Taking It Slow


by Deborah Nemeth, Carina Press Freelance Developmental Editor. You can follow Deborah on Twitter @DebNemeth.

I have a great appreciation for subtlety in prose. For authors who can convey slight shifts in attitudes with understated writing. For authors who use small details to show the reader what a character is feeling rather than explaining what is going on. And I enjoy it when authors apply this technique to building sexual tension.

There’s a place in romance for the coup de foudre, but if every story opens that way, it starts to feel tired and predicable, especially for editors reading manuscript submissions. Erotic romance readers expect the hero and heroine’s emotional relationship to develop via their physical one, so instalust is entirely appropriate in a story focused on sexual attraction. But in regular romance, women’s fiction, and fiction with romantic elements, I love a slow build.

I admire the fine brushwork of a relationship arc that progresses from a second glance to flirting. It makes a refreshing change from a steady diet of the bold, broad brushstrokes of immediate, full-on hots that saturate so many stories. There’s a sameness to these reactions in every h/h encounter—the dry mouths, pounding pulses, peaking nipples and moistening privates. Instant arousal can also be hard to believe in some situations, such as when the hero has just kidnapped the heroine.

I’m putting in a plea for more stories in which, instead of lusting after the hero’s bod the instant she lays eyes on him, the heroine might be indifferent or simply be struck by something in his expression, his face, his demeanor. For more stories in which the heroine—even while frustrated with the hero’s arrogance or intransigence or misguided thinking or interference or whatever is driving the conflict between them—begins noticing some admirable qualities. His strength, competence and intelligence. The way he goes out of his way to help or defend someone in need.

Likewise, I appreciate stories in which the same goes for the hero’s reactions to the heroine, his attraction to her increasing along with his growing admiration of her qualities, so the focus is not solely the physical.

If reactions to a significant glance are sketched subtly, with more ambiguity, in understated little details that accrue, page by page and scene by scene, the author can then construct a solid foundation on which attraction can develop. This gives the relationship scope to build, so the intensity of sexual tension can steadily mount, and every encounter between your protagonists won’t feel the same.

Don’t get me wrong. I also enjoy stories in which the h/h experience strong attraction from early in the story, but sometimes it’s nice to see this desire be depicted with a light hand in the early scenes—avoiding the same old, same old physical responses—so we can get that sense of increasing attraction, in scenes of constantly growing intensity.

So if you’ve written a romance or story with romantic elements, and it’s not erotic, don’t feel that the sexual attraction always needs to go from 0-90 mph in the first encounter. Consider deferring the responses of nether regions until later in the story. Instead, give your couple’s relationship a slower arc with more subtlety in the details. And if you’ve written a romance about a captive falling in love with her captor, it will be much easier for editors and readers to believe…

What about you? Any other readers enjoy the slower build?

25 thoughts on “Taking It Slow”

  1. You wrote a whole post for me :) Excellent advice.
    Funny b/c the WIP I’m working on now is so subtle it’s bashing me on the head asking me if it is really a romance. Sigh.

  2. Rhonda Stapleton says:

    I agree with everything you just said. It totally depends on the story, of course, but in general I am much more drawn to a slow burn and find it more plausible and engaging.

  3. Terri Osburn says:

    I just breathed a sigh of relief. To hear an editor say this makes my day. I’m not a fan of the instalust and have lamented the way this idea seems to have creeped into all the books I pick up these days.

    Attraction, yes. Instalust, no.

    Thanks for explaining this so well, Deb.

  4. Awesome post and excellent advice. It’s nice to see that the buildup is just as important as the payoff, especially for those of us who need to write it slowly :).

  5. Monika Krasnorada says:

    Thank you so much for this. I’ve always enjoyed that slow, slow burn. I think it’s much sexier than wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am/sir from the get-go that is so prevalent now.

  6. I like to read books in which the sex has something to do with the plot, and that the sex is appropriate to the plot. I do not like books in which the plot is less important than the sex. That’s a slippery slope into porn, imho.

  7. Deborah says:

    Yes, Rhonda makes a good point. It does depend on the story. A reconciliation romance featuring a couple who know each other well is an example of the kind of story where instant attraction works. Other authors write steamy novellas intended to be all about the heat. I do seem to be getting many more submissions of those sorts than the slow-build kind.

  8. Zee Lemke says:

    I loved Logan and Veronica because it was the first slow build romance I think I’d ever seen (I don’t watch a lot of TV…) and I’ve yet to get over the moment when they flip over from antagonistic friendship into confessed lust. It just made more sense to me that way.

    I’ve only ever been hit with the coup de foudre once myself IRL, and the object did not reciprocate for two and a half years. Must be nice when it’s mutual, but I’ve never seen it.

  9. J. L. Hilton says:

    I think “believable” is the key word, for me. I can enjoy stories with slow build and stories with instalust, because I know both can happen in real life. But it’s got to work in a story. No matter how hot a guy is, if he just kidnapped me and he’s a total stranger, I’m going to be terrified, not thinking about his pecs or his crotch. That borders on rape fantasy, and is not what I want to read. It just reinforces the sick idea some men have IRL that a woman “wants it” even when she says no and it’s all just a matter of being forceful enough. YUCK.

  10. Ruthie says:

    I like both, but I’ll confess that the SUPER-slow build can sometimes bore me. If I buy a book based on a blurb that promises a marriage of convenience between two people and those two people haven’t married or even kissed at 65 percent of the way through the book, I’m going to be getting testy. And yawning a lot. And telling them, “Get on with it, already!”

  11. 100% agreed with this post. And, oddly, more so as I get older. Fewer and fewer romantic comedies (in movies, not books) appeal to me because I simply don’t “buy” that any relationship can go from zero to Happily Ever After in under two hours. The longer I’m married, the more I appreciate the slow build.

  12. Julia Knight says:

    I have to say, when reading I way prefer slow building tension before the culmination. Mounting tension before the mounting lol.

    Or as Pooh Bear would have it, the best moment is the one just *before* you taste the honey. Anticipation is sweet.

  13. I very, very much prefer a slow build on a romance too–in no small part because those seemingly random, subtle details are the things that I find sexy about a character (and about people in real life, when it comes down to it). Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reading a cozy mystery that hit the exact right note with this for me, wherein the heroine first notices her future love interest because of his “broad shoulders and confident, ground-eating stride”, and because of how his face looked “lived-in and appealing”. I loved that. Those little random details are always the ones that stick with me about a character. :D

  14. Chacelyn says:

    It’s astonishing that this is mentioned because I’ve recently read a few books that began in instalust and the guy already had body parts exposed before chapter 3, I wondered what else could the story build on with no romance buildup…, action, humor, and a strange turn of events(not on the romance side). Which I don’t mind as much, keeps the story rollin’, but it still took away that romantic “sparky” moment that engages me deeper in a story. I guess I’m a fan of the teases, slow building, and then the long awaited execute.

  15. Ju Dimello says:

    For me it depends on the story… For example, I have seen longer works that’s based on instalust..and there are novellas that have the slow build too!

    My WIP’s are mixed too.. it really depends on the characters..and the kind of relation they are gearing towards by the end of the book….

    And that being said, I like HFN stories too..more believable :)

  16. Deborah Nemeth says:

    Romances have become hotter over the past few decades so I think many romance authors write to what they see as reader expectations. I’ve edited and read many books that hit us with immediate sexual tension, and most of them work very well, but I don’t want that in every book, and sometimes it just feels wrong for the situation and characters.

    Ruthie rightly points out that too slow can be boring, if not well-executed. But most of the commenters so far seem eager for more stories with a slow build…any dissenters out there?

  17. Erastes says:

    Well it won’t come as any surprise to you to hear that I love the slow burn. Not so much “I hate you!!!! I don’t mind you!! I love you!!!!” but a growing friendship and relationship.

  18. Sue Charnley says:

    I love them both, slow burn, rush to lust, doesn’t matter to me as long as it fits the character. Although I’m thinking that what might work best is to have one character in a hurry and the other not so much. Nice sexual tension in that.

  19. Wonderful post, Deb! I personally prefer the slow build (not super slow, just not 0-90 in about a minute). There have been instalust stories I’ve liked as well, though – it completely depends on the story and the talent of the author. What I really hate is when sex is used in place of character development and true intimacy. If the couple has gone at it like rabbits for the whole book and then at the end say – “hey, I love you”, I always say WHY? You guys never even had a conversation! LOL

  20. Thanks for posting this, Deb! I’m a big fan of the slow build, and lately I’m finding some of my favorite love stories in romance arcs in books in other genres rather than romance because you’re so much more likely to get it there.

    To me the slow build is often sexier because you get to watch it sneak up on the characters, and the physical attraction seems more driven by the personalities animating the bodies. One of my favorite relationships is Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries. There’s this one scene in Gaudy Night where she’s just looking at him, but with an awareness she’s never felt before in the years she’s known him, and he looks at her and *knows* it. I swear it’s one of the hottest things I’ve ever read.

  21. Cathy in AK says:

    Nodding with everything in the post and in the comments. There’s a time and place for hot and fast, which can be loads of fun, but I’m more inclined to read and write the slow burn.

  22. Meliss Blue says:

    Instalust vs the slow build depends on the story for me. I am a fan of both as long as the writing is good and believable. Personally I find it much easier to fall in love along with the characters if there is a slow build. Instalust can be very fun though… :)

  23. Susan says:

    I love a slow build to a relationship. It makes that happily ever after much more satisfying and believable.

  24. I love both, and there’s a time for both, I agree.

    A big problem comes when you *expect* one and get the other. Either the book is sold as an erotic read and you don’t get the hard and fast like you want (haha), or it’s touted as an “epic love story” and they’re in bed with each other by page 10. Does fault for that lie with the writer, the marketing or reader expectations?

    If I had to choose, I’d go for the slow burn. When the emotional connection has been steadily fortified over a period of time, the physical connection is that much more powerful.

    Thanks for this, Deb. Great topic!

  25. Kathy Ivan says:

    While I enjoy both scenarios, I prefer a slow build with the characters getting to know and appreciate the qualities of their significant other. The little things, the small touches all build and escalate into a full and meaningful relationship.

    While instalust can and often is appropriate for a storyline, sex just for the sake of having sex in the beginning of the book sometimes feels hollow and meaningless.

    Good post, definitely something to think about as we’re writing our next WIP. :-)

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