While I only write in one romance sub-genre, romantic comedy, I know there are lots of other categories that fall under the love umbrella. Which makes sense, since you really can’t put matters of the heart into one catch-all category.
But since I’m relatively new at this romantic fiction thing, I’ve come to learn there is all sorts of stuff I didn’t know about the genre. Many things are self explanatory. I mean, the average reader can assume that a paranormal romance involves a character with special powers, ranging from mind reading to the ability to unhook a bra strap telekinetically. And sci-fi romance could involve an alien and infinite possibilities of hookups between humans and extraterrestrials, leading to the fictional “no hybrid left behind” congressional act which could theoretically force schools to provide football helmets that accommodate players with antennae.
The one thing I hadn’t heard was this method of categorizing romance called “heat level.” Apparently, from what I’ve discerned after research, it is the DEFCON system by which a reader can determine how “hot” the manuscript is, ranging from Leave it to Beaver all the way to Fifty Shades. While book covers do not come with the colorful jalapeno used on picante sauce labels that let the customer know if said condiment will add a mild or atomic kick to your burrito, there are several “levels” of heat when it comes to romance.
While there is much discussion about categorizing heat, there seem to be a few categories that most romance authors and readers agree on. Since there must be plenty of other romance rookies out there, I thought I’d take a shot at breaking down the heat levels by telling the same story within each category.
SWEET: Richard and his steady girl Virginia Mary decide to visit the malt shop after seeing the latest G-rated movie, which, incidentally, took Richard two months to find. They enter the malt shop while engaged in pre-marital hand holding and order some chicken fingers with honey sauce and a vanilla shake. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” from the Grease soundtrack is playing on the jukebox. The only bodily fluids exchanged in the entire book are when they share the milkshake with two straws. After the shake is gone Richard offers his date the maraschino cherry, which makes her melt and fall madly in love. We know what they do on their wedding night but don’t have to read it. They live happily ever after. Awwww. (Let’s be honest. The real world needs more of this, but time machines don’t exist.)
MODERATE: Richie and his girlfriend Virginia emerge from the theater after watching a terrific RomCom and decide to grab a late night snack. They hit the nearby malt shop, grabbing a booth and ordering chicken fingers with sweet & sour sauce and a couple of chocolate shakes. Barry White is playing on the jukebox. (Doesn’t matter which song.) Their knees brush, sending electricity through their bodies and making them think about other things they might do with chocolate. Virginia finishes her shake, grabs the cherry and seductively slides it into her mouth, slowly pulling out the stem. Richie quickly breaks into a sweat, tosses a twenty dollar bill on the table and leads his date out of the malt shop. They end up spending the night together, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Nice.
SENSUAL: Rich and his main squeeze Ginny have worked up an appetite after watching an R-rated movie which pushed the envelope and nearly got an NC-17 rating due to a scene involving a bungee jumping hooker. (Don’t ask.) They visit the malt shop next door where they get chicken fingers with hot sauce. Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” is playing on the jukebox. Ginny makes a big deal out of ordering a banana shake with extra banana, raising one eyebrow and licking her lips. When she’s done she takes the cherry, pulls off the stem, pops it into her mouth, and ties it in a knot with her tongue. She presents the stem to Dick who has a flashback to the movie, then orders a box of maraschino cherries in a to-go box. After a quick trip to the supermarket for whipped cream and chocolate sauce, and a stop at a sporting goods store for a strong rubber band, they spend the entire weekend in her bedroom giving new meaning to the term “chocolate sundae” and live happily ever after.
EROTIC: Exotic dancer Dick is shirtless and dripping with sweat as he leads Gin into the malt shop, admiring her halter top, hot pants and go-go boots that tell him she was a Dallas cheerleader in a previous life. Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby” is playing on the jukebox. A waitress in a bikini swings by on a trapeze to take their order, which consists of chicken feathers, a bottle of chocolate sauce, a can of whipped cream, and a double order of oysters. Though he doesn’t need it, Dick washes down a Viagra and sets the timer on his iPhone for four hours, making sure he has his physician on speed dial. Gin replaces her halter top with whipped cream, then, since it’s Karaoke night, she does her best Donna Summer impression while drizzling chocolate sauce on her date and simultaneously teasing him with the feathers. Dick can’t stand it anymore and takes her on the counter, upon which one of her boots flies off and hits the jukebox, which starts playing Ravel’s Bolero. They may or may not live happily ever after, but we don’t really care.