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Sweet, Steamy, Spicy: A Guide to Romance Novel Heat Levels

Updated 20 May 2024 "How do I know if my romance novel is clean/wholesome/sweet/spicy/steamy?"

I see a variation of this question come up often in romance writers’ groups, and with good reason!

Like with most fields, there's no central romance dictionary that offers concrete definitions of the terms authors and readers use to describe the level of physical intimacy, or "steam/ heat," in a romance novel.

Which is why I exist. I am your romance dictionary. Or at least, I try to be.

Because these terms are important.

Why is it important to label a romance novel's heat/steam level?

Physical intimacy in romance runs the gamut, from the occasional hug and closed-mouth kiss to sex scenes with every beat, and readers don't like going into a romance novel not knowing what to expect.

And in a time when you can no longer tell just from a book's cover what to expect inside—cover trends still exist, mind you, but the proliferation of illustrated covers across sub-genres means it's basically impossible to tell just from the cover image if the book has sex scenes—authors need other ways of telling readers how much steam/heat/insert-other-word-relating-to-temperature to expect in their book.

That way, at least for now, is signalling (i.e., stating) the book's heat level in the blurb, usually at the bottom in a sentence like "Book X is a wholesome, small-town romance with a quirky heroine and a hero with a heart of gold. It's perfect for fans of Gilmore Girls."

And readers need to know the heat level. THEY HAVE TO. Heat level, like tropes, setting, and character types, is one of the elements in a blurb that readers use to sort books into the "for me" and "not for me" piles.

Ever read a really bad review of a romance novel that referenced the gross, egregious sex scenes, and a review just below it of the same book applauding the author for her ability to weave sexual tension and write about female pleasure?

If you haven't, trust me, thousands of such reviews exist, and it's all because the first reader didn't know the heat level going in.

There's also the big elephant in the corner, begging me to address her: triggers.

For some people, on-page sex, even consensual sex, is a trigger. So knowing in advance what to expect from the romance they pick up is imperative to their safety and reading pleasure.

With all this in mind, I’m going to define the most common romance genre heat level terms, so when it comes time to write your book's blurb, you know what terms to use.

And, since the romance genre is constantly changing, as old terms fade and new ones replace them, I'll write about them, too, in future posts.

Wholesome/clean romance novels

These terms refer to romances that have no sex scenes. The characters hug, both for comfort and connection, and there might be some kisses, even hot and heavy ones, but there is no on-page sex or sexual touching under the clothes or below the belt. 

Sweet romance novels This term is still sometimes used as a synonym of wholesome/clean, but its usage is slowly changing, so now it's context-dependent. You're just as likely to see the term used to refer to a romance novel with a plot containing heart-warming moments between the hero and heroine as you are to see it used to represent a wholesome/clean romance.

Example: romances that before, would have been called spicy/steamy, now being called "sweet with heat" (i.e., a heart-warming romance with sex scenes). When in doubt, go with the concrete term; you don't want to run the risk of confusing the reader, because the sad fact is that many won't spend a few minutes looking for clues about your book's heat level from the title, tagline, categories, or "Look Inside" feature. They'll just find another book. I know this is depressing, but it is what it is, my friend. The publishing game is the game. Open door romance novels In a genre where spice is increasingly thought of as "the norm," thanks in part to TikTok and the proliferation of the idea that if it doesn't have sex, it ain't a romance—an idea I disagree with, it should be stated—we're experiencing a dearth of terms to describe romances that sit in that no-person's-land where there's sex on the page, but not a lot. "Open door" is the only term I've come across in my research that comes close to describing this kind of romance novel, but the term isn't as descriptive as I'd like, since all it does is tell readers that they'll see sex on the page—not how much of it they'll see.

Spicy/Steamy romance novels

Both of these describe romances where sex features heavily—we’re not talking just one or two sex scenes, but a sustained sexual connection that the main characters repeatedly explore throughout the story. This connection still won’t overshadow the romance, but it’s prevalent enough that if you took out the sex scenes, the book would be shorter and you wouldn't have to worry about forgetting to pause the audiobook of it before taking your headphones out, thereby exposing your colleagues to your elevated literary tastes.

Smut/Smutty Romance novels

This term's meaning has also changed over time (see! this is why I have to follow this stuff closely!); now, it's mostly used by authors who are writing books that go beyond spicy/steamy and into the realm of erotic romance, where there’s an equal balance of romantic and erotic connection between the characters, but often, there's less of an emphasis on plot or character development than an erotic romance. You'll often see the word smut in the phrase "smut no plot," which comes from fanfiction and means—you guessed it—a very sexy story where the most exciting things that happen are the sex.

Erotic romance novels

Okay, before I define this, let me just summarize the depths of the internet I explored and how there is a whole argument about erotic romance vs. romantic erotica and the structural differences. So expect a whole post on erotic romance soon. However, when used to signal a book's heat level, it means the book has the same structure as any romance novel, but that the romantic connection between the characters is explored primarily through sex. The sex scenes are more engrossing than steamy romance, and you'll often see different kinks explored.

Romantic erotica novels

In romantic erotica, the book doesn't have to have the same structure as a romance novel, because its core purpose is exploring a character's self-discovery, and while that may involve romance and even a happily ever after, neither is necessary. A good rule of thumb: if you can take out the romance and you're still left with at least one main character learning about themself through sexual interaction, then you’ve got a romantic erotica novel.

If none of these terms fit your romance novel, you have 2 options:

  1. Use as concise and clear a term as you can, that incorporates one of the terms above. For example, I've seen authors use the term "moderately steamy" to describe open door romances with more than one sex scene, but that don't qualify as spicy/steamy.

  2. Hire an editor/ book coach to read through your book and tell you where your book fits on the steam scale. Getting a skilled, objective observer who knows the industry will save you the headache of reading through other books in your sub-genre/niche and comparing their steam to yours!

I really hope this post helps you write better, clearer blurbs so your books find their way to the right readers. And until next post, happy reading and writing!


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