“Is this a kissing book?”
Oh hell, yes. Those are the best kind.
The secret to writing a good kissing book is: don’t have too much kissing.
I KNOW. It seems counterintuitive. And yet it’s true.
Because you know what we love more than the kissing even if we don’t realize it? The stuff leading up to the kissing. Yeah. All that delicious tension, building, making us downright impatient, and then BAM. Kissing. And the crowd goes wild!!!!!!
But only for about five seconds. Then they get bored and you have to pull out a different trick.
And that is why we don’t have too much kissing and it doesn’t go on too long.
I remember my earliest exposure to this principle: Moonlighting with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. Mind you, I was the child who would flee the room in embarrassment when the Close Up toothpaste kissing commercial came on. But even I got to the point where I was screaming for David and Maddie to get together. And at last they did and the nation rejoiced! And then . . . yawned.
Remington Steele did the same thing, now that I think about it. You’re just dying for Laura and Remington to get it over with and then they do and YAY! And then . . . yawn. But when Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth get together, we stay happy because it fades to black right after the payoff.
So the tension matters, and the trick is finding the balance between how long you can play it out before you lose the reader while not playing it out so long that you can’t pay it off.
There are two primary schools of thought on this. You can take either the Half Plus Final or End Game Only approach.
I like the Half Plus Final approach. This is when you build up to a character kiss about a third to halfway through, drive them apart through an external conflict, and then reconcile them with a final, epic kiss. That allows you to play with some levels here, pushing the chemistry to a high, then dropping it, then leveling up again. It also allows you to establish the chemistry early and lead the reader to cheer harder for the couple to work toward reconciliation.
End Game Only is one kiss at the end. This is trickier because it means you’ve built the tension longer so the emotional payoff and the kiss are going to have to meet higher expectations, but if you pull it off, then it’s a deliciously rewarding kiss, the dizzying, epic kind.
So what’s the build up? How do you ratchet that tension higher?
Think middle school. Yeah. All the answers to the best tension are there. Think about how loaded every moment felt with your early crushes: every look, every glance was carrying major freight. But why? Sometimes there’s just that chemistry thing that happens. Pheremones, basically. But since books aren’t scratch and sniff, we can’t depend on that as writers.
That’s okay, because if you think about it, the deep crushes were built on the stories we imagined around who the person was, whether it was true or not. I had many middle school crushes on quiet boys because I convinced myself they were still waters that ran deep. (Sometimes that was true. Sometimes they were just seventh grade boys who hadn’t found much to talk about yet.)
So to keep it sustainable, character chemistry must be rooted in something: attraction to physical appearance is the simplest and shakiest foundation to build on. Attraction to that mystery of who someone is, even when a character is fighting it, sets up a mini arc as the characters involved begin to peel back each other’s layers and expose vulnerabilities that make a kiss both emotionally risky and inevitable.
It’s fire, baby. You kindle with it those looks, those jabs and feints, those little brushes of hands, those caught-you-looking moments, those conversations that take each other a little further behind each other’s facades.
And then . . . then you light it up and let it burn.
Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..