Romantic Tension vs. Sexual Tension (yes, there is a difference)
Hi, my name is Misty Dawn Pulsipher, and I am a clean romance author.
For some reason I feel the need to put this out there, wear a hypothetical sign around my neck so people know up front what they’re getting. I have always felt with my writing that it’s important for my characters to stick to the standards that have seen me right throughout my life. So, obviously, no sex before marriage. And even after the “I do’s,” I don’t want to read gritty details about their marital ecstasy. Some things are just better left to the imagination, and I don’t need yet another unrealistic standard to try and live up to.
So, for whatever reason I can make seem the most realistic in today’s literary world, in my books there is “no ding-ding without the wedding ring” as Maid Marian’s robust lady-in-waiting so eloquently put it in Robin Hood, Men in Tights. But it didn’t occur to me until a few reviews in on my first novel, Pride’s Prejudice, that I might have been unknowingly leading readers astray. Here is one snippet (okay, it’s a diatribe, let’s call it what it is!) that opened my eyes:
“To think that with all the sexual tension throughout the book, suddenly virginity becomes and issue made me check the back in two seconds flat to see if the author was a religious fanatic. Sure enough, that's exactly it. Here's the complaint because it's NOT THAT SHE'S A VIRGIN, it's that the author didn't carry that thread throughout the story. She threw it in as a preachy piece. It felt weird and changed the whole story to absolutely unbelievable. People this age have sex and people in this book are having sex. Are we thinking the other characters aren't doing it. Oh please, that part made this book maddening and I didn't like the unbelievability in it. If you want to write a christian P&P book, then carry that the throughout the book. Take the time and energy to introduce a reader to that idea early on so it doesn't feel like a preachy slap in the face.”
At first I could laugh about that review, pity the reader for having a pornography addiction and not realizing it. But as I started penning novel number two, Persuaded, that review gnawed at me. The words chewed on that sensitive nerve that is always exposed to criticism from readers. Suddenly it was clear to me that this disgruntled reader was right in a sense. I had unintentionally built up to a steamy climax that was never going to happen. I stress the word unintentional.
It wasn’t until I was watching one of my favorite Netflix shows and a simple kiss on the cheek got me all excited that I realized I’d been marketing the wrong thing. In this particular show, the focus had been on the relationship development (a work partnership) of these two characters. Once in a while there was a look from one or a line from the other, a little hint that each of them might feel something more than friendship for the other. Then the kiss on the cheek happened and I was like “Yes! They ARE going in that direction . . . I KNEW IT!” I think I almost fell off the couch, and I watched that little cheek brush over and over. My poor streaming device was so befuddled that Netflix finally shut down without my permission, and I was forced to finally call it a night.
But I didn’t fall asleep for quite some time, because the same question was circling relentlessly in my psyche: how could something as simple as a peck on the cheek get me so worked up?
That’s when I realized that the buildup was for the romance, plain and simple: the epiphany of both characters, the first kiss, the declaration. That little smooch had me going for several more episodes, perched on the edge of my seat waiting for just a little more. They didn’t full-on kiss until the end of the season, and long after they had ‘done the deed’ that little peck on the cheek was still my favorite moment for those characters.
Right then and there I decided to change my focus. Perhaps none of you struggle with this, but maybe some of you, like me, never realized that there are different kinds of tension. It is a good idea going into a novel to have a clear idea of which kind you want to market. Then the judgment calls that might stump you all along the way aren’t really an issue because the decision’s already been made. You’ll take more pride in your work, and readers won’t be so misled and disappointed.
I have to mention that without my good friend and author Melissa Lemon, this lesson might still be dancing around the edges of my consciousness. She taught me that Harlequin has nothing to do with true romance. Check out her books!