Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Sweet vs. Steamy

When I first started writing romance, I was conflicted about how much intimacy to show on the page. Not to mention that when I first started writing romance I was hyper aware of what other people would think about how much intimacy I put on the page.
My mother's going to read this!
As a result, my first novel didn't show sexual intimacy, but I got braver on my second attempt. By my third attempt, when one of my coworkers read the book, she blushed every time she saw me. "I keep envisioning you're writing about yourself." Doesn't matter how much I told her it wasn't me. Doesn't matter that the character didn't look like me, didn't work in the same job I did. The fact I drew on my travel experiences were what convinced her. Go figure. (It wasn't about me. It never is.)

Fast forward several years. The level of intimacy is no longer about who else is going to read it, now it's about how much my characters are willing to share. When I finished one of my Northwest Suburbs novels and handed it in, I'd purposely left the steamy stuff out. My editor told me I had to put it in. As an industry professional, I bowed to her better judgment. I'm not sorry I did, but the question remains. When do you make a book steamy and when do you make it sweet? For the book in question, the steamy stuff was part of the plot, so yeah, it did belong, even if I was reluctant to add it.

This brings about another discussion I had with a fellow author recently. When writing steps toward intimacy in a novel, there are different paths to follow if you're writing steamy vs. sweet. If you're going steamy, you include the physical reactions to a greater degree. The touches, both intentional and unintentional. The chemistry. If you're going to talk about the hero "getting excited," you should probably give him some relief somewhere along the line--likewise for your heroine. On the flipside, if you're writing sweet, those intimate moments are going to be less physical and more sentimental. The characters might still feel warmth, but they aren't going to have responsive body parts (because those body parts won't be "used" in a sweet romance). The touches are more likely to be incidental, more of an "oops." There might be hand-holding and maybe even a kiss.

Recently, the Big Guy and I were watching a "G-rated" TV show and the characters kissed for the first time. I laughed and said, "no arms." (They leaned in for the kiss but didn't otherwise touch.) Now, its a running joke about kisses with arms.


Don't get me wrong. A steamy romance needs the emotional intimacy, too. By its nature, a romance needs a happily ever after, and steamy bits by themselves aren't enough to guarantee a successful relationship. A good example of this is the movie About Last Night. The couple meets at a bar and finds instant chemistry, but they discover that isn't enough. They try to make the relationship work because shouldn't it? But it doesn't. It isn't enough. They don't have enough emotional maturity, no emotional growth. They aren't invested in each other.

Some readers cringe when they read steamy novels. Some look forward to the steamy bits. The trick is making sure those steamy bits, if they're included, don't interrupt the flow of the story. They should be there for a reason, part of the plot, and not gratuitous. Unless, of course, the book is erotica, but that's a whole other animal.

In the end, the level of intimacy is about expectations. If I show you a man's physical response, you're probably going to expect to see that play out. If intimacy is limited to holding hands or maybe a kiss, the expectation for steamy falls away in favor of the "awwww" moments where the characters bond over more emotional responses.

For those of you who want a more in-depth dive, my friend and crit partner, Terry Odell, is doing a class on the 12 steps to intimacy starting June 29.  You can find out more here: 12 Steps to Intimacy


  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Karla. When I write, I let the characters tell me how much they're willing to share on the page. But that doesn't mean they're not moving through the steps, which anthropologist Desmond Morris first wrote about as an explanation of how we create long-lasting bonds.