Romance novels are an escape from reality, and readers can’t get enough of them. As a romance writer, it's imperative to make sure that the romance in your novel is believable and captivating. One way to do this is by creating a romantic tension between your main character and love interest.
If you want to write a good romance novel, you must learn how to create that tension. Apart from realistic, dynamic characters (see the related posts at the end of this post) romantic tension is a pillar of your romance novel.
Simply put, if you don’t have romantic tension, you’re not writing romance.
What is Romantic Tension?
It's not sexual tension.
Sexual tension is all about the here and now. It's about getting it on. It's the "I-want-you-right-here-right-now" thoughts you get when you meet someone you're sexually attracted to. For the reader, it's will they or won't they get naked.
Romantic tension is about the future. It's about getting it right this time. It's the "do-I-want-you-in-my-future-forever?" For the reader, it's will they or won't they get into a relationship.
And you'll make good on the promise that they will get into a relationship because... you're writing romance, but there's tension in your characters not knowing whether things will work out.
How to Show Romantic Tension
Let Them Be Hole Hearted*
Maybe they don’t have a family of their own. Maybe they do, but it feels like there is something missing in their life (like kids). Maybe they want to get married but they can't find the right person. Maybe they’re dealing with some adult responsibilities and it’s just not as fun as it used to be. Maybe they have a Jack Russell terrier that WON'T STOP BARKING. (Or is that just me?)
How they wish they could have more! (Or less barking, obvs.)
Their hole-heartedness will drive them towards their romantic goal (or a dog trainer), which gives you the push in the push-and-pull of tension.
* Somehow, between Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 and Kylie Minogue's Let's Get to It, Extreme's Hole Hearted snuck in. Please don't take away my princess points.
Let Your Characters Talk About It
Tension breeds frustration, and frustrated people can be very vocal. Some will openly express their need for romance, whereas others will refer to their longing for a deep romantic relationship and not come right out with it, which leads us to...
Don't Let Your Characters Talk About It
I find the most interesting thing about people, and therefore characters, is what they don't say.
A character's internal conflict can prevent them from expressing their feelings, and that's a powerful tool to use in your romance novel. When you're writing from the main character's POV, you can get that on the page without reams of word vomit. Just don't give us reams of inner monologue vomit, okay? That stuff's difficult to get out of my Dolce & Banana kimono.
Not talking about it is especially useful for the distant/brooding/arrogant love interest types, but you'll need to think through how to get that on the page in a way the reader can understand. An excellent way to do this is to juxtapose the way the distant/brooding/arrogant type says things and what they do while they're saying them. Actions speak louder than words, right?
Let Your Characters Do Things Differently
Okay, so they've met each other, and they're kind of interested, and that changes people.
Romantic feelings mess with people's heads. They do things they wouldn't normally do and make choices they wouldn't usually make. Why would they go out for a jog when they can stay home and gaze longingly out of a window?
That change of routine causes inner tension:
"Why did I just put seventeen sugars in my tea? What's wrong with me? Is it that guy? No, it can't be. Is he the one? No, he can't be. But what if he is...? And this tea's vile..."
And that change of routine can also cause external tension:
"Why did you just put seventeen sugars in my tea?"
"What's wrong with you?"
"Am I distracting you?"
"No, it's just—"
"I am. I'm distracting you."
"I told you, you're—"
"Distracting you. I know. It's a gift."
"Ugh. You drive me crazy."
"I get that a lot. You know what else?"
"You make a terrible cup of tea."
Let Them Do Things Their Own Way
Even when two characters are doing or feeling similar things, they will do or feel them in different ways. And if they are doing or feeling opposite things, they still won't be the same in their doing or feeling.
There is no right or wrong way to do things—you just have to find what works best for your characters—but feeding that into the back and forth between the characters, and working out how each character will react to the other can ramp up the romantic tension.
Will it be a step back for them or a tantalising step closer?
Let Them Resist
People often deny what they want most.
They might have doubts about themselves, the other person, or both. They think, “This will never work!” This is usually because the love interest will be objectionable in some convoluted way the main character has decided. The main character may want to be married to someone else, or they may think they love their best friend; the idea of hooking up with anyone else makes them queasy. They may resist because of something that happened in their past—a person who rejected them, or a betrayal.
It’s almost always something pretty crappy.
Let Them Be Challenged
Yes, we've all seen the love interest's dreadful, clingy partner who will do everything they can to keep the main character away from said love interest, but a challenge can more than a love rival.
Think of a challenge that takes the love interest's attention away from the main character:
a dependant (that adorable granny who needs 24/7 care, a demanding child, an attention-seeking mother)
an addiction (drink, drugs, watching cat videos on YouTube)
goals that take the love interest's time and energy (building their own gin distillery, growing premium weed, shooting the greatest cat video of all time)
The very concept of the main character having to compete for the love interest's attention creates tension.
Let Them Get Into Tricky Sitches
Putting characters into situations that cause direct conflict is a delicious way of ramping up the tension.
Direct conflict can be anything from physical to intellectual (battling enemies, opposing sports people, duelling chess players, scientists in a race to cure a global pandemic).
It can also include conflict with societal, religious, or other expectations (frowned-upon sexuality, a catholic falling for a protestant, crossgenerational relationships, a dude with scissors for hands who falls for delicate waif*).
Sworn enemies trapped in a snowbound cabin? Check.
Rival tobogganers forced into the same Olympic team (and a very snug toboggan)? Check.
Two young Italian star-crossed lovers from feuding families fall hard?** Check.
* Okay, that's a stretch, but I love the film so I had to shoehorn it in somewhere.
** As someone writing a How To article about writing, I am contractually obliged to mention Romeo & Juliet.
Let Them Keep Bumping Into Each Other
Especially for characters who aren't thrust together, the 'oh-no-it's-you-again' mechanism works great for building romantic tension. Your characters' initial dismay at bumping into the love interest gets sidetracked when the love interest does or says something that's so charming the main character can't help but begin to change their opinion about them.
In any other genre, I advise against coincidences that improve things for the characters—coincidences that make things worse are fine—but in romance I'll give you as many tickets to Chance Encounter Central as you like.
Just be tactful, okay?
Let Them Find Their Common Ground
A solid foundation for any relationship, romantic or otherwise, is common ground.
Let's say you're writing a high school romance. Your main character's the-a-relationship-will-distract-me-from-my-studies type. Your love interest is the party-hard-with-all-my-wannabe-friends type. What do they both have in common?
They're both holding a part of themselves back and because of that, no one sees their true selves.
Caught off-guard, they might reveal that part of themselves to the other, then back off. But they recognise it in each other. They get curious. They want to test the water, so they come back for more.
That ebb and flow helps create romantic tension.
In conclusion, romantic tension is a critical and important element in any good romance novel. It provides the drive and suspense that keeps readers turning pages. Even if there are other elements that make your novel unique, the absence of romantic tension will cause it to fall flat. But the more romantic tension, the greater the payoff for your characters and readers.
Give the reader romantic tension on every page.
In my next post, I'll show you how to create sexual tension. Stay tuned!