How much passion is too much?

Ah February. Valentine’s Day. Love is in the air. My daughter said to me the other day, “Huh, I have a boyfriend now. Guess I should think of something to do for Valentine’s Day.”

You know one of us had to go there. Love. Might as well be me.

I am constantly amazed at how often this question comes up: How much romance do you like it your mysteries?

It’s been asked–and answered–any number of times on any number of blogs. You’d think the question would die down. But it doesn’t. It’s always there. How much passion can you tolerate between characters in a mystery?

And the answers run the gamut. A few anti-love folks say “none at all.” Cozy aficionados are usually okay with some romance, but please; close the door. Some are okay with a little bit sexier scenes, but don’t want the blow-by-blow (no “tab A in slot B” as a friend of mine once said). And others, bring it on, baby.

I don’t think it’s possible to write a story while ignoring human emotions. And one of those emotions–perhaps one of the most powerful (if not the most powerful)–is love. Love between families, friends, and yes, lovers.

Fortunately for readers, the amount of love is all over the map. If you’re a “close the door” type, there are books for you. If you like your love a little steamier, there are books like that, too. And not just erotica.

Then there’s the corollary question for writers: How comfortable are you writing about love? Sex in particular? Again, the answers are all over the place. For some, not at all. Others are okay with skirting the edges. And some can go all out.

As a police-procedural writer, I’ve got a bit more leeway in the “heat level” of my love scenes than, say, someone who writes about a mystery-solving quilting club. But writing it always got me queasy. What if my prose sounded like the script to some cheap B- movie? So in an online scene-writing class, I challenged myself. I was going to write an honest-to-God sex scene. So I did.

I wasn’t half bad. Actually, the teacher was surprised I’d never written a sex scene before. And I wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable writing it as I thought I was. And that made me happy. Because it means that if I have to, I’ll be able to write that scene.

And there, for me, is the key phrase. If I have to. Because although the procedural sub-genre gives me license to be a bit steamier, the story might not give me the same. And throwing a sex scene out there because I can is a yuckier idea than the scene itself. Every scene must advance the story. At least for a mystery. So that’s my key question: can this story proceed without the sex?

And hey, if you just want the steam I guess that’s what erotica is for.

So readers, tell me: how do you feel about romance in mystery and how much is “too much” when it comes to passion on the page?

Mary Sutton | @mary_sutton73


Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog again - one of these days.

13 thoughts on “How much passion is too much?”

  1. Love this post, Mary! What a great question. Personally, I’m a fan of a little romance on the page, but it’s a fine balance. I mean, how trusting and open to a new relationship should the MC be when there’s a full blown murder investigation going on?

    On that note, I’ve been watching Miss Fisher lately and find it fascinating that she seems to have this sixth sense about which men she gets involved with. None of them have been the culprit! (At least not yet…).


  2. Heh, there was some TV detective – I forget who – where every time he got involved with a woman the hubby and I would look at each other and say, “Well, she’s bad news.” And she was. Not always because she was a killer, but in some way just–bad.

    Also, it depends on who the MC is involved with. A suspect? Not really good. A police officer? Eh, maybe not. Someone else? Possibly.


  3. What a terrific—and passionate—topic!

    As a writer, I never called my books romantic suspense. While there is an element of attraction, it isn’t a key element. And I had one reader who was disappointed there wasn’t more. I think if my first was Mark they may not have had the same expectations.

    Joseph Finder quit writing sex scenes in his books when he discovered that as a reader, those were the scenes he skimmed and skipped in order to stay with the story.

    As a reader, I like to know the relationships and feel the attraction, but don’t take me out of the story. Not ever. If I want romance and steam, I’ll read romance and steam.

    Excellent post! (And thanks for allowing me to think my way to my own clarification!)


  4. Very timely! As a reader, I have to say it depends on the story. I’m not at all offended by graphic scenes as long as the writer handles it well (many don’t) and the scene fits (often it doesn’t). You are definitely on to something about leeway being genre driven. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot steaming up the windows in the Studebaker – nope. But procedurals, thrillers, and the like, as long as it’s not gratuitous, it’s fine with me.

    There is a corollary to romance on the page though. I have noticed that when characters marry, the series often (but not always) loses its “oomph” and becomes more romance with bodies.

    Good post, Mary.


  5. Great post, Mary! Besides the question of gratuitous sex, there is the issue of your mother-in-law reading the book. That is another awkward moment. I’m currently writing for a romance publisher and heat level is always on my mind. 🙂


  6. Peg, that’s interesting about Joseph Finder. Something to think about if and when I ever get to that point. In the only book I wrote that even hints at a sex scene, the couple is married and it was just sort of “fade to black” because there wasn’t any point to going into detail.

    Kait, you’ve got a point. It’s like the books were so much about the tension, now that the tension is resolved, the books are all about either nothing or the every day of marital life. With bodies. 🙂

    Sam, or step mom! My mother-in-law is deceased, but I’d turn all sorts of red if my step-mom read a really juicy sex scene in one of my stories.

    Keenan, you are not alone. It’s like what got them there and what happens after is far more interesting than the act itself.


  7. I agree, Kate, with your comment about couples vs. individuals. When two distinct and dynamic characters get married within a “series” of books or TV shows, they somehow become only one (usually less effective) character. This obviously does not happen when the two are married from the start of the series because in that instance, the writer develops them as two characters from the start. When I see two strong characters becoming a couple, I know the end is near as far as my attention goes.

    As I have said many times, I want characters to be real and believable, Unless you are writing about someone in a nunnery, there should be social interaction, romance, attraction, and sex, but as a reader of mysteries, I am not looking for soft-core porn in my reading. (There are lots of other writers and books for that.) I do think that, being “real,” characters in a long series of books must move through life just like real people. When a late 30-something character dates a new person in every book, or worse yet dates the same person book after book, I just want to scream “move on and become an adult already.” I guarantee that in real life, no relationship would go on year after year in some “small” town.

    OK, all you writers, if you have a series that has progressed through several books with characters who have some romantic “tension” Please, please, please when they get married, be sure that each person keeps his or her own personality; don’t merge them into one “character.” That is not how my marriage is, and I’ll bet your marriages are not like that either.


  8. 3 no 7: Got it (writes notes to self for future books)

    Becky, I can’t take full credit for that. And I agree with you on both reader and writer counts.

    Kimberly, interesting. At the same time, I hate it when the “will they-won’t they” goes on forever. So I guess the question is how to keep them apart and maintain the tension without prompting the “oh just do it already!” reaction.

    Cynthia, I’m with you. I don’t need romance, but done well it adds to the story.


  9. It doesn’t have to be romance, but I need some sort of push-pull attraction between characters. As you said, Mary: “I don’t think it’s possible to write a story while ignoring human emotions.” Tension makes the story more interesting, so I agree with what others have said about not wanting the couples to get together.


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