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Knowing Where and When to Have Love Scenes in a Romance Novel

You have to know where to place the love scenes in your book to make them really effective. Even a beautifully written love scene jars the reader when you put it in the wrong place, making her question the characters — and stopping the book in its tracks. Place the love scenes properly — and after the proper build-up — and half your job is done, because the reader will want your characters to get together just as much as the characters themselves do.

Creating sexual tension

A well-written, well-placed, and effective love scene is the result of the sexual tension between your hero and heroine, which slowly builds in the course of your novel. Sexual attraction and tension should begin the minute your characters meet and should be components of every subsequent scene between them, building alongside their emotional tension, so that by the time you finally write that first full love scene, your characters and your reader are ready.

Simply put, sexual tension is the inevitable result of making your hero and heroine physically attracted to each other but unable to act on that attraction. The reasons why they can't act are limited only by your imagination — you can place physical, circumstantial, or (best of all) emotional barriers between them. They want to act, but they can't. Sometimes they get a taste of what they're missing (a touch, a kiss, or even the beginnings of lovemaking) before they pull back. And that tease only makes the tension worse.

Think of a kid in the days leading up to Christmas, looking at those presents under the tree, shaking them, trying to read through the wrapping, but unable to open them until Christmas comes. Your hero and heroine should feel that way about each other — only they're not sure that Christmas will ever come. For all they know, they may never be together fully and physically. Every time they see each other, every time they talk, you need to make sure an undercurrent of unresolved sexual tension hums between them.

Here are some helpful ways to ramp up the tension on the way to a love scene and throughout your book:

  • Make it obvious. They may fight it, but your hero and heroine need to be undeniably attracted to each other.A sidelong glance, a casual touch that leaves heat in its wake — subtle signals like these are extra effective precisely because the characters are fighting their attraction. These signals demonstrate the strength of that attraction because they override common sense and the characters' own intentions. And don't just let the reader know; let the characters know, too, adding an extra edge to their encounters. Even when they're at odds, keep the physical awareness humming in the background.
  • In or out of sight, but always on their minds. They may not be happy about the fact that they can't stop thinking about and being attracted to each other, but they can't do anything about it. The longer the book goes on, the more they want each other — and the more the reader wants them to get together, too. Right in the middle of a contract negotiation, the hero is assaulted by thoughts of the heroine. And she's thinking of him right then, too, as she tries to call a fractious class of third graders to order. It doesn't always have to be in a positive "wish he were here" kind of way, but they need a gut-level awareness that just doesn't go away.
  • Make 'em wait. Don't let them act on their attraction right away, even — or especially — if the circumstances seem perfect: a moonlit night on the beach, or a hot summer day and a pond just right for skinny dipping. Frustration feeds tension, so let them feel frustrated and drawn to what they can't have.
  • Let 'em start and then make 'em stop. Whether you end a kiss abruptly or allow it to go on for long, slow, wonderful minutes but never let it go any further, give your characters a taste of how good they are together but don't let them go all the way until they just can't stand to be apart (and the reader can't stand for them to be apart, either) anymore.
  • Leave 'em wanting more. Whether they share a kiss or they spend all night and half the morning tangled up in the sheets — and each other — never let them feel satisfied. The more they have of each other, the more they want.

Deciding when the time's right

Everything in a romance should be character-driven. Your love scenes especially need to follow this rule; those scenes should feel like the characters' decision, not yours. The reader should never see your hand because, to be blunt, no one should be forced into having sex. If the timing doesn't feel natural, you lose the larger sense of romance, of two people being perfect for each other.

Sexual attraction and tension should build from the start. Despite that, every time the characters have the chance to act on that tension, they don't (or not all the way). So why now? One word: motivation. Your characters' motivations should be the true drivers of every aspect of your plot, and motivation plays an especially crucial part when it comes to love scenes.

When your characters finally get sexually involved, you (and they) need a reason. That reason can't be simply that you've decided it's time for a love scene; it has to be their reason. That reason is rarely as cut and dried as "(S)he's cute, let's get it on," because most of your readers don't think that way about getting sexually involved, so they don't want the characters to think that way, either. The reader wants to know that the hero and heroine's feelings for each other are involved in their decision, not just their hormones.

Because you're writing a romance, and because nothing's more intrinsically tied to romance than lovemaking, your characters need an emotional basis for their decision to make love. And, in fact, they may each have their own reason, or even multiple reasons (because people are complex and your characters can be, too).

  • Hero: Usually the hero is much less conflicted about making love than the heroine. He may hold back because he doesn't want to hurt her or feels he can't offer her a future, but guys connect the physical act with emotion much less than women, and that holds true in romance novels, just as it does in real life. Generally speaking, he doesn't realize that his heart's on the line until later — often much later — in the book.
  • Heroine: Your heroine is most likely the one with the most doubts about making love, usually stemming from the fear that a relationship can't possibly work out with the hero, so she's afraid of being hurt beyond repair when the inevitable collapse comes. For that reason, she needs to have a definite reason for thinking now is the right time.
    As the book progresses, sexual tension grows, and emotional conflict slowly moves toward resolution. Her decision to make love should come at a point when the tension feels irresistible and the conflict has progressed to a stage where she recognizes this man's importance to her and is willing to risk the inevitable pain of a breakup for the sake of storing up memories to live on later. Because of that, she's now willing to take the emotional risk of making love to him, leaving herself totally vulnerable. So long as you explain that decision to the reader, who's already feeling the sexual tension and longing to resolve it, she'll find the timing of the love scene just right.

Using love scenes to increase the tension

Love scenes, properly placed, help build the tension in your book. They add an extra edge to the emotional tension that's a key component of the relationship and, contradictory as it sounds, love scenes can also help build the sexual tension. Just as a number of factors meet to lead into your love scene, you can take real benefits out of the scene as you move forward with your story.

Upping the emotional ante

Your characters should move into the love scene thinking, on some level, that making love can resolve things between them. Having made the decision to take their sexual relationship to the next level, they expect exactly that conclusion: a leveling out of the situation, including the emotional roller coaster they've been riding with each other. Instead, they need to discover that nothing's been settled at all. Instead of bringing relief from emotional turmoil, lovemaking leaves things more stormy and confused than ever.

In fact, just as the heroine has to do the most soul-searching going into the love scene, the hero often feels the most confused coming out of it. Heroes usually consider themselves impervious emotionally. Your hero most likely thinks that making love with the heroine can be a wonderful, sensual experience that will leave him untouched on any other level. Imagine his surprise to find that his heart's become involved in ways he can't deny. Because that's the last thing he wants is to own up to that — the reality that love makes a person vulnerable, and he's not about to let himself be vulnerable — he has to find ways to hide what he's feeling. He can be angry, curt, condescending, reduce their meaningful interaction to the level of a joke, or anything that fits with his character and doesn't let the heroine know what he's really feeling: that life without her feels emptier than he wants to admit.

Whether in reaction to his behavior or because she's afraid of being hurt and decides to make a pre-emptive strike, the heroine doesn't let on about her feelings, either. So the characters end up feeling more for each other than ever, yet they keep pulling even farther apart.

The result? The act of lovemaking, which should bring two people even closer together, instead ups the ante on emotional tension and creates more problems for them to spend the rest of the book overcoming.

You can use the couple's emotions to your advantage both during the love scenes and afterwards, by shifting into one or both characters' points of view, letting your readers see how much lovemaking means to them, how deeply their emotions are engaged, and how much not being able to confess their true feelings hurts them, building a sense of what's at stake for the hero and heroine and, through them, the reader.

Sexual tension feeds . . . on sex?

Sounds contradictory, doesn't it? If you build sexual tension chapter after chapter, until the hero and heroine finally make love, then their lovemaking should release that tension. And it does — for as long as it takes them to exhaust themselves making love. After that, the tension starts building all over again — and it can become even stronger, because now they know how great their lovemaking can be.

Suddenly every accidental touch is filled not only with imagined potential, but also the memory of how wonderful lovemaking was — and increased longing and sexual tension. Their relationship is still a mess, so they can't be like any normal couple and make love whenever they want to, but want to they do. After all, one chocolate chip cookie can't satisfy, and making love with the perfect partner is a whole lot better than cookies. The problem is that cookies are pretty easy to come by, and their feelings don't get hurt. Your characters need to be painfully aware that making things work with the perfect partner is a little tougher.

Using love scenes to support your pacing

After they make love, your characters are still emotionally messed up and filled with sexual tension, the very things that drew your reader eagerly into your love scene in the first place. Because your reader still wants resolution, you haven't lost any steam by letting your hero and heroine — and your reader — have a little fun.

Your reader, like your characters, lands back on square one, still hoping everything can work out, still turning pages waiting to see how things end — and hoping for some more lovemaking along the way.

That's the beauty of love scenes. Because they don't resolve anything, you can ratchet up the tension, diffuse it temporarily with another love scene that brings your characters closer for a moment and shows them how wonderful things could be, and then ratchet it up some more and take the whole roller-coaster ride all over again. Your book keeps moving, and your reader keeps turning the pages.

All this advice for effectively timing love scenes, and using them to keep your tension high and your book moving, also applies to any scene involving sexual contact: kissing scenes, unconsummated love scenes — even dreams of lovemaking.

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