Monday, 15 August 2011

Emotion tension

OK, I’ll ‘fess up right now: this is another recycled blog,  but as this is the craft post that has had the most positive feedback I thought it was worth re-posting in case it was of interest to anyone preparing their chapters for Mills & Boon’s New Voices competition.  Be warned, it’s a very long post, but if you can wade through it, I hope it will be helpful.

Emotional tension is essential to the success of a romance.  Without it, your story has no structure, and no amount of good writing will save it from rejection.  But if you can grasp how a romance works, then it is easier to work on the other elements that will make your story sparkle: dialogue, sexual tension, a vivid setting and so on.

Emotional tension (or conflict) is critical.  It’s what sucks a reader into the story and keeps her turning the pages.   It’s a common misconception that a romance is about how the hero and heroine fall in love and get married.  It’s not.  It’s about why  two people who are powerfully attracted to each other not only won’t acknowledge the fact that they love each other, but feel that they can’t.  They can get married, they can have great sex, but their story doesn’t end until they can both say ‘I love you.’ 

The problem between them - the reason they can’t say how they feel, and indeed, often feel that they have to pretend the opposite – is what generates the tension within a romance.  Barbara Hannay once described the emotional tension in a story as “a metaphorical holding of breath”: when we’re engaged with the characters, when we care about them and know that they are intellectually, sexually and emotionally right for each other but can also see that there are major obstacles between them. 

Tension comes from uncertainty.  In one sense, a romance is the ultimate in certainty.  We know before we pick it up that it’s going to have a happy ending – that’s what a romance IS.  So the uncertainty has to come from not knowing HOW these two characters are going to work it out, and the bigger and more realistic the obstacles you put between them, the more uncertain it seems that a resolution is possible, the greater the tension will be. 

Your task as a romance writer is to make the relationship between hero and heroine fraught with difficulty and uncertainty, so that although the reader can see that the two of them are absolutely right for each other, she can’t see how they’re going to resolve the problems between them. 

I know many romance writers – and M&B authors in particular – loathe the notion of a formula.   We are exasperated by the myth of a painting by numbers approach to writing, and I’m certainly  not going to argue that if you have a ‘damn you’ on page 2, a kiss on page 97  and a multiple orgasm on page 174 your story will work.  But I do think that unless you understand how a romance is structured, no amount of sparkling dialogue or good writing will get your manuscript accepted.  Of course you still need to write well, you still need vivid characters and realistic dialogue and simmering sexual tension, but you need to hang them on the right structure,  because if you don’t have that, everything else will sag. 

It’s the structure that creates emotional tension, and I think that structure can indeed be reduced to a formula.  Here it is:

Situation (External)       x          Plot                =         Emotional Tension
Character (Internal)

All of these elements are closely entwined, but let’s take them one by one.  

The situation is set of circumstances driven by external factors which force the hero and heroine together: a child has to be looked after, a project has to be won, a debt has to be paid.   The situation is often closely tied to the hooks in the story.  (A hook is an element of a story that we know appeals to readers and which is usually incorporated into the title somehow.  It tells the reader what kind of story it is: Sheikh, ‘Marriage’ of convenience, Baby/Secret baby, Office setting, Cinderella etc.  

When I start thinking about a story, I tend to begin with a hook.  I’m very fond of a ‘marriage of convenience’ hook because it forces the characters into intimacy, but often I’ll combine that with another – office or exotic setting or baby.  You don’t have to have a hook – Last Minute Proposal didn’t have any – but it helps.  What you do have to have is a situation and LMP has this: Tilly and Campbell are opposites forced to take part in sort of charity job swap.  Campbell is deeply competitive ex SAS type, Tilly is an overweight cake maker.  The situation in Honeymoon with a Boss is that Imogen and Tom spend three weeks alone on an idyllic island.  In Cinderella’s Wedding Wish, Rafe and Miranda pretend to be engaged.

Once you’ve got an idea of your situation – they have to get married, they have to look after a child, they have to work together – you start with those vital questions: WHY?/WHY NOT?  And the key to your situation is that HAVE TO.

In the case of LMP, I began asking myself WHY Campbell has to take part in a job swap (if he doesn’t, the programme will be a failure, Campbell can’t bear to be associated with failure – that leads of course onto another WHY?, but we’ll come to that in a moment)  As for Tilly, she’s been set up by her brothers, taking part will raise funds for a hospice, she doesn’t want to let them down – again, WHY NOT?) 

Other examples of situations might be that the heroine needs money, and the hero needs a wife to win a contract from a family-mad client.  Or she doesn’t want the embarrassment of turning up at a wedding alone and he wants to discourage a woman who’s pursuing him.  The premise doesn’t need to be original (as you can see!) The point is that the characters are reacting to the external circumstances that bring them together, and – crucially – will keep them together.  The hero and heroine meeting and finding each other attractive clearly isn’t enough of a situation in itself.  Something has to be at stake, preferably for both of them, and it’s got to be something that matters, so that neither can walk away from the situation when things get difficult – as they will. 

Now you’ve got your situation, it’s time to move onto the second part of the formula, CHARACTER, which is inserted into that situation.

Here I’m not thinking so much about the personalities of the hero and heroine, but about what makes them the kind of people they are and behave the way they do?  Unlike the situation, which is about EXTERNAL issues that they have to deal with, character is about the INTERNAL issues that drive them.  Specifically, both your protagonists need a goal, and ideally their goals are in direct conflict with each other.  

The goal, of course, has to be an emotional one: wanting to be rich doesn’t work, but wanting – needing -  security does.  The key to investing your story with emotional tension is giving both your hero and heroine goals that reflect the kind of hopes, joys and fears that women around the world can relate to.

So, what kind of emotions drive us?  I think fear is the biggest driver of them all: fear of loss, fear of rejection, commitment, insecurity, responsibility, embarrassment, failure, betrayal, risk … We can all relate to these kinds of fears, even if we don’t share them.

Our goals tend to be the upsides of fears: love, security, justice, success.  So when we’re  thinking what drives our hero or our heroine, it’s sometimes easiest to think about what they are most afraid of, because that will determine their goal.  In other words, if our heroine is afraid of being hurt, she’ll strive for independence, if she’s afraid of rejection, her goal will be self-sufficiency, if she’s afraid of failure, she’ll be ambitious and her goal will be success.

OK, we’ve decided our heroine is afraid of rejection and her goal is to rely on herself.  Why?  Because she’s been hurt?   (How? Who? When?)
Why is our hero afraid of commitment? Because he’s seen his parents’ marriage fail? Because he’s been through a divorce?

It’s not enough to say ‘oh, he/she is just like that’.  You’ve got to show the reader why that goal/that fear is so important to them. 
Campbell in Last-Minute Proposal is very competitive, and I had to explain that he was driven by the need to succeed and be the best.  Why? Because he had a distant father who never praised his son, and nothing Campbell did was ever good enough for him.  Both Philippe in Ordinary Girl in a Tiara and Corran in The Secret Princess have or had difficult relationships with their fathers which have made them determined to avoid the stuffy responsibility of royal life in Philippe’s case, or to make a success of an estate where nobody else thinks he belongs in Corran’s.

Likewise, if a heroine is driven by e.g. the need to protect a sister, you need to explain why she feels so responsible.  In Outback Boss, City Bride, for instance, Meredith and her sister were sent to boarding school after the death of their mother, and Meredith has never forgotten being told to look after her little sister.  She’s carried on being the sensible one, the steady one, long after they’ve both left school.  Similarly, Summer in Oh-So-Sensible Secretary was brought up by a hippy-dippy mother and longs as a result for steadiness and order. 

We’re not talking complex psychoanalysis here, but the reader does need to understand why the characters are the way they are.    She needs to understand that it’s not just that they don’t feel like changing their mind, but that at some deep level they really don’t think that they can, because changing is a huge risk that will takes them way out of their comfort zones.  She needs to think ‘if that had happened to me, I would think like that too’. 

Once you know your heroine’s goal and why that is so important to her, turn your attention to your hero.  You need to go through the same process with him, but this time you have to give him a goal that brings him into direct conflict with your heroine.   If she’s got a deep need for security, give him a fear of commitment.  If she’s looking for love, make him someone who distrusts love and relies on logic instead.

Now you’ve got your characters and you’ve put them into a situation that forces them together so that it’s hard for them to resist the physical attraction between them.  You’ve given them conflicting goals that make them believe that a relationship could never work and that’s pulling them apart.  You’re well on your way to investing your story with real tension, but this is  only the beginning. It is not a complete story.  You’ve got to get through ten chapters.  Both hero and heroine are going to have to change in order to move forward. This is where your plot comes in.

A misunderstanding about the nature of a  plot in a romance is one of the most common mistakes I see when reading manuscripts.  The change, the movement in the story,  is emotional, not physical. When you structure a romantic novel you should be thinking of the plot not so much as moving characters from A to B, but as a series of situations that test their fears, and push them out of their comfort zones.  

Here, I’m specifically talking about plotting a Harlequin/Mills & Boon romance.  Obviously, if you’re writing a saga or a single title, you’ll have to think about plotting in a different way but as a principle for investing your story with emotional tension, I think this is still relevant.  You just need to add another layer of plot.

So your plot isn’t about romantic scenes in romantic places.  It evolves as the hero and heroine get to know each other, and they can only do that by talking to each other about the issues that divide them.  If the misunderstanding between them can be resolved by a simple question (Who’s that woman you were with? Oh, your sister) then there’s no tension.  But if the problem is out there and discussed: she has TOLD him that she’s in love with someone else, he has TOLD her that he doesn’t believe in love, then it’s not going to go away without someone changing.  The heroine just assuming that he’ll never be interested in her, for instance, just makes her seem silly, because if we’ve done our job properly, it’ll be obvious to the reader that he is.  So she needs a very good reason for thinking that, and the best possible one is if he’s told her outright, and he’s told her why.   Both hero and heroine must believe that it would be impossible for a relationship between them to work, while the reader must understand why they think that while at the same time believing that they are absolutely right for each other in every way.

Plotting, then, is not about where they go and what they do. In Newlyweds of Convenience, my hero and heroine move to a ruined castle in the Highlands.  They do a lot of cleaning.  They go to Inverness for a night.  They go back to the castle.  It doesn’t sound very interesting, does it?  I certainly wouldn’t pick up a book with a synopsis like that. But that’s not the plot.  The plot is how Mallory’s feelings change. 

At the start of the book, she is wretchedly unhappy, raw with the pain of being betrayed and abandoned by the man she has loved.  Moving to Scotland takes Mallory out of her comfort zone but it’s her growing awareness of her husband that really changes things for her. 

So the ‘plot’ in this book is  largely conversations that teach her more about Torr and the kind of man he is, or test her new feelings for him.  Every time Mallory and Torr seem to be growing close, I reminded them both of the reasons why they couldn’t just accept that was really happening.  Yes, they go to Inverness, but it’s not the trip that’s important; what’s important is that it reminds Torr (and Mallory herself) that Mallory is a city girl and could never be at home in an isolated castle – or so they both believe.

Inverness is an external reminder of the conflict between them,  and these kind of obstacles can be helpful if not used too obviously (e.g. phone ringing at critical point) but more critical to a plot are the internal conflicts that come from character.  Mallory is starting to find Torr attractive.  They’re married.  They’re even sharing a bed, for God’s sake.  Why doesn’t she just say how she feels?  Because she believes he’s in love with another woman and that he doesn’t want messy emotions in their marriage.  Why does she believe this?  Because he’s told her that.  Why does he tell her that?  … These are the kind of why/why not questions you need to ask when you’re plotting.

In a romance - as in any relationship, in fact – it’s vital that the hero and heroine talk to each other.  They don’t need to go anywhere or do anything – I believe Liz Fielding wrote a book when the hero and heroine spent almost the entire time trapped underground – but they MUST talk.  And I don’t mean banal conversations about what to eat or where to go, but real exchanges of information - with each other: ideally you want to keep the two of them alone, so keep dialogue with secondary characters to an absolute minimum and only include if it contributes directly to the problem.

Think of your ‘plot’ as a series of conversations: each time they get close, remind them why they shouldn’t.   They may not always tell the truth: they probably won’t, because facing up to the truth of their feelings is difficult for both of them.  It’s much easier to pretend, to themselves as well as to each other.  It’s only when they stop pretending and recognise the truth about themselves  that they can reach a resolution and I love you

But as they talk, they get to know each other, perhaps have to challenge the assumptions they’ve made – and that pushes them together.  And of course the physical attraction between them is incredibly powerful, too.  It needs a big problem to stop that, so if they’re getting on too well, you’re going to have to ratchet up the pressure, or you’ll lose the tension.  Remind them of the obstacles between them, make them talk about it, so there’s no question that it’s real.  Don’t make it easy for them!   Falling in love is what makes them change, and start to believe that maybe it could work; falling in love is what gives them the courage in the end to confront whatever it is inside themselves that’s been keeping them apart, and it’s your job as a romance writer to show this process.

Of course, many writers do this instinctively, but if my  story seems to lack the emotional tension it needs to keep the reader turning the pages, I find it helpful to go back and remind myself what the real problem between the characters is – and then I create a situation that will remind them about it. 

To recap …

1.  We’ve talked about situation, which is based on a hook and creates a set of external circumstances that force the hero and heroine together and make it impossible for either of them to simply walk away when the going gets touch.

2.  Into that situation, we’ve introduced our characters, who have conflicting goals/fears.

3.  And we’ve multiplied that push-pull process with our plot that keeps them alone together as much as possible so that both hero and heroine have to confront the issues that divide them and are reminded about those issues whenever the attraction between them looks like overcoming the obstacles. 

… and that’s given our story the emotional tension it needs to make the reader keep turning the pages to find out how the hero and heroine will get to their happy ending.

This is an edited version of a talk I first gave at the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference at Penrith in July 2009.  That in turn was partly based on a joint workshop on writing romance with global appeal at the RWA’s 2008 conference in San Francisco, with Barbara Hannay and Barbara McMahon, and I owe a lot of the ideas above to my conversations with them. 


  1. Thank you so much Jessica, that has been immensely helpful for me. I see why it received so much positive feedback first time round. ;-)

  2. wow thanks Jessica.. even though I can't enter the new voices comp this is really useful

  3. Really glad it's been useful for you both. As I said on the New Voices page, it's pretty basic, but so important to get it right. It's really easy to get carried away with the writing and forget the story structure so it's worth stopping and reminding yourself what you are actually doing every now and then. Good luck!

  4. One of my favorite posts! I love this line: "Think of your ‘plot’ as a series of conversations: each time they get close, remind them why they shouldn’t." Ah the elusive plot.

    All these posts are making me want to enter New Voices again this year. I have no self restraint...

  5. Hi Jessica! I still think this is the most helpful article on conflict that I've ever read. It helped me last year when I entered the NV competition and I'm keeping it in mind I as I write this year's entry.

    Now that I have Kate Walker's book (from you - thank you again!) there's no stopping me. :)

    Thanks for sharing your hard-earned wisdom with all of us.

    Mary Carroll