Writing Chemistry in Romance
While love at first sight, exists, as well as long-time unrequited love, often the initial meeting between love birds in a romance novel doesn’t involve love. Of course, love is the ultimate goal in a romance, but you can’t go from zero to 100 on the love meter in a romance novel. Even in instalove trope, love needs to be earned, challenges overcome, and a deep connection built.
Stages of Romantic Chemistry
Physical Attraction: This probably needs no explanation, but it’s basically lust. Two people find the other sexually appealing. In many romances, the connection between the characters starts at this.
Personal Attraction: This attraction is something that evolves as the characters get to know each other on a deeper level. In my book, Drawn to Her, Lexie learns that her first impression of Drake isn’t who he really is. As she discovers that he has compassion for those wh0 work for him, her personal attraction and respect for him grows.
Emotional Attraction: Essentially this is love, but it speaks to a connection that is soul deep. This is the end goal in a romance novel.
What sort of Chemistry Do Your Characters Need?
By the end of your book, your characters should have all three of the above attraction levels. At the beginning, they usually have one or two. If there are all three in the opening, it’s generally one-sided, such as a man who’s in love with his neighbor but believes she just sees him as a friend. She of course can think the same about him. Or not.
In sweet romance, you won’t have the physical attraction of sex, but there should still be a physical, non-sensual pull. Holding hands. Pushing a tendril of hair away from the partner’s face. Even a little kiss.
This is where things get tricky in a romance because chemistry is a bit like porn; you can’t easily explain it, but you know it when you see it.
Many novice writers tend to use telling to describe chemistry. “He was hot and she wanted him.” Or they’re too technical, writing details of tab A inserted into slot B.
Here are things to consider when writing intimacy and sexy bits in your romance.
Successful chemistry is shown through the senses.
Romance works when it taps into emotions and sensations. In spicier romance or erotica, those sensations include titillation, but even in sweet romance, the reader needs to feel the swoon and pitter patter of the heart. This is best done by using the senses.
When it comes to writing chemistry or even just emotion, I always ask:
What does that look like and feel like?
For example, what does lust look and feel like (beyond arousal)? Flushed cheeks? Hot skin?
What does pain and heartache look and feel like?
What does love look and feel like?
Here’s a few examples:
Drawn to Her (by Jenna Harte): When Lexie first meets Drake, she immediately notices that he’s attractive, yet dark and broody. But when she confronts him, there’s an extra little zing. Here we have a hint of physical attraction.
“You have some nerve.” She poked him in the chest with her index finger, ignoring the jolt of heat zapping her each time she felt the hard, firm muscle underneath his starched white shirt.
Here is Drake’s side of their encounter:
Having to ask her permission didn’t annoy him as much as the way he’d been caught off guard by her brazenness and how her emerald eyes stared into the depths of his soul when she challenged him.
You’ll note that in both cases, neither is thinking about getting naked, but there is something there that unsettles them both.
But just after this, when Drake has to talk to nurse Lexie about having time with his grandfather, this happens:
Lexie turned her back to him again to reach into the top cupboard for glasses. As she did, her white sleeveless blouse rose to reveal soft-looking skin along her lower back, making Drake think of peaches and cream.
She turned back to him, with glasses in hand, her brows lifting. “You look a little warm, so I’ll take that as a yes.”
He was warm. He rubbed the back of his neck and rolled the tension from his shoulders. It must be the heat and humidity. His mind told him that was a lie.
In this exchange, we see that he’s having a physical response. You’ll also note that a physical response isn’t just arousal.
In each of these cases, something in the air had changed described as electricity or heat. But none of them recognize what it really means. Lexie acknowledges that Drake is handsome, but he’s insufferable, so her attraction to him is tempered by that.
Of course, if you’re writing a spicy romance, you might take things up a notch. Whereas the characters above didn’t recognize or acknowledge those first sensations, you could have your characters right off the bat know they lust for the other person.
The point is, at the time our characters are coming together in the book (even if they’ve known each other in the past) there should be a something-something, a je ne sais quoi that sizzles or crackles in the air. Even in sweet romance, we need to feel there is a connection, a pull between the two, even if it’s not sensual.
Below are other senses and examples taken from Risk It All, a romantic adventure I have on Wattpad. This is told in first person present tense.
Sight/Sensation [sizzle of awareness]
From afar, I’d been able to see he was the total package when it came to handsome good looks. The epitome of tall, dark, and sexy, especially in his tailored tux. But up close, it’s his eyes that immediately draw me in. They are a crystalline sapphire blue, accented by a rim of jet-black lashes. They’re gorgeous and staring down at me not in indignation, but in amusement.
Even in the three-inch heels supporting my five-feet-seven-inch frame, I have to tilt my head up to look into his eyes. The fact that he is amused by me doesn’t annoy me as much as the sizzle of awareness that skitters over my nerve endings. Why am I always attracted to the wrong men?
I don’t push and instead let the music guide us around the room. She feels perfect in my arms. She’s tall, with curves in all the right places. She moves like a dancer, smooth and graceful.
My hand gently presses against her back to pull her closer. God, she smells divine. A mix of sweet and exotic. I’m nearly drunk with it.
Note in all cases, the emotions and sensations are coming from the character. We’re not being told Drake feels hot as he looks at Lexie or Max thinks Madeleine smells good. We experience these sensations through them.
Use the Setting
I’ll admit, between my own books, fan fiction, and writing for my client, I sometimes feel like I’m out of ideas when it comes to writing sensual scenes. Luckily, all the intimacy doesn’t come in a bedroom. Your characters meet and interact in a variety of places. Use the setting and props to make the scene interesting.
I’ve written intimate scenes that take place in or on cars, in hot tubs or pools, on couches and tables, on boats, in showers, in bakery kitchens, bathrooms (tub, vanity), against walls, on stairs, outside, and sometimes in beds. I’ve used food (cherry pie, chocolate, whipped cream, syrup, honey, champagne), flowers, feathers, adult toys, ties, scarves, and more as part of the fun.
If you read romance, you know I’m not alone in this. Most romance authors who write sexy bits have scenes in, on, or using all I’ve just listed and more. It’s part of the fun. You have a couple at odds or at least struggling to come together, they’re in a location in which there’s stuff around them, and they feel the need to touch, or kiss, or have sex.
Sex in a bed is easy. Sex in or on other places can be more difficult, titillating, exciting, challenging…use it.
Less Is Usually More
My mom doesn’t like to read romance, but she likes mystery, so she’s read the Valentines even if the sexy bits aren’t her thing. In one book, I really only had one sexy bit (and many near misses). When she fussed about it, I told her there was just one scene and she said, “Yeah, but it was like three pages long!”
Let me start by saying I don’t think I wrote too much in that particular case. I’d been teasing the reader for some time with near misses between the characters, so it was time to give them (the characters and the readers…lol) what they wanted. The scene was also full of other things around their relationship besides getting it on.
With that said, you can go overboard when writing sexy bits.
The first issue is you need to have a reason for an intimate bit beyond titillation (unless you’re writing erotica). Like all other scenes in the book, a sexy scene needs to have a purpose. It needs to drive the story forward or reveal something about the characters.
Second is being verbose. Consider the words of short story writer and poet Raymond Carver, “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.” Okay, so in a sexy bit, you want to linger a little bit, but the point is, don’t fill up the scene with adverbs and flowery language, especially on the technical aspects of the deed. Focus on the senses, emotions and thoughts that romance readers crave. Remember the scene needs to serve a purpose to the story or characters.
In Risk It All, the first time Max and Madeleine are together, it’s release not just from the attraction they’ve been denying between them, but also a celebration that they’re alive after an ordeal in the jungle.
Not wanting to break the spell by speaking, I lean into him, grasping his robe lapels with my fingers and pulling him to me. Something primal flares in his eyes and then his lips are on mine, devouring my mouth, kissing me until I can’t breathe.
Max POV: This is a few days later as Max is grappling with the reality that once they go home, he won’t see her again.
I kiss her temple as I gather her close. The words, “I love you,” skim through my brain. It doesn’t seem possible that I’m in love. …
Once I catch my breath, I lift my head to stare down into her amber eyes and my heart clinches hard. Jesus. This has to be love.
Don’t Write a Play-By-Play
This is a rehash of what I’ve already said, but said in a different way. In this case, I’m not saying you can’t describe what’s physicality happening, but focusing on the moves (tab a into slot b) isn’t sexy. Titillation comes from the brain, which requires more than play-by-play of who’s touching who where. Sensations (touch, scent), emotions, and thoughts (Is this love? Is this wrong? etc) enhance what’s going on in an intimate bit. Some of the sexiest or most emotionally satisfying sensual scenes I’ve ever read had very little in the way of the who was touching who when and where.
Watch Out for Hilarious Euphemisms
My favorite sexy euphemism is throbbing love thruster. I think it’s hilarious!
Why do romance writers use euphemisms? Basically, they’re used to avoid write body part words.
Why? Sometimes it’s because it can sound clinical. Other times it’s from embarrassment. Sometimes it’s to offer a softer language. Whatever the reason, if you’re not going to use the true word body parts, watch that you don’t choose words or phrases that will make the reader snicker when they’re supposed to be swooning.
To be honest, this can be a little subjective. I think we can all agree that throbbing love thruster won’t work. But flower of her femininity? I wouldn’t use it, but others so.
Also consider your characters and their attitudes toward sex and the language they’d use. Would a woman refer to her breasts as boobies or breasts or tits? How would your male character refer to them? His choice of words can indicate something about his character. If he calls them jugs, that says something about him, right?
If you want to increase your sexy-bit vocabulary, check out the Other Ways to Say spreadsheet, which has a section on sexy words. This resource is free to WWH members. Visit the Freebies Page to access it.
Make Sure It Fits the Mood/Goal of the Scene
If you’ve done your job and your intimate bit is a necessary scene for the book, then like all other scenes it will have a purpose and mood. Sex isn’t just sex. Sometimes it’s fun and playful. Sometimes it desperate. Sometimes is fast and furious. Sometimes it’s like a lazy Sunday morning. Sometimes it’s “dirty” and other times is making love. However you write your sexy or sensual bit, it should fit with everything else that’s going on. This doesn’t just apply to the actual choreography of the scene, but the feelings and thoughts experienced by the couple.
For example, if the couple has hit the limit of sexual tension and can’t stand it anymore, but they’re also enemies, their encounter isn’t likely to be slow, romantic, or playful (though it could be funny…ala in a romcom).
When they’re finally admitting they’re in love, even if it’s only to oneself, the intimacy will be slower. It can still be intense, but it will be more emotional.
When stuck on how to write an intimate bit, romance phrasing books can help. I also write down words and phrases that I like from the books I read. Note, I’m not saying to plagiarize. Instead, write down just the word or short phrase. For example, I once read a book that used the word shimmer to describe a sensation. I added shimmer to my list of sensual words, but I didn’t use the entire sentence that the word was used in.