Christina Dodd Writing Tips: How much sex in a romantic suspense?

“I hated this book because it is all about sex, sex, sex. The story gets lost in the descriptive sex pages which are numerous.”—Christina Dodd’s favorite 1 star Amazon review ever (for SCENT OF DARKNESS)

I know what you’re thinking; did Christina pay someone to write a review using the word “sex” four times?

No, I didn’t. But I’m really glad they did it.

Or maybe you’re thinking…ONE CLICK BUY! Because yes, I’ve sold a lot of copies using that review. Before you buy, fair warning; there’s a lot of plot in SCENT OF DARKNESS, so if you’re thinking it’s going to be one long sex scene, you’ll be disappointed. Erotica it’s not. Romantic suspense it is, and paranormal romantic suspense to boot.

Exactly what is romantic suspense, and how do you write it?

Romantic suspense can be described as the intersection of Drama Drive and Sensuality Street. Solving the crime or escaping the danger is always more fun when the romantic tension is high.

As Jayne Ann Krentz, the author of over 50 New York Times bestselling romantic suspense novels will tell you, romantic suspense is its own thing. It overlaps into a lot of genres (contemporary, historical, paranormal), may be dominated by suspense (Karen Rose), or a 50-50 split (Jayne Ann Krentz herself with her newest, THE NIGHT ISLAND.) In the case of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s latest, SIMPLY THE BEST, it’s rom-com suspense—witty banter and murder—and for my current novel, EVERY SINGLE SECRET, it’s a suspense plot driven by blackmail, revenge, angst and family secrets.

What about sex?

Yes, please. Sex in a desperate situation is high-tension, driven and, when written correctly, passionate enough to justify any mismatched couple. Think of the tropes: the teacher and the mercenary, the duke and the governess, the dragon-rider and the librarian. You can be original and ignore the clichés, but do so at the risk of book sales. Readers know what they want, and they buy by trope.

That said, before starting this article, I surveyed my readers and asked, “How much sex do you prefer in romantic suspense?” Of the three choices–“Never!” “More is better,” and “Sex is okay as long as it doesn’t interfere with the plot”–the last was the big winner. One reader said, “Too much kissing, not enough autopsies,” which made me laugh. Yet as a writer, what you have to keep in mind is that a review is written by one person, and one very vocal opinion may not represent your readers as a whole. ie: I have published romantic suspenses that got scathing reviews for the sex: positions, locations, frequency, forcefulness, that have sold in the hundreds of thousands and earned out a considerable advance.

How do you balance the amount of romance, passion and sex with the danger and terror created by a serial killer, an internet stalker, a vengeful drug lord?

As in every well written story, the characters: their backgrounds, experiences and desires are what drives the plot. As a writer, you can do anything as long as the characters behave in manners that are true to their personalities.

My first forty-nine novels (historical, contemporary, paranormal) are romances. The hero and heroine were romantically and sexually involved by reason of their need to solve a crime and ultimately seek justice. In the eleven novels since, classified as primarily suspense, the sexuality has been muted by the personalities of the protagonists themselves. The relationship between them, while intense, is inhibited by their need to seek justice, revenge, truth.

In EVERY SINGLE SECRET, I wrote a heroine who, for me, was unique in her isolation. At the age of fourteen, Rowan Winterbourne’s Coast Guard stepfather was forced to kill the criminal son of the drug and arms dealer Gregory Torval. In the brutal retaliation that followed, her mother died. Her sister vanished. Her stepfather took Rowan on the run, taught her skills no young woman should have to know, and half a lifetime later…the adult Rowan lives in a lighthouse on the California coast, anonymous and forever alone.

One of the first rules of being human is that each of us needs companionship. When we’re forced by circumstances to live without affection and interaction, the need for contact becomes overwhelming. If you saw Tom Hanks’s movie, Cast Away, you know that after the protagonist has been confined alone to a desert island for months, a volleyball became his confidant, and when it was lost, he grieved. The movie is ultimately unsatisfying, yet his need for companionship created a powerful image of what happens to a person deprived of contact with another person.

For Rowan, her need for human contact overcomes her caution and, believing herself safe, she starts a sexual relationship with Joe. Her subsequent involvement with Joe’s mysterious and dangerous activities hinges on that one error of judgement, and that mistake leads her back to the beginning, back to the criminal Gregory Torval and his island. There, Joe reveals her identity and she serves as a distraction for Joe as he completes his mercenary mission.

On Raptor Island, she’s suddenly and shockingly surrounded by humanity, most of it corrupt, all of it desperate for power, money, and most of all, survival. For her own continued existence, she must discover the truth about Joe. Every night, he’s on the prowl, looking for something that seems to her insignificant: is he lying? If he is, what is he actually after? Is he the ruthless lover and blackmailer he appears to be? Or is he the one person she can trust on an island where ghosts haunt  the corridors and death lurks behind friendly smiles?

She can’t afford to make a mistake again, and she has to quickly learn the social skills she would have learned as a normal high school teen. As the secrets of her past are peeled away one by one, the revelations are shocking to her, and therefore to the reader.

Told primarily from Rowan’s point of view, the reader views the villain Gregory Torval and his minions from her same suspicious lens, suffers the same uncertainties she suffers, discovers her strengths and realizes that if she can survive,she’ll be free to live where and as she wishes…and maybe, if he proves his worth, with Joe.

As one of my online fans told me, “It’s a great story when love happens along with the suspense. The action feeds the romance and the romance makes the action more meaningful.” As readers, we all know the joy of picking up an author for the first time and feeling as if the story was written for us. Write the romantic suspense that you want to read, use your own voice to tell your story, and you’ll find your audience.

EVERY SINGLE SECRET is available now, has a starred review from ALA Booklist, is one of Bookbub’s Best Spring 2024 Mysteries and Thrillers, and the first lines are:

Mr. Bandara, Helen Lamb’s first and dearest client, puttered in his kitchen, cleaning up their snack of coffee and biscotti. “I need a gardener to plant my spring flowers, the toilet is leaking, and I need an assassin to kill me.”

New York Times bestselling author Christina Dodd writes “brilliantly etched characters, polished writing, and unexpected flashes of sharp humor that are pure Dodd” (starred ALA Booklist,) and much to her mother’s delight, Dodd was once a clue in the Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle. Please accept Christina’s invitation to enjoy her newsy, funny, book-centric mailings (yes, she is the proud author with the infamous three-armed cover.) For information on her upcoming historical fiction, A DAUGHTER OF FAIR VERONA, and for travel information about Verona Italy, visit

Printable/downloadable booklist sorted by genre, series and in order.

Books by Series with covers and links.