A lot of people enjoy erotica. For others, graphic scenes with explicit sex is a waste of space that could be used for plot. BUT THIS ISN’T a post to diss writers or readers who enjoy erotica, but rather a recap of a panel I was asked to be on that discussed the topic of writing romance without erotica.
Craft a story
While it’s true some authors use sex to boost a sagging plot, if you aren’t interested in writing erotica, there are things you can do to craft a story that will keep reader’s attention until the very last page without adding intimate scenes. The first is to create a strong, well—developed plot with interweaving threads that together will be long enough to carry a full novel. So not just boy meets girl, but at least one other main plot and several other smaller plots that tie in or run side-by side. How many will depend on the length of novel you are aiming for (check publisher’s guidelines). Whenever one plot thread is resolved or seems to be heading in that direction, one of the others will worsen and need more attention. Keep the reader guessing with plot twists and new turns of events.
Characters are important
Characters are also vital to crafting a great romance without erotica. I can’t state this enough: characters must be three-dimensional so their interactions will be realistic. That means they must be both bad and good. A character can’t be all and do everything. They can’t be the most beautiful AND rich AND talented at everything AND have everyone adore them. They must have serious flaws and deal with serious issues. They must experience pain and loss. This will help readers care about them. In a romance, the characters will be focused on building a relationship, so their goals and desires should show that (even if they claim not to want a relationship or are working out other issues).
Show attraction using heightened awareness
One method to show attraction without resorting to intimacy is to use what writers call an exaggerated (or hyper) awareness. So when the hero walks into the room, the heroine is going to notice. She’ll notice him even when she’s trying not to. She’ll notice the way he walks or the tilt of his head. Little things. And she’ll notice how those things make her feel. When they touch, there is a powerful connection that your viewpoint character will notice. Your couple will feel alone and intimate even in the middle of a crowded room.
Take this UNEDITED example of Erin and Ritter from my urban fantasy novel The Cure (Unbounded series #2):
I turned to see Keene, a dark shadow framed by the light of the lantern in the road behind him. “What’s the final verdict? You going or staying, Erin?”
“Going,” Ritter and I said together.
I started toward Keene, but Ritter, still facing me, stepped closer and grabbed my hand. We stood, arms touching, me facing Keene and the light and Ritter facing the darkness of the jungle. “Be careful,” Ritter said. He hesitated before adding, “Please.”
I looked up at him. His eyes were holes of darkness but in his mind was a slice of light, like a door to his soul. I reached out mentally and was swept up in emotions and experiences: rushing to the park in response to my emergency call, kissing on the rooftop, drowning in touch, despair at the distance between us. And hope. Hope as new and burning and bright as ever revenge had been. I’d never felt so much in a glance, not even with my sensing at full thrust. Impossible to tell his emotions from where mine began. I wanted him. Not just him, but all of his past, his failures, his pains. Heat pulsed through me, enveloping me with sensation.
In less than an instant it was over. The door slammed shut, the light extinguished. Tension stretched, meeting at our hands like a bomb about to explode.
He released me. I stepped forward at the same moment he moved toward the trees. “Going to make the rounds,” he said. “Tell Jace to finish the tents.”
The sexual tension between your hero and heroine should begin from the very first moment and increase in their awareness as their relationship progresses—right along with other plot elements. These scenes will grow in intensity, but that doesn’t mean your characters will soon need to hop into bed together. Ilona Andrews (pen name for a husband and wife writing team) in “her” Kate Daniels urban fantasy series didn’t have her main characters consummate their relationship until book five, and for several books afterwards they mostly start kissing and then the scene jumps to the next in full swing. If you have a lot going on, the sexual tension alone is enough to carry a romance (or any) novel.
Dialogue and flirting
Some ways to increase sexual tension besides exaggerated awareness is sexual dialogue and flirting. Remember how fun flirting can be and how much it can say about your characters. This sexual dialogue doesn’t necessarily have to be about body parts or intimacy. In my novel Tell Me No Lies, my characters flirt while talking about my heroine’s “orange” hair.
What are the stakes?
Remember that emotional stakes in a romance without erotica are more important than physical stakes. Our heroine losing her heart is far more powerful than simply sleeping with a man. Romance scenes should further the plot or reveal more about your characters. Don’t put in a certain amount of kisses or whatever because you feel you must. Let the story and plot dictate what you write. Let your characters tell you. Some very romantic novels don’t have even one kiss. If you want or need to include intimacy because the plot demands it, avoid cliches when talking about body parts. Believe me, we definitely don’t need any more flaming sword of manhood euphemisms.
Setting of your romance without erotica
Don’t forget about setting. Setting can ramp up romance in a heartbeat. Whether your characters are in a middle of a crowd or having a romantic candlelight dinner, you can describe your setting using romantic terms or awareness that increase the feeling of connection.
Decide your romance genre?
Remember what genre you’re writing. Is romance the entire point? Are you also solving a mystery or saving the world? Satisfy your readers. Give them what they want. In a romance novel, that usually means some kind of declaration of love like I have at the end of my novel Tell Me No Lies. But in an urban fantasy whose focus isn’t solely romance, maybe some other concession is all that’s needed. For examples of this, feel free to check out my Unbounded series, beginning with The Change and The Cure.
Romance makes the world go around, both in real life and literature. So whether you like romance without erotica, a sexy mystery, or science fiction, get out there and write some powerful romance using these techniques. For more fun examples and addition information on writing romance, please check out my guest post How to Write a Stronger Romance Novel on Book Cave’s author blog.
Copyright 2013 Teyla Rachel Branton
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6 Responses to “Romance Without Erotica”
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I love romance book series WITHOUT EROTICA. I like sex scenes when they are short and not graphic. I don’t feel this way because erotica is in opposition to my morals. I dislike graphic sex dreams for other reasons;
1. Sex scenes are extremely repetitive. I cannot stand it as each sexual interaction in all erotic fiction uses the same, small vocabulary/small collection of words. [***Site note: a list of commonly used phrases was cut here to keep Google from erroneously listing our site as adult.***]
2. Not only do authors of erotic romance use the same words & descriptions in 99% of their books, but they also follow a boring equation to create each sexual connection. [***Site note: a list of commonly used steps was cut here to keep Google from erroneously listing our site as adult.***] Over & over & over, this equation is repeated. This process is a lazy method of writing & it makes me feel so bored, I have to fast-forward through it & it only takes about 2-3 minutes to learn if the monotonous & uncreative scene will follow the same formula. Of course, sometimes there are a few substitutions or additions. [***Site note: an example was cut here to keep Google from erroneously listing our site as adult.***]
3. When I listening to audiobooks, I close my eyes & if the story/writing is interesting & good, a little ‘magic’ happens. I stop consciously listening to each word, each sentence, each paragraph, until I no longer notice that I am listening to a narrator. Instead, my brains forms pictures/video of the story. Soon, I lose myself in the story & it feels as though I am watching a movie.
When the writing &/or the voice telling the story is poor, I am unable to see the ‘video’ of the story in my head. The same thing happens during an erotic, graphic sex scene. The phrases & words used are so predictable & repetitive, it pulls me out of the ‘magical’ experience & I am stuck listening to each. individual. word, I actually lose track of the storyline line because it sounds exactly the same as the erotic scenes in every other book/story.
I desperately wish that romance novels would return to their former, romantic, ways of writing. Readers also connect better with the characters in the story when emotions are used when describing sexual encounters. The readers still understand what is happening in the sex scenes, but they are not provided with exactly what is occurring, so they are able to use their own ideas/pictures/imagination to determine what is happening in the novel. When readers learn more about the characters’ feelings & emotions, they are more easily able to understand more about each characters & their decisions/actions & what motivates them to do the things they do. When this happens the reader is more invested in characters, their lives, & their feelings. Readers start to ‘care’ about what happens to the people in the story & our reading/listening experience is much better.
I wish more people who felt this way, were able to explain this to authors, publishers, etc. If you feel the same way, please make your feelings aware to the people who can remedy the crappy, downhill way that Romance Novels are now headed by sending messages & ideas to fellow readers, writers, publishers, & editors. Also, if we stop buying these new, so-called Romance Books, perhaps that will impact the peers that be. Pass the word around!
Teyla Rachel Branton
Thanks for your comments! I agree that writers would do best to return to deeper writing. Too much repetition seriously lowers the overall quality of literature. I’ve noted the same thing with profanity. So many authors have abandoned creativity for shock value, which really isn’t shocking any more when there are 500 in a book. Just repetitive like overused thens, looks, and -ly adverbs.
FINALLY- someone who understands!
I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read where I end up saying “this was a fantastic book / series w/o such and such scene – the book holds its own w/o it.” I really do believe that drawn out “erotic” scenes cheapen literature and are a lazy way to grab the reader’s attention. Romance is not synonymous with sex and it’s wonderful to finally see an article from someone that agrees.
Thanks – I’ll definitely keep these alternatives in mind.
Teyla Rachel Branton
Lazy! Yes. That is the word for a lot of it. I think writers would do well to stretch themselves to find more powerful ways to show attachment. The same could be said for swearing, which loses its impact when overused.
Donna Keevers Driver
Excellent blog! I am greatly impressed to come across someone in this day and age not pushing erotica.
I will be keeping your tips in mind as I continue to write. Thank you.