RNA Conference Penrith 09: Jessica Hart on Emotional Tension in Romance Fiction

Posted on Posted in Characterisation, Romantic Fiction Craft, Story Structure

 One of the brilliant aspects of the RNA Conference is the generosity of award winning authors such as Jessica Hart who are willing to sacrifice some of their life to share craft techniques.

Gold Dust.

This presentation was particularly relevant for me, since I write for the same line as Jessica.

Here is my rather pathetic attempt to capture some key element of Jessica’s excellent presentation on a crucial component of series romance – emotional tension.

WARNING – long post. Likely to cause flocks of crows to build nests on the roof of your house – mine at least.

Jessica Hart: Investing your story with Emotional Tension

Jessica has written over 50 books for the Mills and Boon Romance Line. Her comments are based on her experience with this line but are more widely applicable.

DEFINITION of Emotional Tension

When two people who care about each other do not say how they feel – or believe that they CANNOT say it – this generates the tension in a romance.

Reader –is engaged with and cares about the characters and can see the real problem between them. This couple are clearly right for one another – belong together.

Emotional tension builds UNCERTAINTY for the reader – how are this couple going to work through the gap between them?

The greater the level of uncertainty – like physically holding your breath- the greater the relief when you breathe out.

Story Structure

The love story in any romance is key, but it is no good unless it is hanging from a sound structural framework.

Blake Synder uses a 15 point plan to track the story line of his screenplays. His view is ‘why resist the formula when the formula works?’

{ My note – you can find more on the Synder structural techniques on his website and you can download the free 15 point Beat Sheet in the Tools section HERE.}

Key points can be applied to romance fiction, including:

  • You have to fulfil the promise of the premise. If you have promised the reader an upbeat fun read – you have to deliver that.  [ eg. Mills and Boon branding of each series]
  • Fun and Games section – the developing relationship etc.

Use of Story Themes

External forces will bring the hero and heroine together – linked to the themes or story ‘hooks’ which will appeal to the reader.

Jessica tends to think about the theme or hook first – this links to the cover art and Book Title.

Eg. “Honeymoon with the Boss.”  [Go HERE for the link to the Mills and Boon Site.]

Honeymoon = Pretend relationship form of the Marriage of Convenience hook,

Boss = Office romance

Setting= exotic tropical beach.

Put all of these together and the reader knows what they should expect to read- a promise.

Story Elements


e.g. A charity event where the hero and heroine are raising money. They have to work together for an external reason.

KEY: Has to be clear WHY the hero and heroine MUST do this.

Why can these characters not just walk away from this situation? Pay someone else to do it?

Something else has to be at stake here – something that matters. Which means that neither of them can walk away from the task.



Must have internal issues they have to deal with. Things which drive them.

KEY: Both need a GOAL – but this MUST be linked to an Emotional NEED.

e.g. the heroine may need money for financial security – but she does not need this for money alone.

e.g. the hero may be unable to commit because of his experience with his own parents.


KEY: Try to focus on common emotional issues and needs around the world.

 e.g. EMOTIONAL FEARS include Fear of: Loss, Rejection, Failure, Loneliness, Betrayal, Humiliation, Insecurity, Failure, Loosing face or status, Commitment.

e.g. If the heroine needs to become self-sufficient, is this linked to her fear of the hurt and pain of loss and failure when she relied on others?


 KEY: Ideally the goal of the hero should be opposite to that of the heroine –  keeping hero and heroine apart. Opposing emotional goals.

 e.g. the heroine wants to create a loving family home with children. The hero is afraid of falling in love and the pain of loss and has chosen a solitary life where he is unwilling to commit to a long term relationship.

 Note- do not make the hero too perfect. A sweet perfect man without flaws is boring.

One idea to develop a dream ideal hero? Put a woman’s head inside a man’s body.

Well, this is a fantasy.


3.      PLOT

In a series romance, Plot is a Series of Situations which are going to TEST the fears of the hero and heroine and push them out of their comfort zones – hard.

KEY: DO NOT Make it easy for them.

SHOW the powerful physical attraction- then let the barriers stop them from moving forward.

BLOCK the power of falling in love.

These situations will force the couple to TALK about the issues that divide them.  This is Vital. They way that they communicate is crucial.

As they talk there will be a growing awareness between them and each will have their assumptions about the other challenged.

But the Internal conflict within each character will block one or both of them from telling the other that they like them.

e.g. she tells him that she does not believe in love anymore. He is interested in her. And when he tells her that he loves her – and why – she cannot accept it, and backs off or walks away.

How can these two people get together after that? = Uncertainty for the reader.

KEY; THIS Is plotting –not simply moving the character from one location to another, but a series of situations where they are forced to communicate and build a relationship .Blocked by the real problem between these two people which is keeping them apart.


Summary: How do you create this Emotional Tension for the reader?

  • The reader has to understand WHY the hero and heroine believe that the relationship cannot work
  • Although this couple are clearly meant to be together
  • Make these relationships fraught with difficulty and uncertainty so that the reader is uncertain how they are going to get it together
  • Achieve this through the emotional goals and needs of the characters who are brought together through a situation where they cannot easily walk away, then make them communicate in a series of situations until those internal fears block the relationship.

6 thoughts on “RNA Conference Penrith 09: Jessica Hart on Emotional Tension in Romance Fiction

  1. Thank you Sue and ‘Waiting’ – Emotional Tension is SO difficult to write and can come across as contrived sometimes unless the character work is done up front. Best wishes for your own writing!

  2. So appropriate to what I’m struggling with in my current story. I’ve known all along I had a problem with the hero#s motivations and internal conflict. Why of why did I only figure out how to fix it over halfway through my second draft? Now it’s back to the beginning again to layer in the hints about what his issue is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *