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Keeping it Sweet While Turning Up the Heat

by MaryJanice Davidson

When most people think of romance novels, they think of the traditional "clinch" cover: a bare-chested hero with a cutlass in his teeth clutching a heroine with butt-length flowing honey blonde (or auburn, or raven, or midnight, or sable) hair. They're panting and sighing at each other. They're both handsome as gods. The book practically burns your fingers.

And sure, there are lots of those romance novels out there (although the gasping, throbbing hero and heroine have been replaced with flower covers which, frankly, isn't fooling any of us). But there's an entire sub-genre of romance out there where the hero would chew off his own arm before ravishing the heroine. Where the heroine has been saving herself for marriage...and actually waits until marriage! There will be no forced seduction in these books. Tons of respect, of soul-searching, of angst. But no booty.

Which brings me to the question: how do you keep the heat turned up, when your hero and heroine are bound and determined to keep their clothes on?

I've written young adult novels which, by necessity, are sweet, and I haven't had a problem with those. Probably because YAs offer so much more to concentrate on (proof: would you go back in time and be a teenager again? Would you really?), even if it is a romance.

It's the contemporary romances that give me trouble. I've written everything from super sensual (the Secrets books) to inspirational (Heartsong). And let me tell you, in my inspirational book, Too Good to be True, my heroine kept wanting to jump my hero. She was an atheist, and had fallen in love with a born-again Christian. Needless to say, pre-marital sex was out. Making her behave herself, as well as keeping her clothes on, proved a real challenge. Without a smoldering sex scene to keep your readers' interest (and, frankly, the writer's interest), what else was there? Besides plot, which I've always felt was overrated.

Golden Heart finalist Carol S. Dunford had this to say: "I've found (sweet romances) to be challenging for that very reason. Plus the length is so short, you really have to focus, focus, focus on the romance. I try to put the hero/heroine in situations where they can't get much farther than kissing/petting.

"I think keeping the heat up in these books is no different than in any other -- remember, it's the wanting that's hot, not necessarily the getting. Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait as (I think) Nora Roberts said. [Editor's note: Actually, according to an alert reader, this quote has been attributed to a variety of people, including Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, so while Nora Roberts may have said it, it's unlikely she said it FIRST!] They need a good, logical reason for not doing the horizontal cha-cha, but as long as you supply that and it's honest to your characters, there's no saying they have to make love."

In Too Good to be True, much of the hero and heroine's time is spent at a hospital, as the hero is donating a kidney to the heroine's cousin. In keeping with Carol's advice, a hospital really isn't conducive to doing the Wild Thang. Plus, due to the seriousness of the heroine's cousin's illness, the hero and heroine have more on their minds than, "Does he like me? Really? Really really? Okay, well, does he like me, or does he like me like me?"

Another sweet book author, Lisa Mondello (Her Heart for the Asking), had this to add: "I write for Avalon Books and they're about as sweet as you can get. One of the things I do is focus on the emotion between the hero and heroine. This is where the conflict has to be strong because, let's face it, they want each other, but they can't have each other. And the reason they can't have each other has to be believable.

"When my editor bought my first book I asked her what made her buy it. She chuckled and said that it was an 'adult' romance and had some meat. She said she gets far too many manuscripts that are sweet in a 'young adult' way. Sweet doesn't mean the romance is shot because a lot of the romance and tension comes from the wanting, not the actual act itself. It's the lingering gazes, it's that he loves the sound of her voice and how that makes him feel when she walks into a room, it's the way he protectively places his hand at the small of her back as they move through a crowd, etc. And all that builds up to what is acceptable in a sweet romance: kissing and embracing.

"In my latest manuscript, I had the build up to the kiss and the actual kiss last about four pages." (Author's note: Zow!) "Obviously they weren't in a lip lock for four pages..." (Author's note: Oh.) "...but there was an emotional build up, and a lot of the things I talked about above."

A typical rule in sweet and/or inspirational romances is "nothing below the shoulders", or, "shut the door, don't let the reader into the bedroom". In my book, the hero and heroine never actually make love, but there's loads of attraction. In this scene, my heroine has snuck into the hero's hospital room in the wee hours. He's still perfectly healthy; he hasn't donated the kidney yet. In a sensual romance, they probably would have gotten nekkid. Obviously, in this one, they can't. Here's an excerpt:

Her voice dropped until it was practically inaudible. "I wanted to please you."

He reached out and clutched her hands, not trusting himself to speak for a long moment "You do please me, Kathryn," he said at last. "In all things. You're kind and charming and beautiful and troubled and hurt. I think--" He paused, then forced it out, praying it wouldn't frighten her. "I think I've fallen in love with you."

Shocked, she looked up at him, her mouth falling open. Then her face broke into the biggest smile he had ever seen, and she flung her arms around him, nearly tumbling him off the bed with the force of her joy.

"It's true for me, too," she almost sobbed. "I think about you all the time. I--I'd do anything to please you. Even go to church. Get baptized. Teach Sunday school. Write church bulletins. Whatever."

He gripped her shoulders and pushed her back. "You can't," he said grimly. "Not to please me, not to please anyone. You can only do it because something in you isn't complete if you don't do it."

She stared at him a long moment, then her shoulders slumped. "We're nuts. We're opposites in temperament, education, religion -- everything. This will never work." She put her hand over her face for a moment. "And if something happens to you... I'll want to be dead."

"Hush," he said, alarmed. "Don't talk like that. Things will work out."

"You don't know that!" She cried, then, as he held her and tried to comfort her. Both wondered what would become of the other.

In a sensual romance, it would be the easiest thing in the world to have these two make love at this point: they've declared their love, they're frightened at what lies ahead, they've only got each other.

In a sweet romance, you've got to show the love without necessarily showing the lovemaking. Tricky? Sure. Rewarding? You bet. As an author of sensual as well as sweet, I admit I'll sometimes take the lazy way out and throw my hero and heroine into bed. It eats up a few pages and keeps the reader's interest. With a sweet romance, you've got to try harder, and as such, I think the end result is stronger.

So put your hero and heroine in situations where they'd like to have wild monkey sex, but can't. Or have one (or both) of them be morally opposed to pre-marital sex. Or have them have wild monkey sex, but don't explain it, or describe it. But finally, probably the best advice so far, freelancer Katie Gustafsson offers this:

"If you want to keep the 'heat' going, then you probably are writing for the wrong publication. The writer has to choose the best market for her writing interests and skills. Jackie Collins wouldn't be published yet if she'd been trying to sell her racy novels to Mills and Boons!"

Which brings us back to the basic rule of writing, one I think is more important than write what you know.

Write from your heart. Don't pull a book out of yourself that you don't like, don't feel comfortable writing, dislike working on. Write what feels right. But, of course, write.


Excerpt: from Too Good to be True, by Janice Pohl. REUNIONS novella collection, Barbour Publishing,

Copyright © 2001 MaryJanice Davidson
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

MaryJanice Davidson is the author of numerous romance books, including Undead and Unwed. Her novella Love's Prisoner (Secrets 6) was the 2000 winner of the Sapphire Award for excellence in Science Fiction Romance. The day job is Operations Manager at a brokerage firm. In the evenings she slaves over a hot take-out menu for her husband, two children, and dog. Visit her website at

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