Feb 8 2021
by Dana Wayne

swans.jpgIf your work in progress has any type of romance involved, you might want to turn up the heat at some point. If so, it’s important to note a few things about doing so.

Writers have a lot of questions to answer before making that decision. What genre do I write in? What time frame will it be set? What POV will I use? Who is my target audience? The list is way too long to list here, but you get the gist. And of the list of questions, several stand out in my mind as the most important.What is your comfort level? What is your genre? Who is your target audience, and will you go traditional or independent publishing route? All of these questions impact the requirements, or expectations if you will, on what and how you write your story as well as the heat level it contains. By the way, heat or steam levels refers to the intensity of the sexual interaction between the two main characters.

As a reader, and an author, I’m picky about the heat level, because, for me, too much is too much. In fact, I book I read this week is what sparked this train of thought. The author is a best seller, but I’d never read her work before. I was in the bookstore looking for something new and picked up one of hers. Back copy was interesting, cover was okay, first page hooked me, so I bought it. The first third of the book was really good. Great characters, and storyline, enough twists to keep you turning the page. But, suddenly, the switch flipped. Almost like a Jeckle and Hyde kinda thing. It went from a strong, well-written story to a fifty shades wanna be. At least that is how I saw it. That promising storyline got totally lost in the subsequent pages. It was like two different people were writing. I got past the first couple of scenes, but after that, I skipped over them because it was too much, too graphic and did nothing for the story. As a caveat to that, I had no idea the book would have that much…detail in it. As a reader, I was shocked by it and that is the last thing you want to happen. Your readers need to know what to expect from your work up front. No surprises.

So, how do you decide how much steam to put in your book?

For me, the short answer is, I don’t know. Not at first. Just like people are different, my characters are different, as well. What works with one character or story line, doesn’t work with another. And I won’t know exactly how much steam will be added until I do it. And, as the characters grow and change, the heat level may as well. But I have lines I don’t cross. My readers know that, and I won’t do something to shock or disappoint them.

Another consideration is the genre and sub-genre. There are seven generally accepted romance genres. Well, eight if you count Regency as a Category by itself under Historical, which the industry pretty much does. They are, Contemporary, Historical, Regency, Inspirational/Spiritual, Romantic Suspense, Erotic and YA romance. And under those genre’s there are a ton of sub genres, so know where your writing style fits in.

Now, I write steamy contemporary and romantic suspense so there is a lot of leeway in the heat department. But if I’m writing Christian Romance or perhaps YA Romance, then the rules are different. Make sure you know what the expectations or requirement are for the genre and sub-genre you’re writing falls under because that has a lot to do with how far you can take the heat level.

I came across this meme a few years ago about the five levels of heat in a romance novel. I was trying to determine where my book fit, and this helped a lot. I’m a 4 by the way.

Level 1: Clean (no swearing or on-page steam. Everything happens behind closed doors)

Level 2: Sweet (mild swearing, some sensual scenes, nothing graphic, door remains closed – we know somethings happening but imagine the details) Think PG13

Level 3: Middle of the Road, some details, mild profanity, most left to imagination.

Level 4: Steamy on page scenes and language, open door, think R rated.

Level 5: Explicit/Graphic – Don’t confuse erotic romance with erotica – two totally different genres.

When I begin a new project, I know who the two main characters are first. Because I’m a pantser – I don’t outline or plot, I just write – I typically start with very general, sometimes vague information about the story and the characters. As the story develops, the characters do, too. Consequently, something I had in mind earlier in the story may not work later on. Or maybe it works but needs tweaking. For that reason, how much heat to add, when and how often is dependent on the characters and their story. They will essentially tell me when the time is right.

Another thing to consider when you are adding steam to your work – probably the biggest thing - is what is your comfort level? If you get embarrassed writing something or if you think you will be embarrassed when someone you know reads it, then maybe you need to re-think the heat level you are considering.

How many encounters are you going to include? How much detail? This comes back to your comfort level and your storyline.

Generally speaking, I only have one or two descriptive or semi-descriptive love scenes in my books, and they usually occur toward the end. Personally, I believe romance is about emotion, not sex, and the journey is more important than the destination. Build the sexual tension between your characters; define and develop them to the point when that destination is reached, the timing is right, the heat level is right, and the outcome works for the story.

When I began my first book, I started it off knowing it would be a romance, but that was it. I didn’t really know how involved my characters would be, how they would react to one another. As they grew, their PDA’s – public displays of affection – changed. Each incident or encounter or whatever you want to call it, heightened the level of attraction and affection between them until it came time for the big scene.

The first love scene I wrote was this “Insert love scene here.” No joke. That’s what I did because I was very conflicted at the time about how much was too much; how much was just right. Plus, I had no previous experience with writing love scenes. I’ve read romance novels all my adult life, and they ran the gamut from clean to explicit, but I still wasn’t 100% sure where my work would fall. So, I wrote insert here and moved on.

I cannot tell you how many times I wrote and re-wrote that love scene. The first time was so amateurish, I laughed out loud when I read it. I went back to that scene time and again. I finally got a version I was happy with, though I knew it still needed work. I checked with several of my writer friends and found someone who wrote similarly and asked her to read and provide feedback. She did, I rewrote it – three times – until I was satisfied.

In the meantime, I continued to write the story. Because once they become intimate, things change. Their attitude about the other person changes, and that affects their interactions, both casual and intimate, and that can and usually does impact how the story unfolds.

And, it was much easier to write the morning after part even before I finished the initial scene because, in my mind, that was done, so time to see what direction things went afterwards.

So, my suggestions to you regarding adding heat or steam to your work.

1. Know your comfort level. This is key – if it embarrasses you to write it, maybe you need to rethink it.

2. Know your genre/sub-genre and make sure the level fits.

3. What is your time frame? People today approach love making very differently than people in Victorian or western times, so make sure your actions fit the times.

4. Will you go traditional publishing or independent? Remember, some publishers have very specific guidelines, and you may find you have to alter your heat level to meet them. If you are going independent, write whatever you want.

5. Don’t get hung up on purple prose. Easy to do when writing romantic scenes. 

6. Educate yourself on how to write a love scene. There are a number of books on the subject. Find the one/s that address your particular needs. A few in my library are: 

  1. The Everything Guide to Writing A Romance Novel by Christie Craig and Faye Hughes
  2. Kate Walkers 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance
  3. And if you are having trouble coming up with words or phrases, try The Romance Writers Phrase Book by Jean Kent and Candace Shelton or Thinking Like A Romance Writer by Dahlia Evans. – You will know when you read some of those phrases, you will have to change them up because, well, they just sound silly and full of purple prose

Lastly, don’t be a copy of someone else. Be original. Listen to your inner writer’s voice. Don’t let someone tell you that you must do this or must do that. Be true to what feels right for you, your characters and your story.