Damn Good Romances – Part II: Romantic Tension

This post is part of a series.

Part 1: Damn Good Romances
Part II: Romantic Tension
Part III: Romantic Conflict
Part IV: Emotional Intensity
Part V: Heart-Stopping Moments
Part VI: Uncertainty of Outcome
Part VII: Moment of Ultimate Vulnerability
Part VIII: Happy Ever After…For Now

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Romantic Tension

Romantic Tension is one of those invisible elements in a romance novel.  New writers are often told they need romantic conflict, characters, a plot, and sometimes they’re even advised that emotional intensity is needed – and I’ll be covering some of these in later posts in this series.

But most courses and most primers on romance novels slide right over romantic tension, or else they lump it in with romantic conflict – which it isn’t.

Romantic tension is also sometimes called sexual tension, but sexual tension is a subset of romantic tension.

A perfect example of romantic tension is the classic first meeting moment.  You get it in every romance novel…the moment when the hero(es) and heroine first lay eyes on each other.  Any romance author worth their salt knows the value of that first meeting and the effect it can have on you, the reader, so usually they won’t miss the opportunity to really crank up the tension for the hero, the heroine – or you.

One I particularly enjoyed writing came from Mia’s Return, and as the title suggests, it wasn’t technically a first meeting, but the hero and heroine were meeting after over ten years apart, and the heroine, Mia, though the hero, Alexander, had died (warning — explicit language and images ahead!):

The elevator stopped on the next floor, with more people getting on, but by then his animal instinct was crowding him, making the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He was being watched. His heart thundered.

He made no sudden moves. Instead, as people pushed onto the elevator, he turned so his back was to the side wall of the car, giving him an excuse to look at everyone if he brought his head up.

He lifted his head and looked around.

She was standing on the other side of the car, almost completely obscured by the other riders because she was only just over five foot.

Mia. Shamira Menendez of San Diego, California.

His first aching thought was You’re so fucking beautiful, Mia.

Then reality caught him in the chest. Mia was staring at him because she thought he was dead. She thought he died ten years ago, in San Diego.

And now she was watching him with tears in her eyes and all he could think about was his swelling cock and his exploding heart and how much he wanted to take up where he had left off…bending her over the counter, sliding his cock into her pussy, and making her scream his name.

“Are you all right, sir?”

He tore his gaze away from Mia. “Excuse me?” he said hoarsely. He looked down at the grey-haired lady next to him.

“Your breathing is all funny,” she said. “Are you claustrophobic?”

Others were looking at him now. Becoming the centre of attention was never a good thing for a vampire. Zack had drilled that into him. Seaveth was even more of a sergeant about it now vampires were assimilating into human society. He swallowed. “I’m fine,” he said.

But he wasn’t. He looked at Mia. She was still watching. She knew it was him. There was no way to deny it. No escape. No bluff he could use to fool her. The knowledge gleamed in her eyes.

“Give him room, please,” she said. “Everyone, stand back a bit.” She was stepping closer, taking charge.

They all shuffled back, clearing eighteen inches. Mia squeezed between them and stepped into the space. “Take a deep breath,” she told him, her voice low.

He couldn’t tear his gaze from her face. The tears in her eyes pooled and one fell down her cheek. Just one. But she didn’t wipe it, or show any sign of emotion. Cool, calm, controlled. “We’re nearly there,” she added, speaking for the others in the car, maintaining the illusion of a claustrophobe in full panic mode. She knew as well as he did it was nothing of the sort.

As the doors opened, the others stood back, letting them exit first. She grabbed his lapels and hauled him from the car. He let her, for he stood a foot higher than her and outweighed her by nearly a hundred pounds. But her scent alone was wreathing his head and making his senses reel. Something with vanilla and…grapefruit? He could feel his incisors trying to descend and his mouth filling with vampire saliva to deaden her flesh so she wouldn’t feel the first piercing of his teeth. And his cock was pounding with the agonizing need to slam her up against the marbled walls of the foyer and fuck her senseless.

He was almost hyperventilating with the dilemma.

Her hand rested on his chest. God, he could feel her heat through her hand. He swallowed.

“You’re supposed to be dead,” she whispered. No hello. No attempt to confirm who he was. She was that sure of him despite ten years.

Mia’s Return, 2009

While not a traditional romance novel in the strictest sense, a really great (and famous) first meeting scene can be found in Gone With The Wind.   The snippy exchange between the pair is priceless:

 Her hand dropped to a little table beside her, fingering a tiny china rose-bowl on which two china cherubs smirked. The room was so still she almost screamed to break the silence. She must do something or go mad. She picked up the bowl and hurled it viciously across the room toward the fireplace. It barely cleared the tall back of the sofa and splintered with a little crash against the marble mantelpiece.

“This,” said a voice from the depths of the sofa, “is too much.”

Nothing had ever startled or frightened her so much, and her mouth went too dry for her to utter a sound. She caught hold of the back of the chair, her knees going weak under her, as Rhett Butler rose from the sofa where he had been lying and made her a bow of exaggerated politeness.

“It is bad enough to have an afternoon nap disturbed by such a passage as I’ve been forced to hear, but why should my life be endangered?”

He was real. He wasn’t a ghost. But, saints preserve us, he had heard everything! She rallied her forces into a semblance of dignity.

“Sir, you should have made known your presence.”

“Indeed?” His white teeth gleamed and his bold dark eyes laughed at her. “But you were the intruder. I was forced to wait for Mr. Kennedy, and feeling that I was perhaps persona non grata in the back yard, I was thoughtful enough to remove my unwelcome presence here where I thought I would be undisturbed. But, alas!” he shrugged and laughed softly.

Her temper was beginning to rise again at the thought that this rude and impertinent man had heard everything—heard things she now wished she had died before she ever uttered.

“Eavesdroppers—” she began furiously.

“Eavesdroppers often hear highly entertaining and instructive things,” he grinned. “From a long experience in eavesdropping, I—”

“Sir,” she said, “you are no gentleman!”

“An apt observation,” he answered airily. “And, you, Miss, are no lady.” He seemed to find her very amusing, for he laughed softly again. “No one can remain a lady after saying and doing what I have just overheard. However, ladies have seldom held any charms for me. I know what they are thinking, but they never have the courage or lack of breeding to say what they think. And that, in time, becomes a bore. But you, my dear Miss O’Hara, are a girl of rare spirit, very admirable spirit, and I take off my hat to you. I fail to understand what charms the elegant Mr. Wilkes can hold for a girl of your tempestuous nature. He should thank God on bended knee for a girl with your—how did he put it?—’passion for living,’ but being a poor-spirited wretch—”

“You aren’t fit to wipe his boots!” she shouted in rage.

“And you were going to hate him all your life!” He sank down on the sofa and she heard him laughing.

If she could have killed him, she would have done it. Instead, she walked out of the room with such dignity as she could summon and banged the heavy door behind her.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

It’s not just the first meeting that creates romantic tension.  As I mentioned earlier, sexual tension is one of the classic ingrediants of a romance novels — these days it’s sometimes the only romantic tension element used, possibly over-used.  Hormones are a major player in any romance, real or fictional, and their swirl and surges add delicious tension all on their own:

She did not seem to mind his interruption. Again, she tilted her head to study him curiously. “Did you think I was lying?”

“I think… you’re capable of it. You let Thorsby think we were close friends.”

“You played along with it. Doesn’t that make you as much a liar as me?” She put her hands behind her back, like a small schoolgirl reporting to her head mistress. “Do I not get my tour of the conservatory now?”

The linking of her hands behind her back had a remarkable effect on her décolletage. Stuart found his gaze drawn there, yanked there and held with invisible pincers, despite the fact that as a gentleman, he never looked directly at a lady’s chest in public. He could feel his heart begin to beat with the old excitement that came from the type of hunt he preferred. Was she doing it deliberately? Her breasts were pushed toward him, lifted up by the heavy boning of her corset and almost offered to him. She was petite but her breasts were lush, coffee-cream globes.

He wrenched his gaze away and looked into her eyes. The same amusement was sparkling there and he knew she had done it deliberately.

She was testing him.

Had she been testing him all along?

But now she had moved the game onto pleasurable territory he considered his own. He relaxed and smiled at her, feeling more sure of himself. “I would be honoured to guide you through Lord Dumfrey’s famed conservatory,” he said, holding out his arm.

The Royal Talisman, 2012

There are all sorts of ways to increase romantic tension in a romance, beyond using sex, and a good writer will use them all.  One of them is what I call “indirection” — the use of witty little interchanges between the hero and heroine, all while sexual tension boils and simmers just beneath the surface as sub-text — in a searing glance, a studied pose, the symbolic stroke of a fingertip along a jawline…

It’s not misdirection, because the conversation can certainly be going somewhere, too.  Most often the conversation can be serving a useful purpose:  solving a crime, unravelling a paranormal mystery, all sorts of thriller sub-plots that might be afoot in which the hero and heroine are embroiled.

But it keeps the romance firmly centre stage and the tension cranked up while the rest of the story unravels.

And who said the reader has all the fun?

Next: Romantic Conflict

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