It’s not all about sex: creating tension in romance

Tension in romanceWhen people talk about tension in romance novels, you’d assume they’re referring to sexual tension. It’s an easy assumption. After all, the most memorable romances have that amazing sizzle between the heroine and leading man that keeps you wanting to turn the pages (or watching the screen). 

Mulder and Scully (X-Files). David & Maddie (Moonlighting). Matthew & Mary (Downton Abbey). Edward & Bella (Twilight). Christian & Ana (Fifty Shades). Noah & Allie (The Notebook). I’m sure you can add a few more…

Tension in romance. Have you got enough?

It takes more than sexual tension to create a truly memorable romance. While sexual tension should be at the heart (no pun intended) of your romance, it’s important to layer in other forms of tension. Without these, your novel would just be two characters who are very attracted to each other. Sure, it makes for good reading right up until the first kiss, but unless you’re planning on finishing your novel when your lead characters finally lock lips, here are some other forms of tension you might want to consider:

  • Emotional tension. Every character has their own story and their own past. It makes them who they are today. It also directly affects how they will react in situations. A woman who lost her mother as a child and had a lonely upbringing vs a woman who has five older sisters who are always meddling in her life will act differently when her knight in shining armour rides in to save the day. The first woman might push our knight away because she’s used to looking after herself–cue love/hate fireworks! The second woman might fall desperately in love with her knight on first sight because she’s the sort to get carried away like that. Our knight might then get scared off by her fervour (because he’s got emotional issues of his own he needs to deal with!) As you can see, emotional aspects can create interesting obstacles and hurdles, and add to your story’s tension.
  • External tension. Life. It often gets in the way, doesn’t it? In the movie, Speed, it was a runaway bus with a bomb on board coming between Keanu and Sandra. In the Princess Bride (which is both a great book and a movie), Westley and Buttercup must face an evil prince, three (almost) evil henchmen, killer rats, long lost loves returning from the dead, and a good dose of torture before it can become a kissing book. Sexual tension is aided and usually improved when your characters have to overcome external obstacles. The sky’s the limit really…

This is getting intense: tension in romance and subplots

Depending on the type of romance you’re writing, subplots can be a useful tool to both increase and give the reader a break from tension (where necessary). Your subplot is likely to have an external basis (as it can involve other characters or situations), although this conflict may confront your heroine on an emotional level as well.

If you’re really clever, you can use this subplot to contrast the tension in your main character’s story, then tie it in towards the end to create an explosive finale!

Do you agree it takes more than sexual tension to make a great romance novel? Are there any other forms of tension you’d include?

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