Sensual, Senseless, and Sensible: Three Stages of Romance Novel Love
Developing a romantic relationship is a lot like boxing.
After warming up and bouncing around, you size up your opponent. Your opponent might even make you sweat. While the time-honored “rules of engagement” go through your head, you briefly make eye contact. A bell rings either in your head or your heart. You put up your dukes and make your approach, meeting your opponent in the center of the ring. You begin to circle each other, maybe even for days and weeks, throwing out verbal jabs, a few shots below the belt, and even a few uppercuts. You may find yourself in a “clinch”--or on the ropes. Another bell sounds, and the moment ends. You go back to your corner of the world and rest, and you wonder, “What in the world just happened?” A friend gives you advice on how you can win the match: “Keep moving and don’t let him box you into the corner.” You take pieces of that advice and ignore the rest, another bell (or cellphone) rings, and you go out for round two ...
I fully believe that both people are supposed to knock each other out by the end of a romance novel. It shouldn't be a one-sided affair. One character shouldn't master or "tame" the other--they should tame each other. Don’t the best romances end in a draw and a very long clinch? The best relationships between characters in romance novels seem to have a combination of sensual, senseless, and sensible love—with a heavy emphasis on sensible love.
Let’s look at the stages I put my couples through in many of my novels:
Stage 1: Sensual Love
Sensual love involves animal magnetism or “chemistry,” that primal attraction that draws one person to another. Without saying so, each character thinks, I like the way s/he looks, smells, tastes, sounds, and feels. Sometimes, however, this “chemistry” becomes “biology” too soon when want instead of need dominates their thoughts. When this happens, their senses overrule their souls, and their eyes and glands overrule their minds. Sensual lovers believe, “What I see is what I get, and I like what I see.” The parts are greater than the sum of the parts—“She has nice curves and sexy eyes … I love his shoulders and husky voice.” These lovers seem to say, “Love is fleeting! Carpe diem! Seize the day!” This couple is on fire, like two comets or two shooting stars, and they are more interested in what they can sense than what they think. They’re not that interested in personality or romance, especially when they’re apart. They want contact, and they want contact often. This kind of relationship rarely lasts the test of time and often ends abruptly.
Stage 2: Senseless Love
If they make it past sensual love, I release them into the senseless love stage. Senseless love involves two people whose minds don’t have a single thought. Even though they find it strange to put someone else first in their lives, they throw caution to the wind and fall in love—with love. When this happens, obsession and lust take precedence over need, senselessness dominates the soul, and the mind—which plays its many tricks—overrides reality. Senseless lovers believe, “What I feel is what I get, and I like what I feel.” The parts are still greater than the sum of the parts—“I love how her body makes me feel … I love the way he touches me." These lovers seem to say, “I don’t care if love is blind because this is truly love at first sight.” These lovers are like whirlwinds and chaotic storms. They can’t think straight and often have difficulty making and keeping commitments. This kind of relationship lasts as long as lust or as long as their significant others perform to their satisfaction, and it often ends with a bang—or a whimper.
Stage 3: Sensible Love
As my novels near their climax, my couples wise up and start to think sensibly. Sensible love involves a physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual connection, a durable bond between two people. It is a marriage of minds with one common thought--love for each other. This is devoted, selfless, caring, affectionate love beyond the physical and far deeper than the surface. This is hopeful, romantic love worth waiting for and fighting for—this is soul mate love. Sensible love emphasizes need instead of want or obsession. Sensible love accentuates the soul over the senses. Sensible lovers believe, “What I know is what I get, and I like what I know.” The sum of the parts is much greater than the parts—“I love how she makes me feel … I love the way that I feel when I’m with him”—warts and all. Sensible lovers seem to say, “Loving is doing--period.” These lovers are a mixture of earth, wind, and fire, they share the same mind, and they’re romantic especially when they’re apart. Commitment is not an issue. A relationship based on sensible love lasts.
Using the 3 Stages to Plot a Novel
I usually begin my novels with my characters wrapped up in sensual love. Their eyes meet. They feel the attraction. They desire more. They long to get physical. This leads to some senseless love: sweaty days and nights, illogical arguments, spontaneous passion, misinterpreted gestures, and abrupt departures. Finally, my two lovebirds think it completely through and decide to practice sensible love, that kind of love that was meant to be. They start talking marriage, children, and the house in the country. While they used to hold hands to show off in front of others in the first two stages, now they hold hands when they're alone in the silence and solace of the night.
By taking my characters through these three stages, I allow them to grow and mature in their love. While there are readers who prefer sensual and senseless love throughout a romance novel, I believe that ending a romance novel with sensible love can make a novel timeless and unforgettable.