Excruciating Moments in Romance

Part 1: Tumperkin explores their significance and structure, focusing on Gaffney, Carlyle and Balogh.

Part 2: Jessica, never one to lose an opportunity to Create a List, does so, and throws in some contemp and paranormal.

As usual with us, you will need a 3 day supply of food, a sleeping bag, and a flashlight to get through this post. Edited to add: now with a Darcylicious reward at the end.


Part 1: by Tumperkin

One of my favourite elements of romance is the Excruciating Moment.  This is a common device but it’s not easy to do well.  It’s a moment of high emotion and deep conflict and is often one in which one of the protagonists – the hero usually – has not behaved well.

Probably my favourite Excruciating Moment is to be found in To Have and To Hold by Patricia Gaffney.  No, I’m not revisiting the forced seduction again.  I’m talking about the scene in which Sebastian lets his horrible friends interrogate Rachel about her period of imprisonment.  They are cruel and intrusive, amused and titillated by her suffering.  And through it all, Sebastian is on their side.  He knows he’s being appalling but he just lets this happen; lets his inaction act as their permission.  The discussion turns to the crime Rachel was accused of and why it happened.  It culminates in a question of shocking prurience that makes Rachel finally run from the room and leads one of her questioners to believe Sebastian won’t even care if he forces himself on Rachel.  The resultant events are climatic and change the course of the whole story.

The scene is written from Sebastian’s POV and it’s the absolutely key moment in the novel in terms of his eventual redemption.  For me, this is the Excruciating Moment at its best.   The root conflict is beautifully served by the way the scene is set up, the way the action parses out is believable and well-realised.  The whole is perfectly paced, building and building beyond what seems bearable until a crescendo is reached; a trigger flipped that re-animates Sebastian’s humanity.

Pacing is crucial with a scene like this.  The longer it goes on, the worse – and hence better! – it can become.  But it ought not to become a pantomime.  An earlier Gaffney book, Lily (which I have a bewildered sort of love for) falls slightly foul of this line at times.

Very few Excruciating Moments have the depth of the THATH scene I’ve just described.  One of the most prevalent – and arguably laziest – is the straightforward set up where the hero makes assumptions about the heroine that she chooses not to contradict for some reason.  I’ll admit though, that I can enjoy even quite cheap shots in this respect.  I have a particular fondness for a category I read some years ago in which the amnesiac heroine was unable to protest her innocence over a supposed affair.  There were several scenes in which the hero said awful things to her that she was (conveniently) unable to rebut. And yes, on one level: asshat.  On another?  *Shivers*.  After all, I know this guy’s going to have to eat his words…

Is that the attraction?  Part of it perhaps.  Not every Excruciating Moment features a hero being a dick but certainly the ones that do provide the pleasurable anticipation of grovelling later.  There’s probably a mysterious mathematical formula that describes the exact degree of grovelling that is required for each unit of asshattedness.  I know this, because the ones that are light on grovelling make me frown.

Another type of Excruciating Moment features the hero who is unfaithful (or rather *almost* unfaithful).  One of my favourite Liz Carlyle books is the little-mentioned The Devil To Pay.  The hero has been very sexually active for a long time, for reasons that are eventually explained.  There’s a pillow-biting little scene where he kisses a maidservant and is caught at it by the heroine.  It’s great because it’s a proper lusty kiss and she has every right to be upset but it really doesn’t mean what she thinks it does.  And the reason for that is all about the hero’s particular internal conflict.  So again, a traumatic moment that actually serves the plot.


Then there are the Excruciating Moments that don’t require any help from the hero.  These are very difficult to bring off.  But for my money Mary Balogh did it brilliantly in One Night for Love.  ONFL has a particularly angsty set up.  The hero and heroine are a mismatch.  He was an officer in the same regiment as the heroine’s sergeant major father.  They were friends but knew that was all it could be.  However, when their unit got into trouble and there was a danger of Lily being caught by the French, the hero, Neville, married her to protect her since, as an officer’s wife, she would be treated well.  They shared one perfect night together and the next day were ambushed. Neville saw her being shot and – as he believed – killed in front of him just as he was also being almost fatally wounded.  When the book starts, he is back in England and just about to marry another woman. Lily arrives in the church as the wedding is about to take place.

Almost half of this book is an endless Excruciating Moment.  It’s just – virtuoso.  First Balogh gives us the wedding, then the back-story, then we learn about what Lily has suffered (the marriage did not protect her after her capture).  Then we watch as Lily – an illiterate girl with no idea of society – tries, unsuccessfully, to fit into a completely alien world.  And through all of this, Neville is – lovely.  All the problems facing this couple are externally imposed and overwhelming.  While the events in the story strain credulity at times, the reactions of the characters are spot on.

Essentially it is the emotional power of these excruciating scenes that ices my cake.  If they are also rooted into the core conflict, I am mightily pleased.  If the characters’ reactions are believable, I am delighted. But even altogether, these things are not enough for me.  One last thing is needed: they require to be matched in resolution.

I absorb these moments in good faith, trusting the author to deliver a proportionate amount regret for past deeds, apologies for wrongs done and happiness to counteract the sufferings that have gone before.

If I don’t get that, I may feel cheated.


Part 2: by Jessica

We all read romance at least in part for the happily ever after. But the HEA is that much sweeter when we have been put through an Excruciating Moment. Tumperkin and I are in total agreement in THATH we have the most excruciating moment in romance. But I can think of a few more examples worthy of mention. So here goes (thar be spoilers ahead!):

Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm:

This one comes right before the HEA. For me, it’s the closest to the Gaffney in pure excruciation.

Pious Quaker Maddie and her husband Jervaulx, the rakish duke who has been in recovery from a stroke for most of the book, finally appear kaput when she goes to a Friends Meeting to make her confession and leave him for good. It becomes excruciating when we hear Maddie call their wondrous relationship a sinful one, describe their lovemaking as fornication, and claim that what she thought was love, was actually “an illusion of the imagination”.  Jervaulx hears all of this —  again, excruciating. Then he, who has avoided speaking in public thanks to his speech disorder, stands before the meetinghouse and argues passionately that Maddie must stay with him. Watching, in my mind’s eye, this proud man drag words out haltingly from the depths of his soul, baring his deepest feelings and pure need to a roomful of strangers whose approval he couldn’t care less about, was bad enough. But when he issues Maddie a five minute ultimatum and walks out, an excruciating wait begins. She doesn’t come in five minutes, or ten. I was new to romance when I read this one, and I honestly thought that was it. I thought I was going to die of heartbreak. I am so glad I was wrong.

Megan Hart, Broken:

This one doesn’t involve bad behavior on the part of a hero or heroine, but I found it excruciating anyway.

Sadie and Joe have been meeting for lunch. They have developed an odd sort of intimacy as he recounts his sexual exploits with other women. Unbeknownst to Joe, Sadie’s husband Adam has been a quadriplegic since a skiing accident years prior, and Joe’s lusty stories provide a safe, albeit morally compromising, way for Sadie to meet some of her unfilled sexual needs. Eventually, Sadie ends her relationship with Joe. Some time later, as Sadie and Adam are trying to make their way out of a crowded restaurant, Sadie realizes it is Joe and his new fiance whose table is blocking their exit, and Joe realizes what led Sadie to engage in their mental affair. What gets me is that there’s no big scene or purple prose or huge internal monologue. Joe and Sadie barely exchange a glance. Joe simply rises and efficiently helps clear the way for Adam’s wheelchair, grabbing a napkin off the floor while he’s at it. It’s these little gestures that make the moment so heartbreaking for me. It’s not a long scene — just a few paragraphs — but I had to hold my breath while I read it. Broken is a book about tragedy in many ways and this moment was, for me, the most painfully tragic.


Julia Quinn, The Duke and I:

Daphne and Simon have the not terribly uncommon “let’s pretend we’re engaged to get the ton off our backs — oops we cannot keep our hands off each other — now we must get married” trajectory. For most authors, that would be the entire book. But Simon, thanks to an abusive childhood, refuses to bear children (ok, not the most compelling motive, but let’s move on), and misleads Daphne into thinking he is infertile. Daphne is crushed when she realizes Simon has lied, and decides to withhold herself from him, moving her things out of their shared bedroom. The scene when Daphne confronts Simon is fantastic, but it’s the next scene that is the killer. Simon goes out and gets flaming drunk, and when he comes home, he begs Daphne to stay the night with him. They begin to make love, and I swear I read this like I watch horror movies, with one hand over my eyes. I just knew what Daphne was going to do — the excruciating part was the lead up. She hadn’t planned it, but she couldn’t help it. Then the situation becomes like the one Tumperkin describes in the Carlyle book, because Simon immediately sobers up and accuses Daphne of planning the seduction. But wait — it gets even more excruciating: he starts to stutter, the very childhood disability for which his father abused him. Suffice to say, it is another few chapters before these two get their HEA.

Sherry Thomas, Private Arrangements:

Gig and Camden fell wonderfully in love. Then Gigi deceived Camden, in a kind of morally ambiguous case similar to Daphne’s. He found out and left her, ruthlessly, the morning after their wedding. That scene had its share of anticipatory excruciation (?), since the reader knows, even during their physically blissful wedding night, the revenge that Camden has planned. They have lived separate lives for a decade, when Camden suddenly shows up to demand an heir. Slowly the reader is filled in on what each of them has been up to in the intervening years. It turns out there was a very near miss, 5 years into their separation, when Camden and Gigi were both in Copenhagen. They are both boating in the canal when Camden sees Gigi. She jumps up and runs down the length of the boat, tripping hard, picking herself back up and staring at him from the stern. She looks pale, awful. Camden’s companion chooses that moment to caress his arm. Gigi stares at him, “stunned, her composure flayed”, until he is out of sight. It foreshadows the next morning when Camden attempts to find her, only to be told her ship has sailed. The reader knows it hasn’t. It’s just awful to read this, knowing that they belong together and could have been together but for these near misses.


Diana Gabaldon, Voyager:

Claire and Jamie have been separated for 20 years when she returns to him in his 18th century Scotland. Their reunion is breathtaking, emotional, and powerful. But only a few chapters later, the other shoe drops. We discover that Jamie has married Loaghaire (!!!!!), Claire’s bitchy rival for Jamie’s affections way back when. How does the reader, and Claire find out? A child runs into the bedroom where a naked Jamie and Claire are resting and yells “Daddy!” Ugh. Talk about a sucker punch. I think I took this harder than Claire. I put the book down for at least a week after that scene.

JR Ward, Lover Awakened:

Say what you want about Ward, but at least in the first few BDB books, she knew how to pull emotional strings. The moment I find excruciating in this book is the one when vamp Zsadist, who has all along been telling vamp Bella he is not good enough for her, decides to do something that will alienate her forever. What, you ask? In front of Bella, he feeds from a prostitute. There’s a moment in the alley when Bella pleads with him not to do it, and you think he might just listen. He stares at her with misery in his eyes, as the hooker eggs him on … then he bites. Oh Zsadist!

Ok, you’ve heard enough from us. What’s on your list of excruciating moments in romance?

ps. For Sarah, click on the link to view Darcy’s First Proposal

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28 responses

  1. I would have to say that I also like the excruciating moment, but there was one that I just absolutely hated. It was in Edith Layton’s ‘A Bride for His Convenience’.

    Essentially, the hero (a titled, but poor man) marries the wealthy-beneath-him-socially heiress and then just never beds her, but is cordial to her and they start developing a relationship of sorts. After a few days (weeks? I can’t remember because I have pushed this novel out of my memory), she confronts him about it, asking (not demanding or whining as some heroines are apt to do) whether or not he will ever visit her bed. Of course, by this point he has completely convinced himself that he has sold his entire being by entering this marriage and agrees that he will, because it is expected. Then, when he goes to her room that night he keeps comparing himself to a purchased stud being called to perform.

    After a page of that, I couldn’t take it anymore and refused to read the rest of the book.


  2. For me, the excruciating moment in Broken wasn’t the scene in the restaurant, though that was powerful, it was the scene where Joe brought that woman *spits* to their bench.

    That was cruel.


  3. Being Tumperkin’s mirror image ;-) excruciating moments are one of the things I hate most in romances. The main reason is that I never forgive as fast as the characters do, so when one has betrayed the other, I’ll still be wanting to throw the book (or the characters) at the wall while they’re prancing off and having their happy ending, leaving me feeling angry, betrayed and deeply vindictive. Not what I want to feel when I get to the end of a romance.

    The “excruciating moment” in the Kinsale didn’t seem that excruciating to me, though.


  4. The very very end of Kinsale’s “Seize the Fire” when Sherry feels himself floating off into the mist. In fact, most of StF in one way or another.

    Darcy’s first proposal scene. I thought they did it brilliantly in the BBC version–you can see Darcy’s complete and utter shock. So, excruciating for him because he’s refused but also about him because you can see that he totally expected Elizabeth to say yes.

    In “Into the Fire,” when Alyssa catches Sam crying–although I guess that’s not morals but more emotional excruciation (like that word!).


  5. Oh what a great post!! While I haven’t read all the books mentioned, I have read most of them and was nodding my head in agreement. Those moments, when done well, are exquisite aren’t they?

    And what a great question. I’m sure I have many more I can think of and will do so, but the one that first came to mind is in Broken Wing by Judith James. Gabriel and Sarah have been apart for years, some of it because Gabriel was being held prisoner and part of it because he didn’t feel worthy once he was free. He owns a gambling house with a friend and Sarah comes to see if it really is her love Gabriel. When she enters she sees Gabriel and as he stands, another woman grabs hold of his arm. The scene continues as he takes her into another room for a talk and coldly tells her they cannot be.


  6. I love the excruciating moment!

    My fave is Lady Gallant by Suzanne Robinson. When Nora is in the next room and hears her husband Kit in bed with another woman (quite a deliberately loud act) – of course he’s only doing it because he feels betrayed and believes he’s married a traitor.

    Then comes the grovel when he realizes he was wrong. Oh my. Its the first time where I ever doubted the heroine was going to take the hero back. Nora made him earn it. Just brilliant.


  7. Sorry Jessica – I gave you the wrong title for the Liz Carlyle book – it’s actually Better the Devil You Know!

    I love that scene from FFTS. I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me when I wrote part 1.


  8. Like Laura, I sometimes find myself much less forgiving than the heroine. I think there are things we are willing to accept in our romance reading that we would never accept in our own relationships with people.

    I’m pretty sure Tumperkin got Carlyle’s books mixed up – the incident with the maid is in The Devil You Know. The Devil To Pay is the one with the Robin Hood heroine.

    * Tumperkin, I see you found the mistake… it’s The Devil You Know, though – no “better” in the title.


  9. Oh yes! I second Skrabs example too. That is a heartbreaking moment for the heroine in Lady Gallant. I don’t know if you’ve read this book or not either of you – but it also has the best grovelling by a hero. It’s not just a scene – it’s a series – where he must try and win back the heroine’s forgiveness.


  10. Great post.

    The first sex scene in Kinsale’s THE SHADOW AND THE STAR is one I always think of as painful, in more than one way. Hero is driven by his emotional need to take more than he should, and the heroine doesn’t entirely realize what’s going on until it’s too late–excruciating for both!


  11. Ah, the excruciating moment. Love them. The worse they are, the more fascinated I am. Any time I read a lead up scene and I think, “Oh, you’re in trouble now, dude” I just know an excruciating moment is to follow.

    One of my favorite old school examples is from Kathleen Woodiwiss’s A Rose in Winter. When Erienne finally finds out that her husband has been deceiving her, she throws a temper tantrum that rivals most any I’ve read in romance, and she’s vicious with it. And it is marvelous. It’s totally justified, and always ends up with me being all “You go girl!”

    Another scene that I love is from Linda Howard’s Dying to Please. The h/h meet when she’s a possible suspect in a murder and he’s the detective investigating. She’s cleared and they begin a very hot romance. Then another murder happens, and she’s the one who finds it. And for just a few moments, he suspects her. He realizes almost immediately that she couldn’t possibly have done it. But holy crap is she pissed. And devastated by the murder. All she wants when she finds the murder was for him to comfort her, and then she realizes that he thinks she might have done it. And when he finally goes to her, the confrontation is just awful, and painful, and skin-crawly. But she seriously dishes it out to him. And that made me happy.

    OMG, I could think of hundreds of these. What an awesome blog topic! And Jessica, I’m with you, I’m never so happy as when I’m making a list. ;o)


  12. The scene in Heaven, Texas by Susan Elizabeth Phillips wher Gracie finds out that Bobby Tom has been paying her salary to keep her around when she thinks she is being paid from another source for her skills and job. She comes to the conclusion that Bobby is only paying her for access to her body. That broke my heart and I wanted Bobby to get run over by a car.


  13. Actually my favorite scene from The Devil You Know wasn’t the one you described, it was when the heroine found out the hero’s “secret” and when the hero “confessed” to his brother. I have reread the end of that book at least 10 times.

    I second the Alyssa walking in on Sam crying, but I think that happened in Over the Edge. Brockmann (especially her earlier books) is really good at these scenes; she has tons. I loved in The Unsung Hero when Kelly takes her frustration out on Tom and tells him they’re just having a casual affair.

    It’s funny that you only mentioned scenes where the hero betrays the heroine. I actually like scenes better where the heroine hurts or wrongs the hero. Huh, I wonder why that is? Maybe it’s that I have the same problem as Laura and I can’t forgive the hero, but I am able to forgive the heroine? Or maybe I just like to watch guys suffer.


  14. Oh, grag, I totally agree on the one you listed in Private Arrangements. I just finished and reviewed it, and I didn’t love the book altogether, but that scene was heartbreaking. Really, really heartbreaking.


  15. Meri – you are right *hangs head in shame*

    I must admit that that scene in Private Arrangements didn’t really *get* me, although overall I really enjoyed the book.


  16. Laura Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star. The scene in their new house on Oahu, when Samuel’s desire for Leda overwhelms his control. Samuel’s self-hatred was so heartbreaking. And so was Leda’s grieved bewilderment.

    LOL, and I didn’t think the scene in Private Arrangements was an excruciating scene as defined by Tumperkin. Though there probably aren’t that many scenes that are comparable to the THATH scene.


  17. @ Drusilla:
    That’s the bad kind of excruciating.

    Venus Vaughn wrote:

    For me, the excruciating moment in Broken wasn’t the scene in the restaurant, though that was powerful, it was the scene where Joe brought that woman *spits* to their bench.
    That was cruel.

    Oh, I forgot about that one. You’re right!

    Laura Vivanco wrote:

    Being Tumperkin’s mirror image ;-) excruciating moments are one of the things I hate most in romances.

    It’s official. Laura is Tumperkin’s doppelganger!

    @ Ana:
    Thank you! It was kind of painful to revisit some of them, so I am happy you are bearing the burden with us.

    Sherry Thomas wrote:

    LOL, and I didn’t think the scene in Private Arrangements was an excruciating scene as defined by Tumperkin. Though there probably aren’t that many scenes that are comparable to the THATH scene.

    Silly authors, getting their own books so completely wrong! What would you do without us readers to explain it all for you? ;)

    But yes, Tumperkin has a much narrower definition than I do, which this scene in PA does not meet. My original word was actually “heartbreaking”, and while one partner hurting the other is the paradigm case, I would list several other situations under the general umbrella term because of their family resemblance to the paradigm.

    Kate wrote:

    Oh, grag, I totally agree on the one you listed in Private Arrangements.

    Finally, someone sees it my way!

    Margie wrote:

    I loved in The Unsung Hero when Kelly takes her frustration out on Tom and tells him they’re just having a casual affair.

    You’re right, I had read that one and forgotten about that scene.

    I think hero causing heroine pain is more common, which is maybe why I like FFTS and PA, where heroines are more the source of the pain, so much!

    katiebabs wrote:

    The scene in Heaven, Texas by Susan Elizabeth Phillips wher Gracie finds out that Bobby Tom has been paying her salary to keep her around when she thinks she is being paid from another source for her skills and job

    Oh, yes, and the one when he proposes to her publicly and gets rejected. Or when he practically rapes her. Ouch.

    Skrabs wrote:

    My fave is Lady Gallant by Suzanne Robinson.

    oooh – another for my TBR list!

    Kati wrote:

    One of my favorite old school examples is from Kathleen Woodiwiss’s A Rose in Winter.

    You know, I really want to go back to her one day for a reread.

    KristieJ wrote:

    I’m sure I have many more I can think of and will do so, but the one that first came to mind is in Broken Wing by Judith James.

    Oh god Kristie, how could I have forgotten that one. Yes, absolutely. I also found the scene when he had to pretend to go with his former master very hard to get through.


  18. I have to come and reread and comment when I have more time – I’m on my way to perform for National Dance Week, ahem – but that scene in PA is just the heart-twistiest! Made the book completely unforgettable for me.


  19. I love the term ‘a bewildering sort of love for (X title)’.

    I think that one that has been most powerful for me, probably because I encountered it at such a young age, was a serial story told in a magazine involving an American hero and a Chinese heroine. She was a former ‘hostess’ or dancing girl or some such, and when she isn’t home one night as expected all his insecurities come and and he accuses her most viciously of having returned to her former habits. She says nothing, just listens to him rant. He leaves their apartment in a rage, has to visit the facilities (this is at a time when there were shared bathrooms on each floor), sees the residue of blood in bathtub, and realizes that her dormant tuberculosis has returned and she had an attack when he thought she was with someone else. He tears back to their apartment in guilty regret – but too late, she’s gone.

    Here’s the worst part: I never even found out how it ended, because we didn’t get the magazine anymore!


  20. I just read a short book which is pretty much one long, drawn out excruciating moment… Sadly, it didn’t really work.

    I’m sad, ’cause I really like the author, generally speaking. I’m hoping the next one works better *crossing fingers*


  21. Maya M. wrote:

    Here’s the worst part: I never even found out how it ended, because we didn’t get the magazine anymore!

    Aahh!! AAAAHHH! Now I’m dying to know too! Criminy, how wretched. I can see why it’s stuck with you.


  22. “An earlier Gaffney book, Lily (which I have a bewildered sort of love for) falls slightly foul of this line at times.”

    I understand completely! And it’s fascinating to me how in one book the impact can be perfect, in another (such as Lily) somewhat off yet nonetheless effective enough to create the “bewildered love” and in a third, just completely wrong and wall-banging. And of course, another reader might have a completely different “line” placement and a completely different opinion.

    I see the distinction between the excruciating moments and those that are “merely” heartbreaking, and love them both. A true favorite of mine will usually have at least one incredibly heartbreaking scene, that I love to reread.

    Sam telling Alyssa about Mary Sue (name?) is a favorite heartbreaker. More excruciating is the hero’s discovery of and reaction to a secret the heroine is keeping from him in Jo Goodman’s Let Me Be the One Lorraine Heath’s westerns have so many, I can’t offhand think of just one. Forbidden by Elizabeth Lowell has a scene in which the hero is both physically and psychologically torturing the heroine, more than he really realizes. And then later another scene in which it really hits him what he’s done. Both wonderfully excruciating.

    I don’t really see those scenes in The Shadow and the Star as excruciating or heartbreaking, just endlessly fascinating. Or perhaps I have just read them so often, the initial impact has changed.


  23. For me, its McNaught’s “Kingdom of Dreams” with the most excruciating moment. When Westmoreland (whichever one is the hero in this book, Royce, maybe?) is out fighting, or not, the heroine’s family. He isn’t fighting them back, and they are just slowly killing him. Then, (finally!) the heroine realizes the irritating, TSTL family loyalty that has provided the internal conflict throughout the entire book is entirely misguided. She then understands he loves her and…HEA. Personally, I don’t think she grovels enough to make up for her childish behavior, but hey, one can’t expect maturity from a McNaught heroine!


  24. Pingback: Review: The Portrait, by Megan Chance | Read React Review

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