Sensual Romance Part 1

>> Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Though sensuality can be used effectively for all kinds of things (suspense, action, grief, relief, etc), there's a reason why it's often thought of in conjunction with love and sex (not necessarily in that order). Romances, sneered at by much of the literary world, are routinely bestsellers (at least the better ones). That's not a fluke.

Writing sensuality well can bring a book or character to life. Combine it with an element of romance effectively portrayed, the reader can fall in love. And that's not limited to romance novels. I probably have 300-400 books on my "favorite, read over and over" shelves in my bedroom. I can probably count on my fingers (if not one hand) how many are completely devoid of romantic elements (note, in some cases, there are books in a series where several aren't romantic while the overall series has a strong element of romance). These are the books I pull down and read over and over, books I fell in love with years ago and still read with fresh eyes at almost every opportunity. There are historical novels (Clavell, Michener, Stewart), classics (Dumas, Brontë, Austin, Hugo), mystery (Sayers, Robb), action/thriller (Ludlum, King), tons of science fiction and fantasy and, yes, romance (Roberts, Heyer). It should be noted that, for those authors I'm passionate about, there are similar rabid fans out there as well. (That's not even counting the manga; ALL of my manga have strong streaks of romance).

Romance, in fact, makes a fine pairing with books that have other strong emotional elements, like thrillers or horror, action-heavy novels, science fiction/fantasy (given that interracial/intercultural elements are often best portrayed through romance) or dramatic fiction (depending on the topic). Thrillers, in particular, do well with romance because there is something particularly compelling about people in fear for someone else as opposed to merely concerned about their own safety. Ditto for people putting themselves in harm's way for love of someone else. Swashbuckling rescuing types never entirely go out of style, though venue and gender can vary a great deal more than it used to. People like to identify with people they can admire and it's a great deal easier to admire someone striving to save someone else, than someone cowering in fear for him or herself (even if that fear is completely justified). Romance readily provides a motive acceptable to most. Fighting might be cool; fighting for somethingor someone is compelling.

My point is that, just because you're not writing romances, doesn't mean you can't take advantage of the sensuality+romance power. I don't think it's a coincidence that James Cameron (director of the far and away most financially successful movies world-wide) almost always injects a key romantic element, even in such hard-core stories like Terminator. I'm not saying that's the only reason he's successful (not hardly), but I think he thinks he believes in romance on his resume (if not his marriage record).

Which doesn't mean a writer has to have it. I do, but clearly I like romance (even if I'm not a fan of most romance novels). What I'm saying is that romance can be a compelling part of any kind of novel. But, as was the case for sensuality and romance as stand alone elements, skill is required to use it effectively. Clumsy "sensual romance" is about as appealing as homemade pudding you find in your fridge six months later. Which is why I don't read most romance novels. Ironic, no?

True, not everyone is as picky as I am, but on this blog, it's all about my efforts to write the best I can write and my personal guidelines (that other writers might or might not like). Half-assed or ineffective sensual romance doesn't interest me in the slightest. That means, when I talk romance, I'm talking about my own view on what romance is (described here) so you might have to adapt it to your own view on romance if you want to use my advice.

More next time...


  • Shakespeare

    Agreed. In Cameron's TITANIC, though, the romance falls flat, even while the rest of the film--with its real couples and children and musicians and events--is perfectly brilliant. The romantic element gave a lot of people a reason to watch the film, but it's the little stories around the main romantic plot that truly make that film meaningful (and worth watching more than once).

    I love it when romance speaks to character, plot, AND meaning. Without taking over. Romance alone is boring (to me).

  • Stephanie Barr

    It's rarely the only thing in my work either. I like it. I want it there. I love the interaction and growth of the characters as a result, but I've always got something going on around them.

    Heck, most of my books are ensemble pieces, so you know it's not all romance.

  • Jeff King

    I like it, I see your point.

    Stories should evoke all the strong emotions.

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