Is there anything as satisfying as creating perfectly tense scenes between the love interests in your novel? Or as a reader, actually reading those scenes and feeling all the feelings as you hope the love interests finally get together?
Well, if you aren’t a romance fan, then you probably don’t care. But I assume you’re reading this because you like writing romantic plots and subplots!
As an editor who mainly works with fantasy, sci-fi, and romance novels, I’m around romance plots basically every day. They’re the main stories in romance novels and popular subplots for fantasy and sci-fi. Crafting romantic tension is key to getting your readers on board with the ship you’re trying to sell them.
What is romantic tension?
Romantic tension boils down to the tension and chemistry created when two love interests interact and grow closer in your story.
Of course, there can be multiple love interests. Love triangles, “why choose” romances, and so forth, all include more than one love interest. But for simplicity in this post, I will mostly be referencing “two” love interests.
Romantic tension doesn’t just stem from one thing. There’s usually some level of sexual tension, but romantic tension goes deeper than that. There’s yearning. There are lots of feelings. There’s subtle build-up as these characters’ stories and lives intertwine and as they connect.
How do you actually build romantic tension?
While knowing you need to build romantic tension into your storyline is one thing, actually doing it is another. So how do you weave it into the story?
One factor when building romantic tension is chemistry. This is not just your characters wanting to kiss or have sex. It’s more subtle and personal than that. To give it a modern description, think of it as your characters having the right vibe together.
Some things to consider:
- Incorporating teasing, flirting, and banter
- Having them create nicknames for each other
- Physical attraction on some level
- Although this isn’t necessary! Ace (asexual) spectrum characters can fall in love and build relationships without sexual attraction
- Some level of comfort and/or trust with each other
If your love interests know each other, play up that backstory. Bring in memories and history. These could be good memories if you’re writing a friends-to-lovers arc, or they could be bad memories if you’re writing an enemies-to-lovers arc. It’s probably going to be a mix, though, because life is full of ups and downs no matter how well we get along with our friends and loved ones.
If they don’t know each other, think about how their personal backstories might still be showing up in their relationship.
After all, we all bring our own “stuff” into relationships, romantic or otherwise. We all have past hurts and traumas, individual personalities, and unique life experiences. These shape us and how we interact with other humans. The same will be true for your love interests.
Think about how your individual characters’ backstories will play off each other (for better or worse) when paired up romantically.
Actions speak louder than words sometimes, right? But romantic tension isn’t about over-the-top conversations and sexually charged touches. Those will come into play sometimes, but that shouldn’t be the only thing.
Think about small gestures. Hands brushing by accident, then the love interests getting flustered. Lingering looks that make someone’s heart skip a beat. Small kindnesses, like remembering someone’s coffee order.
These things build up in intensity over the course of the story, usually starting with the smaller things and leading to the bigger. The intensity in action often grows with intensity of feelings.
What are the things the character thinks but doesn’t say aloud to their love interest? Do they realize they like this person? Why aren’t they pursuing them more actively if they’re reluctant? What’s stopping this character from making a move and taking a risk?
These types of thoughts can really start to tug on the heart strings and build a lot of internal tension within the character. It’s not direct tension with their love interest, but it still adds another layer to the story and relationship.
People talk! Love interests should talk! Yes, backstory can come in here, but think about the ways we interact with people we like. Do your characters have playful banter? Do they roast each other? Do they have an inside joke? Special nicknames?
Besides the fun parts that add to their chemistry, think about serious conversations they might have. How might your love interests show vulnerability? At what point in the story do they have to become vulnerable with each other? Why have they been scared or reluctant to do so? What changes in their relationship once this vulnerability and trust begins to grow?
I’m not just talking about your characters wanting to be physically intimate. If they do, that’s fine (and some readers love “spice” in their adult fiction), but I often see writers relying solely on physical attraction instead of building up the emotional attraction alongside it.
Does their stomach tighten whenever they see their love interest? Do they get a little nervous? Does their heart speed up when the love interest does something special? These non-verbal cues help readers understand what the character feels.
And last but not least, you’ll want to think about what your characters are working toward in the story. What goals do they have as individuals, and how might these goals align or overlap in some way?
In a contemporary romance, that might be the two love interests working on a community project together because they both think it’s important.
In a fantasy or sci-fi novel, that might be the love interests working together to defeat a common enemy.
A common goal will give the love interests not only a reason to be around each other but something to bond over that’s relevant to the plot.
Bringing It All Together
All of those elements described above weave together to create this romantic tension you’re looking for. The degree to which you use each element and when you use them will depend entirely upon your characters and your story, but try to use a variety!
If you’re looking for an editor to help you with your romantic—and other—storylines, contact me here.
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