Long before I started writing romance, I was (and still am) an avid romance reader. I’d like to share some of my favorite elements from romance novels and the reasons why I think they work so well.
Today, I want to talk about buttons (and not just buttons, but also hooks, ribbons, lacings, and other fastenings). Specifically, I want to talk about the anticipation and tension that an author can create with each careful, deliberate undoing.
Buttons really are the equal opportunity pinnacle of seduction. They work regardless of gender, social status, and subgenre. They can be the potent symbol of attraction in a chaste romance, perhaps by one character leaving a single button undone and thus driving the love interest to fervent distraction. Torn buttons that require a jury-rigged fastening can create a moment of powerful physical awareness in a romantic suspense while also emphasizing the dangers the characters face. Paranormal shifters undoing buttons are often a sign of deepening trust and intimacy as they reveal their other forms to their love interests. And, of course, historical romance novels are the reigning champs of seductive fastenings, with a plethora of options for the eagerly debauched.
Most romance readers have their preferred button moments, whether it’s an artful strip tease or a passionate tear. It’s an easy way to encourage people to wax eloquently about their favorite scenes. But why do we have such a strong visceral reaction to them?
I believe there are two reasons. First, the way buttons are dealt with can be an effective symbol for the developing relationship. A tender, tentative undoing leaves a very different impression than a frenzied bursting. The former is an expression of trust and building intimacy while the second emphasizes passion and impulsiveness, a letting go of expectations and boundaries. Buttons allow an author to demonstrate the emotional connection without having to be jarringly explicit.
The second reason that buttons work so well is because they are familiar. Even in today’s world of T-shirts, almost everyone has experience with buttons. It’s a part of the romance world that can be easily and safely recreated. We might never enjoy the real life thrill of a CIA-trained assassin protecting us or a thousand year old vampire sweeping us off our feet, but we can have the satisfaction of undoing our lover’s dress shirt one button at a time between dizzying kisses.
There’s also the element of undercutting formality. In today’s world, buttons tend to be associated with businesswear and formalwear. The garments are designed to shift emphasis from the private to the public. By returning the reader’s attention to the private, the author creates a stronger impact.
This is also one of the reasons why lingerie designs often deliberately echo the garments of the past, using lacings and ribbon fastenings to evoke a sense of the taboo. By creating an association with unconscious links with a time which is assumed to be more sexually restrictive, the garment increases the tantalizing pleasure of crossing social boundaries. It also emphasizes the importance of intimate connections by requiring the participants to take more time in donning and removing the clothing.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that romance novels emphasize buttons and other fastenings. It’s part of the centering of mutual pleasure that makes romance so satisfying. The intimacy isn’t just to be yada, yada, yadaed past. It’s a significant part of the whole experience, one that is celebrated and allowed to be enjoyed in all its little moments. One button at a time.
I write paranormal romance full of suspense, action, and adventure (and buttons, promise). My first book with Soul Mate is Deadly Potential (Federal agent Ben will do anything to protect songwriter Katie from a supernatural stalker who can hide in plain sight), available on Kindle Unlimited. Or there’s my original series about a secret society of superheroes living among us. Begin with Revelations for free!
Or check out my previous Favorite Things post about the powerful drama that happens when a main character believes their love interest has been killed.