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HEA Writing Week 2023 | Embracing Emotions

Welcome to the final day of HEA Writing Week 2023! Today, we’re talking about how to create emotional intimacy without sex.

Intimacy is paramount in a romance novel. After all, what draws us to love stories time and time again if not the connection that forms between two people experiencing the rush of falling in love! Intimacy may bring sex to mind, but the two aren’t synonymous. Intimacy is often more about affection, closeness, familiarity. This can happen during sex scenes, of course, but it also happens outside of the bedroom. And if you’re writing on the sweeter side and that bedroom door never graces the page, delivering emotional intimacy that packs a punch becomes all the more crucial. 

Here are five tips for creating emotional intimacy in your romance:

Know your characters.

You’ve heard this one before, we know. But having an in-depth knowledge of your characters sets up everything that comes after. Take time to develop your leads. Then you’ll know how they’re going to handle everything you throw at them on their romantic journey. Their actions are going to feel real, not cliched; their motivations will feel authentic. Make their emotional obstacles specific so we can see how this particular relationship rubs up against the characters’ issues and creates both conflict and attraction—sparks from the friction!

Poster for the movie 'Flipped'.

See it in action: The coming-of-age romance Flipped – I love the unique way it shows Bryce’s (Callan McAuliffe) and Juli’s (Madeline Carroll) perspectives as the same events are replayed from each POV. We learn that Bryce wants to fit in and that he’s seeking his father’s approval. We discover Juli is motivated by her strong moral compass and her compassion for all living things, including the neighborhood sycamore tree she’s determined to save. It’s such a delight watching these two find themselves as they grow ever closer.

Create an undeniable spark!

Harlequin editors want to see delightful meet-cutes and magnetic chemistry. There’s always going to be some physical attraction, and some Harlequin series deliver on the sizzle factor while others emphasize emotional tenderness (and show hugs and kisses only). Show us what your leads admire about each other that leaves them wanting more! Unique personality traits, witty comebacks, warm eyes, a kind smile, a gentle gesture of reassurance, can all make a protagonist (and the reader!) swoon.

A clip from Pride and Prejudice (2005).  Two people hold hands as a woman climbs into a carriage.

See it in action: That gorgeous moment in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice when Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) holds Elizabeth’s (Keira Knightley) hand just a bit too long as he’s helping her into her carriage. It’s the most courteous and polite of touches but leaves us feeling exhilarated!

Show, don’t tell, all the feels.

Romance is about action and also reaction. We don’t want to be told that the leads’ feelings have grown—we want to see it happening on page. That means bringing your leads together as much as possible. Whether they’re volunteering for a local fundraiser, playing sports or even knitting, look for ways to add emotional subtext. Pull us under your protagonist’s skin so we can witness the heart flutters and all those warm and fuzzies. What is your protagonist thinking after an act of kindness or a surprising new discovery about their match? And don’t forget about emotional subtext during dialogue. It’s not just about what’s said between your leads but how it’s said and how it’s received.

A movie poster for Something New (2006)

See it in action: In Something New when Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) lets Brian (Simon Baker) paint her toenails red…I loved that moment! It’s a huge turning point for our straitlaced, Type A heroine who, as Brian says, needs more color in her life. There’s very little said in this scene, but we can see the trust between these leads grow in this simple act as Kenya lets go of control and allows Brian to pick a polish and paint her nails.

Let’s get vulnerable!

Here’s the crux: emotional intimacy = showing your leads getting vulnerable with each other. That means trusting each other with some of the deepest parts of themselves—their pasts, their family situations, their insecurities, their hopes and fears. The leading couple takes a risk each time they open up to each other. So get them talking! To share something personal with another and feel validated and not judged goes a long way to building an emotional bond.

A clip from the movie, "Love Hard".  The main protagonist describes his candle company

See it in action: There’s a scene that stands out in Love Hard, a fake relationship rom-com with a catfish twist, when Josh (Jimmy O. Yang) opens up to Natalie (Nina Dobrev) about his secret candle-making business, and the scent inspired by his late grandfather. In telling Natalie about his dream to quit his job and make candles, he takes a leap of faith. We get to learn something about the hero and what drives him, and we get to see the heroine listen without judgement and support his goal.

Satisfaction guaranteed.

What makes a satisfying love scene in any romance? When we’re left feeling that the emotional connection between our leads has grown! Readers want to see the protagonists’ wounds gradually heal and the defenses around their hearts come down. Remember that the reader is rooting for this couple—we want to see them get closer and feel hope that they can overcome their obstacles and choose love.

Movie poster for the movie "The Map of Tiny Perfect Things."

See it in action: Map of Tiny Perfect Things is a heartfelt romance wherein two teens—Margaret and Mark (Kathryn Newton and Kyle Allen)—find themselves stuck in a time loop. As they’re forced to re-live the same day over and over, they discover more about each other and all the beautiful small gestures and quiet acts of kindness occurring around them. Even as the audience re-lives the same 24-hour period with the leads, we get to watch them learn to appreciate each other in new ways.

And there you have it, our top tips on creating emotional intimacy! As you write, think about how each scene will either push your leads together or pull them apart (i.e.: romantic conflict, but we’ll save that for another day). That beautiful ebb and flow is what delivers readers the rush of falling in love!

Reading Material:

Before we jump into our final day of activities and events, grab some tips and tricks from our editors!

Young girl sitting in a library, reading a book.

Heat Levels: How Spicy Is Your Romance? – Write for Harlequin

What Gen Z Readers Are Looking to Find in Romance Novels – Write for Harlequin

Advice from the Archives: Your Romance Writing Checklist – Write for Harlequin

Today’s Challenge:

Join us for today’s writing sprint event on Zoom! The event takes place at 1PM EST and you can register for the event here! Use the tips above to craft a scene that creates emotional intimacy between your main characters and start writing it during the sprint (or on your own time if you’re not available to join!).

Looking for more of a challenge? Write 1500 words of your current work-in-progress.

Happy Writing!

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Editor associated with this post

Katie Gowrie
Associate Editor

Katie Gowrie is an editor for Love Inspired and Love Inspired Suspense. She graduated from Carleton University with a degree in Journalism and English Literature, but a short stint on the municipal politics beat affirmed for her that her true passion for storytelling lies in fiction. After completing her publishing certificate, she got her first job in publishing in the Harlequin proofreading department. She loved it so much, she’s been with the company for ten years. She finds it rewarding to have worked on such a range of romance titles and is incredibly inspired by the people who write them. She’s currently on the lookout for uplifting contemporary romances and thrilling romantic suspense featuring strong, relatable protagonists! When she’s not reading, Katie loves watching crime shows and historical dramas, travelling (whenever she can), and hanging out with her family.