The slow burn. That feeling when you’re reading a book where you want to throw it across the room because these two idiots can’t see how perfect they are for each other and won’t smash their faces together already. Teenage angst. Pining. Unrequited love. These are all the slow burn in action, making you simmer. How do authors do it? There are a few crucial elements every slow burn needs.
A slow burn is when the romantic attraction between characters builds slowly over the course of a novel or series. Slow burns can appear in all kinds of fiction, but romance is renowned for its mastery of this kind of prolonged building of emotion. For the sake of this article, I’m going to be primarily talking about two person relationships.
A crucial element to the slow burn is well developed characters. Part of the reason the reader wants these people together is because we care deeply about who they are. We have fallen in love with each of these people. We are rooting for them. We want the best for them and for them to be happy. Also, we get a lot more time with each character, since the couple usually spends less time on the page together than in love at first sight or fated mates. If we don’t care about who these characters are as people, then the slow burn is ineffectual because we don’t have the patience to wait out their building tension. In this case, the author has written a boring book.
There needs to be a good reason that these two people can’t be together right now: distance, work, impropriety. Many readers say that they don’t like reading books where the characters could easily be together if they just talked to each other. They don’t think it’s a good enough reason for them to be apart. I disagree. That is the kind of reason that keeps people apart in real life: misunderstandings, fear of being vulnerable, insecurities.
In a slow burn, it’s even better to pile multiples of these emotional reasons on top of each other and throw in a few tropes along the way. The more things keeping the two apart, the better. Pair a misunderstanding with an insecurity, and there’s no way these people are getting together for at least 250 pages. The important thing is that they are pining for each other and that the reader wants them to get together, too. The more obstacles between them, the more the author can ramp up their feelings for each other over time, creating that agonizingly delicious build of attraction between the characters.
Complicated relationships leave lots of room for unresolved tension between the characters. Have them alone in a room where they are close enough to kiss, but get interrupted. Pining looks across a crowded room. Brushing up against each other and feeling the sear on their skin. Getting the scent of their hair and not being able to touch them. The author needs to make them ache for each other, causing us readers to ache for them as well.
The intimacy and desire between these potential lovers needs to build steadily for the first two-thirds of the novel at least. The reader should want these two together so bad that they can’t stop reading and think about them when they aren’t reading. There should be innuendo that can be easily misconstrued. The character should think, “Did that mean what I think it meant?” and ponder it for the next 50 pages.
Unresolved tension is key to pacing slow burns. Give too much up between the lovers too soon, and the reasons they can’t be together are boring, not bubbling with anticipation.
Absolutely crucial to the slow burn is The Moment, the pinnacle of their pining. You know the one: where finally, finally they kiss or are vulnerable or share their feelings. This moment should get the reader whooping out loud or fist pumping while shouting “finally!”
It’s the payoff for all the careful building of tension the author has been crafting over hundreds of pages. Even better if after this moment, the characters still can’t be together for one reason or another, prolonging the heat. This moment is what the reader has been turning hundreds of pages for. It’s the reason so many slow burns become rereads.
Readers love slow burn romances for the feelings they give them. They want the angst and the longing looks. They want a book that’s going to make them feel disquiet with the comfort of knowing there’s the promise of a happily ever after. Slow burns remind readers that uncertainty in relationships can have a huge payoff that’s worth all the searing pain that comes before it.