I’s fair to say, without tension, there is no romance. There is tension in love. The very word attraction in physics is a force drawing objects together. A force. An interest. Evoking desire. To be attracted to someone implies a longing or a needing to be around that person. This means whenever they are not around that person they are wishing they were. THIS is the magic touch to making a romance novel a great novel: showing romantic tension even when they’re not in the scene together
How do we show romantic tension even when they’re away from each other?
Not a scene should go by where, once they’ve met, the lovers do not think of the other person. Or if they haven’t yet met, there’s a vacancy in their life that could be enriched by having someone. I prefer not to go a single page where there isn’t some reference to the character’s need for the relationship.
It stems from what is applicable to every novel in that the main character has a goal. In romance, there is both an external goal for the character (that’s for another article), but there is also an inherent need to love and be loved. That’s innate to human nature. In a romance, it just takes the form of romantic love.
The trick is that each time you mention the tension it must be different. It can never be the same. Also, the tension must increase with frequency and intensity as the novel progresses until they let go of their external goal temporarily for the sake of the relationship. There is also the intricate weaving difference between emotional and physical tension.
Each of those deserves an article until itself, so for this one, I’m going to go with, how to do it when they’re separated. And have it be different each time. Variety! No repetition. Make it fresh, and have every mention woven as organically into the plot and character’s internal dialogue as possible.
Expressing tension, or the character’s need for a lover, can come out in a variety of ways. How it’s done is unique to every writer, character, series, and subgenre.
This is easy to do in trite and obvious ways: “Oh my god, I haven’t gotten laid in so long.” Or, “You need a woman in your life.” But when done subtly it can be very nice. People have conversations about their desire or need for a relationship all the time. Expressing discontent with one’s life or a desire for change. “How the hell am I going to make it through this?” Or, “Having the bravery to find someone new would be a start.” The emphasis on the needing, the longing in the person for a change—that’s where the meaty good stuff in tension comes from.
2) Internal thought
This is the most common. Often a character doesn’t want to admit how much they might be experiencing loneliness or how attracted they are to a person. Leaving it out of dialogue can actually make it even stronger. It creates conflict to have the character thinking and feeling things that are too strong for them to even express. It also creates a need for an intimate partner in their life that they can express those things with. Thoughts of interest in the person, just wondering about that person, reminding the reader they’re never far from their mind is imperative. Because it’s true. Once you meet someone you’re attracted to on an HEA potential kind of level, it’s near impossible to stop thinking about them.
3) Action or plot points
Characters will make choices that are different from normal if they’re attracted to a person. Go out with friends or not, have one drink or two, explore something new or sulk and stay home. Show the need for a relationship or the growing attachment to a person in every aspect of the character’s life. Once they meet someone they’re on their way to being in love with, their life is never the same.
Tension can be expressed through a wanting, but it can also be expressed through resistance. Often a character will resist the romantic relationship that seems super obvious to the rest of us. This can also come in the guise of insecurity or pride. “I don’t need him. My life is perfectly fine without him.”
5) Something Is Missing
My favorite way to show relationship tension is by showing how their personal life isn’t quite as full as they’d like it to be. Having a character realize that something isn’t the same without the other person being there. Or, going after their personal goals feels anti-climactic without having the other person there to talk to about it.
6) Make it unique to the character
No two characters will do these things the same way. There’s variations in tone, language, substance. It changes with their personal interests, their intimate flaws, and their unique history.
I could go on. The variety of ways to express tension is endless.
Don’t do it the same. Otherwise, the reader gets bored. But do string the reader along with little drips and drops of tension on every page. That’s what makes for a book that readers can’t get enough of and has them dying to get to the HEA they know is coming.
Robin Lovett is a romance writer whose first series of dark romances released through St. Martin’s Press Swerve summer 2017. Her next series is a sci-fi erotic romance through Entangled Publishing. She loves to chat on Twitter @LovettRomance and every Sunday evening you can find her with other romance writers at #RWChat. She is represented by Rachel Brooks of BookEnds Literary Agency.