Romance writing is all about the interplay of the expected and the unexpected. It’s about honouring your contract with the reader—which is very strict—while keeping her guessing just enough. Now I’m probably reinventing the wheel to some extent here, since I’m sure other people have analyzed this subject before. But I was thinking recently about ways to vary the pace of a romance plot while meeting the reader’s expectations—specifically about where you introduce sex into the characters’ relationship. Because you can do it at different points in the story, relative to the pace of their developing intimacy. I like cataloguing things, so I came up with this list.
Note that I mainly read and write m/m romance, so my list is probably skewed toward the tropes of that sub-genre.
- The characters just met and have a one-night stand or a casual encounter based on mutual desire. This almost has to happen right away, or at most after a couple of alternate-POV chapters establishing the MCs individually, because in this case, the sex is the reason they meet. This will also likely give you a plot with lots more sex in it, because that line has been crossed so early.
- They don’t know each other, or barely know each other, or dislike each other, but end up in some kind of a situation where they have to have sex because reasons. One assumes this hardly ever happens in real life, but if it’s handled right, it makes for a pretty compelling situation in fiction. (If it’s not handled right, it’s gross. This is a high-stakes one.) This scenario could happen very early in the book, or a little later, but probably before the halfway point.
- They hate each other but are attracted to each other in spite of themselves and succumb to their desires. Again, in real life, probably a pretty terrible idea almost 100% of the time. But in romance it usually works out great. Puts the sex in the first half of the book, while they still solidly hate one another, but after we’ve had at least a few chapters establishing their hatred.
- They meet under circumstances of heightened tension and go through the phases of acquaintance and friendship very fast before acknowledging their mutual attraction and acting on it. This one is quite common, and works well because it naturally puts the sex right around the middle of the book. It is particularly good for romantic suspense or other types of romance with a high-stakes plot.
- They have been friends for some time and decide to take their relationship to a new level. In this case, the timing could really work any way you want it to. If the book is about the transition from friends to lovers, the characters could make that transition in the opening chapters, or if we’re meant to savour the sexual tension between them, it could be saved until near the end. Or they could be friends for only a short time before the relationship becomes sexual. There’s also a lot of grey area between 5 and 6.
- They are in a romantic relationship for a while before sleeping together. This pretty much requires the sex to happen later in the book, after the relationship has time to develop, or off the page altogether.
- They wait until they have made a serious commitment to each other before sleeping together. Here there’s probably not going to be a sex scene in the book, unless the book is something other than a romance.
The two couples in my novel One Night in Boukos fall into categories 6 and 7, and there is no on-page sex in that book. Something Human is very much a #4. The novel I’m working on now falls into the grey area between #5 and #6. I’d really like to write a solid #2 some time, but the setup has to be flawless to pull that one off.
Which is your favourite category? What did I miss?
Photo credit: Nicole Honeywill