Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fiona Harper on Writing: more cliches - inappropriate touching!

Last month I talked a bit about clichés, why they’re so tempting and why it’s good to find a fresh way of doing something that’s been done to death. So what’s this month’s cliché that’s going to be put under the spotlight? Inappropriate touching! Okay, you can get your minds out the gutter now while I explain what I mean…

Picture the scene: hero and heroine sharing an intimate moment, they might have just kissed, or they might be about to, and the hero reaches across and brushes the heroine’s hair from her face, maybe tucks it behind her ear.

We’ve all seen it done a hundred times – because it’s a lovely intimate gesture that romantic and shows a nurturing side to our strong, sexy hero. I’ve read books where, even though the hero does this familiar action, it’s fresh and romantic and sigh-worthy. I’ve also read books with the same gesture that make me want to scream. Why?

Sometimes an author pulls this gesture out of her bag of tricks because she wants a soft moment between hero and heroine, but just doesn’t time it right. I’ve read scenes where they hardly know each other, or the hero is being a total jackass, or they’ve just had a massive fight, and then he leans close and tucks her hair behind her ear. And she lets him. It never rang true to me in these situations, because it implies trust and intimacy to let someone into your personal space in such a way. My reaction, if a man who’d been a grade A jerk to me all evening then tried to touch me that way, would be to pull away, step back. Run, maybe. And now I know why:

Desmond Morris, zoologist and people-watching expert, has listed 12 steps of intimacy. Linda Howard does a great seminar on this. There’s one for download from the RWA conference in 2010 here. There are also great blog posts about it on Manuscript Mavens and Terry Odell has a great summary on her blog.
I’m not going to go into the 12 steps in detail here (you can check out the above links for that), but here they are:

Stage 1: Attraction – friendly or romantic
1. Eye to body (looking at each other)
2. Eye to eye (that all-important eye contact)
Stage 2: Mind to Mind – getting to know each other/friendship
3. Voice to voice (sharing, talking)
4. Hand to hand/arm (first touch, preliminary test)
5. Arm to shoulder (protective/supportive)
Stage 3: Moving into the area of romance…
6. Arm to waist/back (bodies getting closer)
7. Face to face (kissing!)
8. Hand to head (rarely happens unless between family members or in a loving relationship)
9. Hand to body (including massage, affectionate caressing, more sensual caressing)
Stage 4: Sexual intimacy (all pretty self-explanatory!)
10. Mouth to breast
11. Hand to genitals
12. Genitals to genitals
Now I understand why some of those touchy-face moments in books and films pulled me out of the story instead of drawing me into the romance. Hand to head touching is incredibly intimate, even farther up the scale than kissing! Sometimes the hero and heroine haven’t even touched before that moment, and then they’ve rocketed up the scale far too fast.

I’m not saying we have to be a slave to the intimacy ‘rules’, because a good scene in the hands of a good writer can break the rules and still be sensual and romantic, but if we know the rules, we’ll know when it’s the right time to bend or even break them, instead of scratching our heads and wondering why the romantic ‘moment’ we’ve just written seems to fall flat.

Fiona's latest release is The Guy To Be Seen With, part of Harlequin's brand new KISS line, available in North America in March 2013 and for sale from eHarlequin NOW!

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  1. There's a touching (as in the physical meaning of the word) scene that I've seen in 98% of the romance books I've read in the last 18 months. After about the sixth time in a row I had to put the book down and scream "No, not again!" Then I was ok and could continue the book.
    The scene: He touched his forehead to hers. Arrgh. One had: She touched her forehead to his. (She was sitting on his lap which made that possible since she wasn't taller than him.) It's a nice intimate scene and I guess it fits in around #7, but when it appears in most every book I read, it becomes cliché.
    Thanks for the list and the links!

  2. Sometimes you just have to vent, Christy! Glad you let it all out and continued with the book.

    I've just read another face-touching scene in the book I'm reading today! And, yes, they were at a stage in their relationship where both were set on keeping their distance from the other one. Sigh.

  3. Excellent post, Fi! Thanks for the reminder. And you know I've never actually seen the scale before. Will print it and save it. Now I'll be watching for this in the next book I read. :-)

  4. It's helpful, isn't it? Makes me think of the interesting steps you can use BEFORE lip action that are also so sensual.

  5. I don't think a man has ever tucked a lock of my hair behind my ear ... I'd probably flinch! Now I'm wondering if I've written it ... Great post, Fiona, I'll be cutting and pasting too. :0)