Perhaps I’m asking too much when it comes to romance in my books. Perhaps my standards are too high. Perhaps I am doomed to be forever unhappy and discontent with love stories in the books I read. But I swear, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I ask for relationships founded on mutual respect and trust, and passion founded on pages of sexual tension, not lust.
Wait, you might decry, are we at the right blog? Did JJ just mention ‘sexual tension’?
Yes, yes I did. And I am going to illustrate for you just how I like it. (We won’t be able to escape the innuendo, so hell, why don’t we just run with it?)
For me, a satisfying romance is comprised of the following components:
Ingredients for a Satisfying Romance
- History: In which our lead pair establish and build a base of mutual respect, trust, and then regard (in that order). “History” can be a little misleading, as some of this can happen before the story opens, or the entirety unfolds as we read. Regardless, the point is, the pair have history: conversations, private jokes, an established language of interactions, etc.
- Sexual tension: In which the lead pair hovers on the edge of realizing the true nature of their feelings for each other.
- Swoon: In which the lead pair has discovered their feelings, and at which point interactions can take on a charged significance, all building in intensity until…
- Consummation: Hallelujah!
Lately, a lot of the submissions I’ve been reading skip steps 1 and 2 and head straight into 3 and 4. Except for me, without steps 1 and 2, 3 and 4 lose context and lack emotional punch. Swoon is all well and good, but swoon without context is just FEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELINGS. And we all know how I feel about that.
If you’re skilled enough, History can be backstory. The book can open with the lead pair already knowing each other, already having established some sort of relationship. They can be colleagues, classmates, or childhood friends. The type of relationship isn’t as important has having one in the first place. For example:
Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: They bicker. Oh how they bicker. But it’s clear they bicker because they have history. Much is left unsaid, but it can be inferred that they may have had a romantic relationship and it went sour.
Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth from Austen’s PERSUASION: They were once betrothed, but Anne broke their engagement because she was persuaded by someone else that marrying a penniless Naval officer was a bad idea.
Flora and Udo from Ysabeau A. Wilce’s FLORA SEGUNDA: Childhood friends!
Even if you write History as backstory, the characters still need to build upon the language of previous interactions, so instead of being told our lead pair know each other, we must read it for ourselves.
Okay, so you can possibly skip step 1. (Sort of.) But step 2? I don’t think so.
The best writers can weave Sexual Tension and Swoon together simultaneously. But although they can be written concurrently, Swoon is not a substitute for Sexual Tension, or at least, Sexual Tension as I want it.
It’s hard to articulate exactly what Sexual Tension is, but I usually define it as the moments in a manuscript when I’m shouting at the characters. Usually said shouts go like this:
“Aw, how adorable; s/he likes you!”
“OMG, how can you not see s/he likes you????”
“JUST KISS ALREADY, DAMMIT.”
The most delicious part about reading books with great sexual tension is that the reader usually has a better sense of what’s going on than the characters. I love when characters inhabit that liminal space between knowing and not-knowing exactly what their feelings are for each other, and the uncertainty, longing, and hope that comes with that in-between state. You can almost hear the characters question (but without explicitly doing so), Does s/he like me? What does this gesture mean? Do I want to know? Do I think I know? How do I handle that not-knowledge?
Since explanation is pointless without an example, here’s a great snippet from the master of sexual tension Charlotte Brontë:
“Good-night, then, sir,” said I, departing.
He seemed surprised—very inconsistently so, as he had just told me to go.
“What!” he exclaimed, “are you quitting me already, and in that way?”
“You said I might go, sir.”
“But not without taking leave; not without a word or two of acknowledgment and good-will: not, in short, in that brief, dry fashion. Why, you have saved my life!—snatched me from a horrible and excruciating death! and you walk past me as if we were mutual strangers! At least shake hands.”
He held out his hand; I gave him mine: he took it first in one, them in both his own.
“You have saved my life: I have a pleasure in owing you so immense a debt. I cannot say more. Nothing else that has being would have been tolerable to me in the character of creditor for such an obligation: but you: it is different;—I feel your benefits no burden, Jane.”
He paused; gazed at me: words almost visible trembled on his lips,—but his voice was checked.
“Good-night again, sir. There is no debt, benefit, burden, obligation, in the case.”
“I knew,” he continued, “you would do me good in some way, at some time;—I saw it in your eyes when I first beheld you: their expression and smile did not”—(again he stopped)—“did not” (he proceeded hastily) “strike delight to my very inmost heart so for nothing. People talk of natural sympathies; I have heard of good genii: there are grains of truth in the wildest fable. My cherished preserver, goodnight!”
Strange energy was in his voice, strange fire in his look.
HE’S TOTALLY GOT THE HOTS FOR YOU, JANE. CHRIST. (For your edification, I have highlighted all the choicest bits.) At this point in the novel, Jane hasn’t yet realized what she feels about her employer, although they’ve already established a rapport–one strong enough to compel her to save in life in case of a fire. Sexual tension? NATCH.
But nobody, but nobody can write all four components of a satisfying romance like L. M. Montgomery. Anne and Gilbert have it all: History, Sexual Tension, Swoon, and Consummation. The History (and the tiniest bit of Sexual Tension) is built up over the course of two books, so when we finally get to JJ’s Most Romantic Book Of All Time, the Swoon is OFF THE CHARTS.
Here we have the closing of ANNE OF AVONLEA, in which Anne and Gilbert attend the wedding of Miss Lavendar.
“Of Miss Lavendar and Mr. Irving,” answered Anne dreamily. “Isn’t it beautiful to think how everything has turned out . . . how they have come together again after all the years of separation and misunderstanding?”
“Yes, it’s beautiful,” said Gilbert, looking steadily down into Anne’s uplifted face, “but wouldn’t it have been more beautiful still, Anne, if there had been NO separation or misunderstanding . . . if they had come hand in hand all the way through life, with no memories behind them but those which belonged to each other?”
For a moment Anne’s heart fluttered queerly and for the first time her eyes faltered under Gilbert’s gaze and a rosy flush stained the paleness of her face. It was as if a veil that had hung before her inner consciousness had been lifted, giving to her view a revelation of unsuspected feelings and realities. Perhaps, after all, romance did not come into one’s life with pomp and blare, like a gay knight riding down; perhaps it crept to one’s side like an old friend through quiet ways; perhaps it revealed itself in seeming prose, until some sudden shaft of illumination flung athwart its pages betrayed the rhythm and the music, perhaps…perhaps…love unfolded naturally out of a beautiful friendship, as a golden-hearted rose slipping from its green sheath.
Then the veil dropped again; but the Anne who walked up the dark lane was not quite the same Anne who had driven gaily down it the evening before. The page of girlhood had been turned, as by an unseen finger, and the page of womanhood was before her with all its charm and mystery, its pain and gladness.
Gilbert wisely said nothing more; but in his silence he read the history of the next four years in the light of Anne’s remembered blush. Four years of earnest, happy work…and then the guerdon of a useful knowledge gained and a sweet heart won.
Once more, I have helpfully highlighted all the best bits. (Also, GAAH.) In most of ANNE OF THE ISLAND, Anne spends most of the time unsure of how to deal with the changing nature of her feelings for Gilbert, which results in JJ shouting through a lot of it. “YOU IDIOT! YOU TOTALLY LOVE HIM. STOP BEING SUCH A MORON.”
So I suppose what I’m really asking for here is for a manuscript to shout at it. Good to know.