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How to Write BDSM Romance: Start With the Heart and Soul (and Dirty Dancing)

Learn how to write BDSM romance with heart and soul in this piece by Joey W. Hill, author of 50 published contemporary and paranormal BDSM romances.

How did a North Carolina woman living in a small town make a successful 15+ year career out of writing BDSM romance? By understanding three things: 1) what BDSM romance is, 2) who reads it, and 3) the right mindset to write it.

(Flying Sparks: 5 Tips for Writing "Clean Romance" That's Just as Hot as Explicit Sex Scenes)

What is BDSM Romance?

Many authors (and readers) who haven't read BDSM romance believe it is about lots of sex and dirty words. Oh, and the sex starts on page one. Cue the chick-a-bow-wow music and the copy repair man and busty secretary…

There is a strong sexual component to BDSM romance and yes, many use sexually explicit words that fit the moment or characters. And good BDSM romance is arousing. My favorite compliment from a reader is "my husband loves your books, and he hasn't read ONE!" But the reason for that praise isn't because I know how to write good sex mechanics, or I have an impressive command of explicit terms for genitalia. Check one-star reviews for BDSM romance, and they'll often include comments like, "It was one sex scene after another; no connection to the characters. It left me cold."

So if it's not endless sex scenes that make your BDSM romance successful, what is it?

Let's talk about Dirty Dancing.

No one expected the film to become a classic, with over 30 years of enduring popularity. But when we sat down in the theater, the compelling characters drew us in, the love story engaged our hearts, and we could relate to the conflict. Oh, and wait, what was that other thing about it? Dancing.

The dancing was integral to the evolution of the characters, and provided insight into who they were, which made us care so much more about them. It was also a vehicle to resolve the conflicts and helped us cheer when Baby indeed did not get left in the corner. In short, dancing was a vital part of every key scene of the movie, including that unforgettable erotic scene between Johnny and Baby, when they first made love to the background music of "These Arms of Mine."

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In BDSM romance, the eroticism is the dancing. It ties it all together, advances our understanding of the characters, helps them grow, resolves conflicts, and brings us to a satisfying conclusion. If an author attempting to write BDSM romance crafts what he/she considers the "real story" and then caulks it with sex scenes, those seams will show. The sex is as instrumental to building the heart and soul of the relationship as any other part of the story.

Important note, however. It doesn't mean actual sex happens on the first page, though it can. It also might not happen until halfway through the book. BDSM romance's primary audience is female romance readers. Women need foreplay. The simmering may start on the first page, but the truly powerful erotic moments happen after the readers are invested in the characters and their story. Which leads to our next point.

Do you yearn to write a romantic story? If so, you need to know what sets romance writing apart from other types of fiction. This course explores why romance is the same, yet different. Some essential components of romance are unique to the genre, while some romance requirements are identical to those of any good fiction story. Neither Stephen King nor Tom Clancy could sit down and write a romance unless he first familiarized himself with the specific factors that create a successful romance. This workshop will help you to understand those specific factors that make up the specialized world of romantic fiction.

Who is reading BDSM romance?

BDSM romance evolved with the desire to read romance that more closely aligns with the sexual imagination of its readership. As sexual expression for women became more liberated over the past few decades, romance discovered it had the breathing room to explore their fantasies more deeply.

To put this in context, think back to when romance authors started "going beyond the bedroom door." At the time it happened, many romance readers had reached the point they wanted to go into the bedroom with the characters. They wanted to not only explore the romance and sexual tension that happened before actual sex happened, they wanted to see how the characters evolved emotionally during sex, and with sex as an ongoing part of the equation.

As these romances continued to go past the bedroom door, the bodice ripper genre was routinely offering heroes who would "seemingly" overwhelm the heroine with pleasure. Hold her wrists down as he was bringing her to climax, threaten her with a spanking, blindfold her and feed her from his fingertips to teach her to trust him. The authors of these books were tapping into power exchange dynamics. Not always in the most politically correct way, but they were following their own and their readers' fantasies toward the realization of actual Dom/sub romance relationships and protocols. Kind of like how we moved from the "never mention protection because it's not romantic" mandate to the current "protection wasn't mentioned, and it really pulled the reader out of the story" reality.

So the readers reading erotic romance now, particularly BDSM romance, are simply the readers who have traveled past the bedroom door and continue to explore sexual fantasies within the contexts of the romances they love. Which means they are looking for the same quality romance fiction as they always have. They demand excellent characterization, strong writing, and an engaging plot line. What happens to the characters must matter to them; otherwise, they won't buy more of that author's work. The driving factor in any story with "romance" in its genre description is people falling in love, and/or more deeply exploring that relationship.

Truly Helpless by Joey W. Hill

Truly Helpless by Joey W. Hill

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BDSM offers an intriguing additional layer to that relationship. The best romance in any genre works because it's a mix of fantasy and reality. In BDSM romance, the fantasy can be the glitzy club, or how smoothly the session goes without a lot of pre-negotiation, or how intuitive the Dom/me is. The reality part will be the emotions impacting the characters, what the BDSM dynamics unlock inside them and reveal, to the readers and each other. BDSM is a power exchange, which requires trust, intimacy and, when done right, achieves a connection that can be breathtaking, on-page or off.

Good romance also connects to our real lives, and BDSM romance is no different. Characters have families, work issues, stresses, etc. The Dom/sub relationship and their BDSM practices integrate with that reality. The elements that make someone a Dom or sub show themselves in those situations, too.

Now, another good point about BDSM romance. Many readers who read BDSM romance do not practice it. They probably picked up the first book because it was intriguing, to read about a world that wasn't their own. But what kept them reading in the genre is they found common emotional ground, things in the characters' journey they recognized; desires, needs, or motivations that were familiar. The readers realized this world that seemed so different from their own, isn't really. But it's different enough to keep them visiting for the escape, as well as the emotional exploration.

Can you be a BDSM romance author?

If any of the points above resonated with you, if you found yourself saying "yes, that's the kind of romance I love to read and want to write," then you are on the right track. An author wanting to write BDSM romance will love, and be eager to use, sexual expression to forward the emotional aspects of the romantic relationship. Caulking in sex scenes, as noted above, is not even on that author's radar. He/she already has an idea of what kind of erotic scenes they want in the book, and how they'll further the story, deepen the character development and move the plot forward with them.

An interviewer (from Romance Divas) once asked me a question that pretty much described the function of the erotic scenes in a BDSM romance: "Each sex scene is part of the character's journey to a specified goal: a happy ending, freedom, self-actualization. How do you add layers to each sexual encounter to give the reader a sense of that journey?"

The answer to that is something anyone penning a BDSM romance should ask themselves, with every page they write.

Want more info on writing BDSM Romance? Email Joey at storywitch@storywitch.com for a PDF of BDSM Romance: Start with the Heart and Soul, the handout from her 2018 RWA Chicago workshop. [Note: Joey doesn't collect email addresses: This offer is a "pay it forward," with the selfish hope that it results in better BDSM romances for her to read!]

Writing the Romance Novel

Do you yearn to write a romantic story? If so, you need to know what sets romance writing apart from other types of fiction. This workshop will help you to understand those specific factors that make up the specialized world of romantic fiction.

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