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Writing the Romance Novel: Incorporating Sensuality into Sweet Romance (Guest Blogger, Penny Dawn)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

I may have mentioned before that during my time in graduate school, I had the privilege of working with many critique partners, all of whom wrote romance in different aspects of the genre. One particular semester, when I was trying to incorporate more sensuality in my writing, I partnered up with a wonderful friend who writes very steamy stories. Because Penny Dawn can make something as simple as grilling a cheese sandwich into a nuclear reaction between a hero and heroine, I asked her if she would share some of her insights into incorporating sensuality in romance.


The goal of entertaining, sustainable fiction is to reach out to readers, to remind them of something or someone in their past, to connect them to the drama on your pages. In short, they must feel the sensuality of a subject in order to feed the desire to turn the pages.Most often, when writers and readers alike hear the words sensual and romance together, they conjure images of traditional bodice rippers, sexually explicit novels, Regency-era tales of unbridled passion. While the masses agree that each of these certainly contains, or at least should contain, a height of sensuality, the majority of consumers neglect to realize that sensuality should be a part of every piece of fiction, be it medical drama, erot*ca, or even sweet romance, where sensual boundaries are strictly drawn.

How, then, can a writer of sweet romance trigger sensuous reactions to her work without going overboard or crossing the line into the erot*c zone?

My answer lies in the textbook difference between two words often used interchangeably in the English language: sensual and sensuous. Sensual means pertaining to the senses, which gives a more primal, voluptuous feel to the word. Sensuous, on the other hand, is defined as affecting the senses, which gives it a more refined intuition. Ergo, if your writing is sensual, the readers’ reactions to it are sensuous. The heat level of a piece should have nothing to do with it at all.

In order to achieve the goal of writing fiction with sensual elements, you must direct yourself to the root of all things sensual and sensuous—the five senses.

Good fiction digs into sight, sound, taste, scent, and texture, as it is through these elements readers experience the world around them. By bringing a familiar aroma of budding lilac to your page, you carry your reader to a faraway garden she explored as a teen. With the addition of a heart pounding in her chest, and the grazing of a young man’s calloused finger against her hand as he flashes his million-dollar grin amidst the peach glow of a sunset, she remembers the anticipation of her first kiss. And then…you’ve hooked her. Why? She’s relating to the tale you’re telling.

In sweet romance, by definition, all sensuality comes through in building anticipation between two characters and ends when lips touch, if not before. While you might consider the task of creating sensuous responses in fiction with distinct boundaries more difficult than, say, a writer who’s able to explore the full-bodied skin of her characters in their entirety, guess again. Very often, it is the erot*c romance writer’s task to keep s*x emotional, as well as titillating. She relies on the anticipation of the act as much as you do to achieve this. Therefore, you needn’t explore body parts to hit the nail on the head.

Not every sentence should be bogged down with sensory detail. A good rule of thumb is to filter such details through your pages, so that a page as a whole depicts a single image, and sends a single message, rather than a horde of them. As in real life, a person can be hit with sensory overload, which exhausts the appetite for a connection, instead of whetting it. Try walking your reader through a scenario, as if she’s sauntering through that garden of lilac. She wouldn’t notice everything right away; she’d register small details, one at a time, a little here, a little there. Put yourself in her position, and you’ll get it right.

Be advised: you shouldn’t belabor the sensory details of a piece; however, you should tease your writer with them. Think of sensory details as a feather tickling the back of your neck. At first, you don’t know what it is, but it triggers a response. As the strokes of the feather become more precise, more uniform, more determined, you allow yourself to relax, to sink into the caress, to enjoy it.

It may help to weave sensory details through the elements of story. In fact, you may find it comes naturally to explore the senses as you:

  • Set your scene
  • Depict your characters
  • Build your conflict
  • Offer resolution

After all, you’d be hard pressed to describe anything without resorting to your senses.

Last, because sweet romance writers cannot end a sensual scene with the pinnacle of sensuality (a.k.a., the almighty org*sm,) you must learn to satisfy your reader emotionally, given what you’ve offered her. Is it enough that he whispered into her ear? Is it enough that he wanted to kiss her, even though he didn’t muster the courage? Is it enough that she turned away because she wanted the anticipation to carry on through another moonlit night? In order to achieve satisfaction, the sweet romance writer, like her erot*ca-writing counterpart, must set the expectation for her reader.

Just as readers of erot*ca expect one hum-dinger of a s*x scene, readers of sweet romance need to hang onto the anticipation. They need to remain in love with your characters and share their goals. So, how is that achieved?

Hmmm…I remember saying something about sensory detail being the cornerstone of readers’ relating to a scene. Use it, and they’ll keep those pages turning.

About the Author:
Penny Dawn began writing at the tender age of seven, and she’s delighted now to call her favorite pastime a career. Romantic stories with passionate twists have become her forte. She has published several shorts, novellas, and full-length novels of varying degrees of heat…from simmering to sizzle.

Penny Dawn holds a B.A. in history and English from Northern Illinois University and an M.A. in Writing from Seton Hill University. When she isn’t writing, Penny enjoys tap, ballet, and lyrical jazz dance, physical fitness, and home renovation.

Drop by her website: to discuss all things decadent. If you wish to contact Penny, please drop her a line, or request an invitation to join Penny Dawn’s Romance…with a Passion! at penny_dawn1111 (at)

  1. Sunday, May 25, 2008 11:21 pm

    Ooo, great post. Sometimes I forget to use all five senses, and I need to focus there. Good suggestion on sprinkling.


  2. Monday, May 26, 2008 8:14 am

    Wow, that was great food for thought. Thanks Penny, and Kaye!

    I really like the teasing concept, that will hopefully help me find the right balance. I tend to go overboard when I try to incorporate new ideas.


  3. Monday, May 26, 2008 8:15 am

    Hey, do I get a prize for being the 56,000 person to hit your blog? Isn’t that a really nice round number?

    Your blog stats just boggle my mind, Kaye!


  4. Monday, May 26, 2008 9:30 am

    I’m very glad I stumbled upon this post. As a writer of sweet romances, it was just what I needed to remind me that not all *hot* romance need be erot*c.


  5. Trina Schetzle permalink
    Saturday, September 20, 2008 6:59 pm

    This post was great and just what I was looking for. I write fantasy and I’m not shooting for romance as a genre or as the focus of my work. However, I came looking for help when a couple of supporting characters fell in love. Thanks for the tips!


  6. Tuesday, May 17, 2011 7:36 am

    These blog posts are great especially to those who dream to be a writer like me. Thank you very much.


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