What exactly does it mean for a romance to be a fast burn? There’s no true authority on this matter. It’s simply a term that has come up in opposition to the “slow burn.” But I read tons of romance, and I’m an avowed fan of the so-called fast burn romance, so I’ll weigh in. Simply put, a fast burn romance does not involve much delay before the main characters get together. What complicates the definition is what “get together” means and what causes the fast burn.
There’s something of a chicken-or-egg question in the strong preferences of romance readers and the wide variety of romances that cater to very particular tastes. But some readers really want to be put through the wringer. They’ll wait possibly hundreds of pages for protagonists to do anything more than secretly yearn for each other. Sometimes I’m in the mood for that, too. But more often I say, let’s get this show on the road! I want to see mess. I want to see characters who can’t pry themselves away from each other even if logic dictates that they should not give in to their impulses. So if you’re wondering what is fast burn romance, here are some traits.
Are They Feeling Each Other or Are They Feeling Each Other?
One of the trickiest things to know when deciding what is fast burn romance is whether what you’re looking for is an emotional connection or a physical connection. Fast burn as a term alone doesn’t really clear that up! Are their hearts burning or their loins? So additional terms or tropes can help a reader know what to expect going in.
I think more often than not, a fast burn romance does ratchet up the physical aspect of the relationship early in the book. While a romance’s plot may simply depict characters who are hot for each other and jump right into the sack — let’s face it, that’s perfectly realistic — there are often some tropes at play.
On the more realistic side, there are one night stands that don’t end up being one night only. Similarly, friends with benefits sometimes can’t stay only friends. Less realistic but theoretically popular are tropes like sex pacts or “kissing lessons” that give characters some kind of practical reason for sex. In the realms of the speculative, we get tropes like aphrodisiacs and fated mates, where characters might bang in the first act. And any romance labeled as erotic more likely has sex fairly early in the story.
If we’re talking about books where the emotions are running hot right from the start, those books often get labeled as instalove. That term can used derisively from readers. Given that you can find plenty of books online using “instalove” in their kindle edition subtitle, however, it’s obviously a draw for other readers. Whether sex happens early in these books isn’t a given.
What Isn’t a Fast Burn Romance?
Obviously, any book marketed as a slow burn won’t qualify. As with fast burn romances, it’s not necessarily clear whether it’s the emotional connection or the physical connection that’s taking a long time to establish. Other indicators that a book might be a slow burn are terms like “mutual pining” or “friends-to-lovers.” Plenty of tropes people love can come in both fast burn and slow burn varieties. Enemies-to-lovers and fake dating romances, for example, can happen at any pace at all.
What makes this all even more confusing is what constitutes “normal,” as in the pace slow and fast are compared to. I suppose mathematically, we can gauge from the halfway mark. But again, at that halfway mark, should characters have realized their feelings? Kissed? Gone to the bone zone? There’s a lot of subjectivity. While some may consider it a spoiler, I think it’s a wonderful service when readers specify something like “They didn’t even kiss until 85% into the book!” so that I can (cue Dionne Warwick) walk on by.
Can a book without sex on the page be considered a fast burn romance? I don’t see why not, as characters can have instant sizzling chemistry regardless of how explicitly sex is written. But I can’t think of an example. When it comes to fade-to-black romances or open-door vs. closed-door romance (just don’t call them “clean”), I think it’s safe to say books labeled as fade-to-black or closed-door are unlikely to be a fast burn.
Matters of Quality
As someone who spends a great deal of time thinking about what makes a quality romance, there are plenty of literary elements one can test for quality. First are characters who are fleshed out and interesting (note I did not say likeable!) to read about. Next is a plot that I enjoy; this matters less in romance than other genres but it sure does explain why it’s rare for me to like a workplace romance. Why do I want to be reading about work? Then there’s the matter of tension. How and why is the tension ratcheting between protagonists? What are the obstacles they need to get past and how are they going to do it?
Some critics of the fast burn romance may feel they lack tension and therefore quality. I don’t believe in such hard and fast rules for romance. Sexual tension isn’t the only kind of tension out there, and even if characters have sex early on, there may be plenty of obstacles to face before finding their happily ever after. So as with any other flavor of romance, these books run the gamut in terms of quality. I’d urge readers to be cautious of dismissing an entire category/trope without seeking out the best it has to offer.
What are Some Fast Burn Romances?
I’m so happy you asked. Here’s a small sampling of titles that approach the fast burn in different ways.
Glitterland by Alexis Hall
If you’re looking for a book where characters connect sexually early on, check out Glitterland. It follows the romance between an unlikely couple, an anxious and snobby writer named Ash and a flashy aspiring model named Darian. While the two are attracted to each other quite instantaneously, Ash’s slow journey out of a mental health crisis sets the pace for the emotional arc of the romance. If you like books that make you cry and laugh in equal measure, push this one to the top of the TBR.
That Time I Got Drunk and Yeeted a Love Potion at a Werewolf by Kimberly Lemming
Fast burn romances with paranormal/supernatural vibes are a must. This sequel to That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon is another hilarious “does what it says on the tin” romance. The werewolf Felix mistakes Brie for his fated mate thanks to a love potion. The novella carefully deals with issues of consent when it comes to the magical mishap, in case you’re nervous. You can rely on Kimberly Lemming to deliver the most fun fantasy romances out there.
Patience & Esther: An Edwardian Romance by S.W. Searle
This historical romance comic traces the blossoming romance between two Esther and Patience, who are servants in an aristocratic household. Also…
This comic is high heat paired with fairly low angst. If you want something sweet and a little fluffy, this book’s a great pick. It delves into Edwardian politics, racism, and homophobia, but those are not central to the story.
Love’s Truth by K. Lashaun
Friends with benefits relationships are often risky. Let’s be real, it can be all too easy to catch feelings when sharing physical intimacy. In the case of Love’s Truth, Capri and Truth try for such a deal after their divorce. Scandalous! The two think they can keep it casual, but in time they discover that they might have called it quits too soon.
Bass-Ackwards by Eris Adderly
This one’s definitely taboo. Christina needs Friday off of work, and her boss makes her an offer she can’t refuse. Turns out he’s been harboring feelings, and she’s willing to dole out sexual favors to get what she needs. This is definitely not a pick for someone who can’t suspend their feelings about what a nightmare this kind of thing is in reality. But if you want an oddly heartfelt trainwreck you can’t look away from, this one really has its charms.
I’m guessing you’ll burn through that list pretty quick, so you’ll find plenty more fast burns on our list of steamy romance novels. I hope you’ve got some money to burn on new books. And if you burn the midnight oil to finish all these romances, I won’t judge. Just don’t burn out! OK, I’ll show myself out.