidence around everyone but him. Call it the wine. Or the fact he hadn’t been this close to a woman for well over a year. Or the intoxicating awareness that his very presence seemed to unnerve her. Whatever name it bore, it had him by the throat, taking him places he’d vowed he’d never be.
She blinked up at him, eyes wide and wondering. He was taking her by surprise and knew it. But no more so than him. He stared at her lips, feeling the draw and unwilling to fight it. His fingers moved up her throat to gently cup her chin, his eyes burning with intent. Slowly, carefully, he leaned forward, his mouth finally reaching hers, his breathing ragged as he tasted her lips.
A soft mew left her throat, and the sound ignited him. He pulled her close, his mouth demanding hers. She moaned while he pressed her to the counter, holding her there as he deepened the kiss. With a deep groan, his arms swallowed her up, drawing her small frame tightly against his. He pressed his lips to her hair, allowing her scent to flood his senses … to consume him.
Just like before.
His heart seized. What was he doing? The more he touched, the more he wanted. But she had ruined his life. Dashed his hopes. Destroyed his dreams. Dear God in Heaven, he wanted her … but he didn’t want her.
Now I know this will shock some POV purists out there, but I find that POV shifts within a scene are an effective way to escalate tension. To me, there’s something compelling about being inside the hero’s mind, then immediately switching to the heroine’s reaction. Here is a scene from A Passion Denied that relates what the hero is feeling but doesn’t want the heroine to know he is feeling, then switches to reveal the heroine’s reaction. Brady is teaching Lizzie how to fish with a rod and reel.
He put the rod in her right hand, then circled her from behind. He grasped his hands over hers. All at once, the scent of her hair and the nearness of her body distracted him, sending a jolt of heat searing through him. He fought it off, chewing on his lip as he forced himself to concentrate on the casting. “Okay, you hold the rod here, then release the button, then lift the rod like this …” His arm gently guided hers up and out, landing the lure in a perfect cast that rippled across the water.
“I did it!” she cried.
“Yes, you did. Now press the button release again so you don’t lose your line.”
She notched the button and turned, her face flushed a delicate shade of excitement. With a giggle, she threw herself into his arms, almost gouging his eye with her rod as she hugged.
He closed his eyes and swallowed the lump in his throat.
“Oh, Brady, this is so much fun! Can I do it again?” She pulled away and stared up. Her violet eyes brimmed with excitement.
He smiled, and then his gaze dropped to her full lips, forcing the breath to congeal in his lungs. He cleared his throat and stepped back. “Sure, Beth, you try it this time.”
Lizzie blinked, feeling a flutter in her stomach. What on earth just happened? One minute Brady was teaching her how to cast, and the next … She spun around to hide the heat that crept in her face and quickly swallowed her shock, desperate to focus on the rod in her hands. But his eyes … sweet saints, they’d had the same dreamy quality she’d seen in Michael’s, a kind of half-lidded stare that settled on her mouth, causing her heart to stop. She drew in a ragged breath and steeled her jaw. No! It was nothing more than her imagination, playing cruel tricks on her. “Focus, Lizzie,” she muttered under her breath, squinting at the lake as she swung the rod. The lure plopped into the water with shocking precision. Her lips flattened in grim satisfaction. Good! Maybe I can hook some fish, if nothing else.
And, as with all writing, I find that strong, dramatic verbs are a must to conveying tension of any kind. Whenever I write a tense scene, I literally pour over my literary Bible, The Synonym Finder, by J.A. Rodale, to come up with the most powerful verbs I can. Here is a scene from A Passion Redeemed in which the hero realizes he’s falling for a woman he doesn’t want to fall in love with. Uh, you think he’s ticked?
He wheeled around and bludgeoned his way through the crowd, riling customers on his way out. Outside, the bitter cold assailed him, tinged with the smells of burning peat and the slight whiff of horses. He could hear the faint sound of laughter and singing drifting from the various pubs tucked along the cobblestone road. His anger swelled.
He hurled his car door open and tossed the bottle on the passenger seat. Mumbling under his breath, he rounded the vehicle to rotate the crank, gyrating the lever with such ferocity that it rattled unmercifully. The engine growled to life, its vicious roar rivaling the angst in his gut. He got in the car and slammed the door, slapping the headlights on with a grunt. With a hard swipe of the steering wheel, he jerked the car away from the curve and exhaled a loud breath.
It was happening again. He was finally past the pain of one sister and now it was beginning with the other. He gunned the vehicle down Lower Abbey Street, nearly hitting a pedestrian who probably wouldn’t have felt a thing, given the near-empty bottle in his hand. He gritted his teeth. That’s what women did to you—drove you to the bottom of a bottle where you drowned in your own liquid travail. He yanked his tie off, loosening his shirt to let the frigid air cool the heat of his anger. Thoughts of Charity suddenly surfaced, and a heat of another kind surged through his body. He swore out loud, the coarse sound foreign to his ears. He turned the corner on a squeal. The bottle careened across the seat and slammed into his leg.
He’d been without a woman way too long. Once, his appetite had been voracious. But Faith had changed all that. Her sincerity, her purity, her honesty. She had ruined him for other women. Since she’d left, he’d had no inclination, no interest. No desire.
Finally, for me, the key to writing romantic tension is to FEEL the scene before hand. This happens a lot while I’m on the treadmill listening to worship music. All at once, a dramatic line or action will pop into my head, and before I know it, I’m scribbling a scene down with the pen and paper I keep close by. I think on it, imagine it, plot it in my mind. And when I’m finally writing it, I use everything at my disposal to feel the scene—from personal memories to movies to song lyrics—anything that will help me to intensify my feelings and therefore heighten the drama. Heck, I even keep a hand mirror by my computer to study emotions on my own face, as well as jumping up to enact certain scenes. Although, this has become somewhat awkward since my husband has started his own business and now sits behind me in my home office. Sigh.
So, what do you do to build heat in your romantic tension? Go ahead and tell me ... show me with examples ... because I’ve got the fire department on speed dial and a fire extinguisher close by. And frankly, I’d like to learn a few more tricks for stoking the fire, because as far as I am concerned, when it comes to romantic tension, there’s no such thing as too much heat.