H is for Heat Levels | Romance Writing from A to Z

Lana PecherczykWriting2 Comments

Heat levels in each Harlequin Romance line. Click to visit Harlequin and investigate for yourself

When I started writing romance, I was boggled to discover that there was such a thing as a heat level expected in a book. And if you got your level mixed up (especially in category romance – think Mills & Boon), then by George I hope you’ve brought yourself a parachute because you’d be out of there! Readers and publishers alike have certain expectancies. Readers can be more forgiving, but publishers, less so.

I guess if you are an avid romance reader, you’d already know this. But I came from a background of Urban Fantasy, Paranormal and Sci-Fi reading. For all of which, romance was my favourite aspect, but not necessarily the main storyline. I didn’t exactly know that certain genres and sub-genres sometimes require a certain level of heat. This isn’t to say you have to follow this expectation, but if you are planning on submitting somewhere, or know your ideal reader/market likes a particular heat level, it helps to understand what they are.

What is a heat level?

A heat level, in romance terms, is basically how much bow-chica-wow-wow there is in a book. To put this in layman’s terms, it’s how explicit your sex scenes are and how often they occur in the book.

Why are there heat levels?

Heat levels exist not only to help the reader discover a book more specific to their taste, but to help the writer write a story that is targeted to a specific market. Sometimes a particular sub-genre is going off like a frog in a sock, and publishers all across the world want to jump in on the bandwagon. For example, everyone’s favourite, 50 Shades of Grey, went a little nutso with the jealous-billionaire-alpha-male-with-a-sexy-secret type of story. This book did so well that publishers put the call out for more like it. They needed theses stories to have a Steamy heat level, so readers were getting much of the same sexual journey as the characters in 5o got.

What are the heat levels?

According to Harlequin (The worlds biggest romance publisher), they’ve nailed these heat levels down to 3 main categories.

  • Sweet: Romance that’s not explicit, and usually closed-door. Meaning there’s a few kisses and cuddles but if the characters ‘do it’ it’s inferred and behind closed doors. There’s also no coarse language or graphic violence. I’d say you could call this PG rated and okay for teenagers to read.
  • Sensual: The romance in here delves a little deeper (pun intended) with the description of the sexual act, but it’s still not explicitly using . And usually, you’ve still got your classic relationship of two people and there is a limit to how many times the couple might do the deed. You’d get some violence, coarse language and some blood and gore in the paranormal or thrillers. I’d class these M.
  • Steamy: Steamy romance is categorised as erotic. The overarching story is still a romance, but there are more sexual encounters in which you’d get a bit more graphic detail of the action, mentioning rude and naughty bits, nudity and so on. You’d also get different types of sexual scenarios such as a threesome, bondage, different partners & lifestyles, etc. These would probably be rated R.

Because I think it deserves to be mentioned, I’d also add

  • Erotica: While you’ll see these often in the romance category, the story isn’t actually a romance (where there is a happily ever after based on the emotional journey of 2 characters) it’s just based on the sexual journey of the main character and would be X rated.

For more specific information, I’d suggest researching other books in the category you hope to publish in (whether you’re self-publishing or trad), or visiting the publisher’s website. Doing a quick google search will bring up some more examples of what heat levels are, such as in the following posts: Evernight, Harper Impulse and this really good one at the Harlequin blog for writers.

I’m sure I’ve got it a little wrong because this topic is so HARD (another pun, sorry, can’t help myself), but at least if gives you an idea of what to look for if you’re not a massive, well read romance reader.

Got any tips or suggestions? Let me, and others know in the comments.


View all articles in the A to Z of Romance series.


About the Author

Lana Pecherczyk

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Don't miss anything from the Author Zoo blog, sign up to the e-newsletter today. Lana Pecherczyk is an author, artist and bookshop marketer from Perth, Western Australia. She's the Webmistress for Romance Writers of Australia (and no, that's not Spiderman's lover). Is a fan of 'pro-caffeinating' and writes in many genres, including romance, comedy, fantasy and paranormal. She also loves Sailormoon. No judgement.

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