One of the subtle arts to writing is choosing the steam level that best suits your story. Steam levels vary based on how explicit the romantic content is, starting with the G-rated, emotional moment of a first kiss to the erotic scene of two people making love. Knowing the right level to use can take your book from good to exceptional, and all steam levels sell because steam serves many necessary purposes. Love is something everyone yearns for. It’s relatable and, therefore, hooks readers from the get-go. But it also develops character depth and generates feel-good moments.
In this blog, I will address:
- Where steam works in literature
- What the different steam levels are
- How to pick the right steam level for your book
Where steam works in literature
Of course, steam is essential in romance novels. From first-love stories like Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon to Nicholas Sparks’s timeless romance, The Notebook, and certainly E. L. James’s racey Fifty Shades of Grey, these steamy moments are essential to the characters and the plot. But these authors use different levels of steam that fit well with their stories. In Everything, Everything, Yoon depicts the intense moment of a first kiss that is both simple and thrilling in its emotion. The Notebook utilizes a steamier level of description, though it delays the intimate moment, building tension until the couple is reunited later in the book. E. L. James, on the other hand, takes Fifty Shades of Grey to an erotic level, incorporating deeply sexual language and including several explicit scenes as the main character explores her sexuality and falls in love.
But steam of varying degrees can be highly effective in other genres as well. Veronica Roth’s Divergent, a dystopian story about a teen finding her way in a society where she doesn’t fit in, also contains first love and a sweet level of steam that addresses romance and even sex. Tamora Pierce is known for her fantasy adventures like her Song of the Lioness series, where her main character, Alanna, explores sex as a part of becoming a woman. And in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a suspenseful mystery, sex is extremely explicit and used to depict both abuse as well as what a healthy connection would look like.
What are the different levels of steam to choose from?
At HotGhostWriter, we break steam into four categories: G-rated, sweet, sensual/steamy, and erotic.
G-rated entails brief moments of physical contact, a chaste kiss. It is mainly about the emotional connection and yearning for the love interest, like in Everything, Everything. A G-rated level of steam would be good when writing the first-love trope, young adult novels, religious stories, and generally works for all genres.
The sweet steam level is more flirtatious with a physical connection and possible makeout sessions. It can contain hints of further intimacy behind closed doors but doesn’t include explicit scenes directly. This level would apply to the Divergent series or Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness books. Sweet steam is useful for tropes like second-chance love, more faith-based readers, teen or new adult books, and serves well as part of a subplot.
Sensual/steamy romance exhibits physical touch, but these books contain no more than two sex scenes, and those scenes should be largely emotion-based. The intimate scenes can be descriptive but tend to use more euphemistic language, nothing incredibly crude or crass. The Notebook is a perfect example of a sensual steam level. Sensual steam is common in all romance tropes, can act as a moment of relief in suspense, thrillers, action, or horror, and can appeal to a broader mature audience.
Erotic books are explicit but still tasteful. It includes emotional aspects while also being physically descriptive. But erotic does not mean incorporating sex for the sake of a sex scene. This level should tie in well with character growth and connection. Fifty Shades of Grey and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo both use an erotic steam level effectively. This level of steam is useful in plots (or subplots) that largely focus on sexuality and romance and works well for a more adult audience.
Finding the right steam level
Identifying the right level of steam for your book can feel like a daunting task. So here are some tips for making that process easier:
Consider your audience
When picking which level is right for your book, consider your target audience. Are you targeting young adults? New adults? A mature audience? Think about whether you aim to appeal to a religious audience, who might prefer a more sweet, G-rated read, or avid romance readers, who could appreciate steamier levels. What will your targeted readers expect to find? Understanding your audience’s expectations will largely guide you in your choice of steam level.
Think character arc
Next, focus on your character arcs. How will your characters grow from each romantic moment? What kind of romance will challenge them to grow? Remember, steamy scenes aren’t meant to be just that. Romance is as much a plot device as a cliffhanger or a flashback. It should provide insight for your readers and develop your characters.
Tie it to the plot
Along those same lines, ask yourself what turning point your steamy scene will address in the book. How will romance change the trajectory of your plot? Only include steamy scenes that move the story forward. The detective and his partner should only strike up a romantic affair if it’s going to somehow play into the book: perhaps the detective winds up making a reckless mistake in order to protect his partner, or the partner could prove to be a traitor, creating an even deeper betrayal because the detective thought they were in love. Romance should enhance the plot.
Identify the context
Context is another important consideration when deciding what steam level to use. What level works with the plot? You don’t want the romance to come out of the blue, so you have to address how it’s going to play a factor in your story and fit well in the context. If your heroine is a young high school student just learning about love for the first time, erotic sex scenes won’t fit the bill. Knowing the context of the story and matching it with the appropriate level of steam is crucial.
What is common in the genre?
Take into consideration how romance is commonly addressed in your genre. You’ll often find that certain genres use the same level of steam. It’s not wrong to break outside the norm, and try something new, but it is good to be aware of how others are using steam levels and whether their use is successful or not.
Keep it consistent
And finally, be sure to maintain a consistent tone. If you want to start with G-rated, don’t jump to sensual/steamy. Likewise, once you’ve established an erotic level, you can’t backtrack to sweet romance. It’s important to set a consistent level of steam and adhere to it throughout the book. This both develops a trust and understanding between you and your readers as well as defines what type of story you plan to tell.
Recognizing the different steam levels and when they’re appropriate can largely impact how successful your book will be. It’s key to identify which level will suit your story best. This can be done through considering your audience, how steam can facilitate your plot and character growth, and why it makes sense contextually. Then choose a level of steam you can maintain. When you apply these strategies to finding the right steam level for your novel, you’ll put your book on the track to success.
Struggling with knowing how steamy your book should be? Lost on how to incorporate intimacy into your story? HotGhostWriter can help! We have a full staff of trained ghost writers ready to assist you in all your book needs. Check out our extensive services at HotGhostWriter.com.