It’s Getting Hot in Here: A Romance Writer’s Guide to Heat Levels

Heat Level

Imagine standing in front of a shelf filled with books. You’ve got time, an unlimited budget, and a burning desire to read. But which book do you pick? There are so many to choose from, and they all look so appealing. Every romance reader knows that romance novels come in all packages , allowing fans to find a story that appeals to their every desire (and every heat level).

Do you want to read about spies, athletes, billionaires, or landscapers? No problem. What about mystery, historical, fantasy, or paranormal? Check. Hetero, LGBTQ, menages, multiples, or bondage? Yep, got that covered, too.

Once you’ve decided on the content, then your choices are compounded by the various heat levels.

In case you’re new to the romance world, heat level isn’t about a desert setting, but the amount of sensuality included in the story.

Whether you prefer your “smexy” scenes to be Hallmark appropriate or down-and-dirty Penthouse Forum material, you’ll find no shortage in the stacks of your favorite book stores.

Because there is no standard or uniform code to heat levels, writers (and readers) face a few challenges.

What one reader may consider “hot,” another might consider “mild” or “medium” and vice versa, leading to disappointment (or perhaps even negative reviews). It’s the equivalent of deciding on a spice level at your favorite restaurant and being perfectly satisfied. But at the new place that just opened up across town, the medium-spicy that suited you so well at your favorite place turns out to blow your socks off, leaving you gasping for water (if not something stronger). So at the next restaurant you tone it way back down and end up with something far too bland for your taste. You would think there’d be some consistency.

That’s not always the case. Agents and publishers have different ideas about what constitutes a certain heat level. Resources rely on broad scales, such as the Scoville Scale (used to measure the heat level of chili peppers), DEFCON (used to raise and lower national security alerts), flames, or pepper emojis to denote the level of sensuality.

These all make for a good basis. Which heat level is best? That’s entirely up to you, the reader. One person’s preferences have nothing to do with what makes another reader happy—but at least a scale is a start. If you pick a five-flame book, you’re not going to get something prim and proper. The terminology isn’t consistent across the board, although there are a number of ways of describing heat level that you’ll run into time and again.

All The Kissing Heat Levels

At All The Kissing, we provided our own heat level scale for authors during #KissPitch. We’ll use those here to define the various heat levels you’ll find on the shelves.

  1. Mild.
  2. Medium.
  3. Hot.
  4. Nuclear.
  5. Erotic.

Want to learn more about each one of these heat levels and discover which one best suits your fancy? Then keep reading.

1. Mild

Heat Level Candy

Also called sweet. For resources using a 1-5 scale, this would be a one, or a PG-rated movie according to Lana Berkowitz in a Houston Chronicle article.

We think of Hallmark movies when we think of sweet romance.

There might be no contact at all except for some hand-holding or a chaste kiss at the end when the couple gets together. Mild sensuality might contain intimate scenes and sexual situations, but they’re not described in the book. You know it happens, but you don’t read about it because it happens off the page or fades to black.

This level of sensuality is typically found in Amish and Inspirational romances, and many time in Regencies and Historicals. Authors of sweet or mild heat levels include Debbie Macomber, LaVyrle Spencer, and Kristan Higgins.

In sweet romance, the only going down on one’s knees you can expect is when the hero pops the question with a ring box in his hand. There will be no graphic depiction of intimacy; the reader is left to infer what happens. Think Jane Austen—there is certainly plenty of emotion, but no actual bodices are ripped in the making of the story.

2. Medium

Heat Level Lipstick

Also called sizzle or sensual. For resources using a 1-5 scale, this would be a two, the equivalent of a PG13-rated movie. Kissing, touching, and intimate scenes are shared usually with focus on feelings and emotions rather than body parts.

Sexual tension and love scenes might be included in the story, but most descriptions of physical intimacy still happen “behind closed doors.”

Authors writing at medium heat levels include Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie, Sophie Kinsella, and Susan Wiggs.

What you can expect: lots of kissing (we love that here at All The Kissing). A lot more touching than you’d have in a sweet romance, and the related conversation that goes along with it. There may or may not be undressing, but it’s generally considered to be a relatively safe zone.

If some of the raunchier terminology in “Keeping the Hokey Out of Your Pokey” turned you a bright shade of red, medium is probably a good heat level for you. There’s still plenty of sexy, still plenty of heart. But you’re spared the unzipping, poking, and prodding that might make reading an uncomfortable experience for you.

3. Hot

Heat Level Smoke

Also called steamy, sexy, or spicy. For resources using a 1-5 scale, this is a three, or the equivalent of an R-rated movie. The majority of contemporary romance novels fall into this widely-varied middle ground.

With hot romance, you can expect action-packed love scenes where the reader goes along for the ride . There is graphic sex on the page, and what is happening between the couple is described with specific language.

The sex scenes further the storyline as opposed to being the main focus of the story.

Authors writing at this heat level include Linda Howard, Lisa Kleypas, and Linda Lael Miller.

Along with the graphic depictions of sex, you will also get graphic depictions of the accompanying emotions. Buckle your seatbelt and prepare for the roller coaster ride: you’ll find words like cock and clit. Nipples will be fondled, body parts caressed. Hearts will swell (along with other things), and the brain, which is arguably the sexiest organ in the body, will be stimulated.

If the author does her (or his) job right, you’ll forget you’re watching through the window and find yourself involved in the intimacy. Steamy romance doesn’t fade to black. Instead, it follows the participants right through the door and climbs into the bed/hot tub/patch of grass/ferris wheel along with them.

4. Nuclear

Heat Level Jewelry

Also called explicit, carnal, or scorcher. On the 1-5 scale, it’s a four-flamer, and it’d rank an NC-17 in the movie world. Sometimes described as one level shy of erotic romance. At this heat level, there’s explicit sex, indelicate language during sex, and graphic depictions of a sexual nature used to further the story. Nuclear might also include sex toys, mild BDSM, and other light forms of kink.

Authors writing at this heat level include Lyndsay Sands, J.R. Ward, and Nalini Singh.

Step right this way for your experimental sex, your cussing, your light bondage. In explicit, the title doesn’t lie.

There’s every bit as much description as you’d find in steamy romance, but these novels take it a step further.

Readers not only get to walk through the door with the characters. They also get many intimate details described to them. We can’t say nothing is left to the imagination because imagination always prevails, but we can say that your eyes might be opened to possibilities you hadn’t seen before.

5. Erotic

Heat Level Blue

On the 1-5 scale, erotic romance is a five-alarm fire. As opposed to straight erotica, which focuses primarily on the sex rather than on the plot or characterization, erotic romance is about the emotional journey lived through sexual experience.

Erotic romance pushes boundaries, uses graphic language, contains multiple sex scenes explicitly described…and because it’s romance, it has a happily ever after. Erotic romance can bring in BDSM, sex toys, anal sex, menages, and multiple partners.

From Carina Press regarding erotica:

“The language in these books should be frank and explicit, with the sensuality and sexuality of the story integral parts of the plot and themes. Sexual tension and explosive chemistry between the protagonists is key to building the intensity of the story and sexiness of the erotic romance.”

Authors writing Erotica romance include: EL James, Sylvia Day, and Maya Banks.

These stories are steamy, steamier, steamiest, but have one thing in common: the progression of a romantic relationship told through sex and sexuality. These are stories that cannot be told if you take sex out of the equation.

And That’s a Wrap…or an Unwrap

While the actual names for the heat levels might vary, the intensity still burns at the one-to-five-flame level. Will there be industry-wide consistency in naming? We’re not sure. The general idea behind the intensity won’t waver, though.

If you’ve seen or have other descriptions of romance heat levels, let us know in the comments.

Shannon Caldwell
Shannon blames her mom. She snagged one of her steamy bodice-rippers at fifteen, and has had her nose stuck in romance books ever since. In college, Shannon wrote her first novel, a western time travel romance. On an electric typewriter. The keys (now on a laptop) have click-clacked ever since.

She’s had many jobs in between her journalism degree from North Texas and her current day job of training yoga teachers. Marriage, step-kids, an adorable son, and one awesome rescue pup round out her days, and romance writing heats up her nights.
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