January 29th, 2018

Evaluating Sexual Tension on the Sentence Level

Angela Quarles

Several excellent posts have already been written here on how to increase sexual tension—the key to writing romance no matter if it’s a sweet romance or erotic. These tips are also helpful for those in other genres who have a romance subplot. If you haven’t read these, definitely start here:

Understanding these concepts and tips is one thing, but applying them in our writing can be a challenge if we’re not used to it yet. Too often we think we have what’s in our head on the page, but do we really?

Young couple holding hands sensually on red silk bed.

Photo Credit: ©bluebeat76

First, analyze what you might be missing on the page

Below are elements that too often can be either too sparse, or missing altogether in scenes where a writer is either trying to increase sexual tension or is writing a sex scene. If you’re missing these elements, your scene potentially is all action. While that doesn’t sound bad for a sex scene, it can make it sound like IKEA sex. Avoid IKEA sex.

Do you use the senses, especially touch?

Go through your scene and mark anything that calls up one of the senses, either by circling it or making a note in the margin. Do you have any at all? How much depends on your style, but no matter how much you regularly use, use more in sensual scenes.

If you don’t have any, look at any action taken and see if there’s an opportunity there to draw the reader into the sensations of the moment. The goal is to ground the action in a sensation, making the reader feel like they’re right there experiencing it. Especially touch. Or look at your dialogue tags and replace them with an action tag that employs one of the senses.

Example

Before:
She smoothed her hand up his side, and his breath grew more ragged.

After:
She smoothed her hand up his linen-clad chest, the tight weave—warm from his skin and the last rays of the sun—skim-skim-skimming across her palms. (Must Love More Kilts, by Angela Quarles)

What was added:

  1. Specific and concrete details. linen-clad chest instead of ‘side’
  2. Senses evoked. Here it’s the sense of touch with the sensation of warmth from his body on her palm as well as the weave of the fabric skimming along her skin

Note: His breathing didn’t get cut out, but it became part of a new paragraph, so I left it out in the ‘after’ example.

Do you have push/pull?

Go through your scene, this time marking anything that is conflict, or a push-pull dynamic, or denial. Underlining or drawing a box around it works well. There should be some kind of conflict in your scene, especially if it’s one of the 12 stages of physical intimacy being reached for the first time.

Example

Before:“All in all, this is better than I expected,” she said, looking at Robert.

After:
Katy plopped onto the narrow wooden bench and stuck her hands before the fire. “All in all, better than I expected.” She studiously avoided looking at the bed. Oh God. Did it have to be so alluringly unusual? (Must Love Chainmail, by Angela Quarles)

What was added:

Besides taking out the dialogue tag and the stage direction that really doesn’t add much to the sentence other than to say where she looked, in the revised version a small sliver of push-pull was added in the form of internal dialogue and the stage direction switched to what she wasn’t looking at. Why? Because this is a highly charged moment—for the first time they are in a bedroom together. And there’s a bed. It’s in these small moments that you can increase sexual tension. Don’t overlook these moments.

Do you have evocative adjectives and power words?

Don’t discount the power of an evocative adjective, even though some writing advice will tell you to eschew adjectives. Go through and circle any good adjective or power word. Do you have some in every paragraph? If not, look at your action sentences and see if you can judiciously pepper in some of those puppies.

Example

Before:
Then his breath was stroking her cheek and then her ear, and a shiver coursed over her. Then his lips—those lips—grazed her jaw and then the soft part below her ear.

After:
His warm breath, smelling of clean spice, stroked her cheek and ear. A thrilling shiver coursed over her, the wound on her arm only a minor sting. Then his lips—those full, sensuous lips—grazed her jaw and the soft spot behind her ear, the hairs of his beard brushing her sensitive skin. Her shivers locked her muscles tight. A bolt of tantalizing heat shot down her center. (Must Love Chainmail)

What was added:

  1. Evocative adjectives and power words. warm, thrilling, full, sensuous
  2. Senses evoked. Smell and heat of his breath stroking her, the hairs brushing sensitive skin
  3. Response to the stimulus. In the first version, she didn’t have a reaction after the lips grazed her.

Do you have an emotional response?

Make sure there’s an emotional response that shows where the POV character is now coming from as a result of the encounter. For every moment your characters reach one of the twelve stages. Eyes clashing across the room doesn’t quite get there if you don’t know how the POV character responds to it emotionally.

A young woman in a bed is giving thumbs up

Photo credit: ©LoloStock

Example (immediately after sex)

Before:

He collapsed next to her, and they both fought to catch their breaths. The chill air caught her attention first, which made her realize she was coated in a thin sheen of sweat. He stirred first, grabbing one of the furs and wiping her stomach clean.

He then pulled another fur over them and pulled her to nestle up against him, his tunic a barrier, though, to his hot skin. She snuggled up against him and let her mind thump back softly into a drowsy blissfulness.

After:

He collapsed beside her, and they both fought to catch their breaths.

Wow. Just…oh my, wow.

Her heart pounded with her first taste of abandon. Why had she ever denied herself this? This was raw. This was primal. This was real.

The chilly air caught her attention first, which made her realize she was coated in a thin sheen of sweat, another first. He stirred, grabbed one of the furs, and wiped her stomach clean.

“You will be the death of me, woman.”

He pulled another fur over them and nestled her up against him, his shirt a barrier, though, to his hot skin. She snuggled up, grateful he still had his wits, because she sure didn’t, and let her mind thump back into a drowsy blissfulness. (Must Love Chainmail)

What was added:

  1. Internal dialogue. To show where her head space is afterward
  2. Physical response
  3. Emotional response

Do you have a stimulus for every response?

I doubt Dwight Swain had sexual tension and sex scenes specifically in mind when he wrote Techniques of the Selling Writer and counseled writers to make sure that every motivation (action) had a reaction. But it’s crucial, especially in a sex scene, to make sure that each stimulus has a response. If he does something to her, have her react, etc. And I like to take these reactions and ground the POV character physically into the environment. This is where you can layer in one of the senses as well. Too many times I’ve read sex scenes where one does something to the other, and…they keep doing stuff…and doing stuff…and their partner isn’t reacting at all. That stuff can appear to be “hot” or “erotic,” but it’s not really if the other character isn’t reacting to it that way. And this isn’t just for the POV character. The non-POV character needs to be reacting too. It’s a delicate dance.

Responses can take the form of action, or an emotional response, or a visceral response.

Next, Dig Deeper

Evaluate your action sentences. Look. At. Each. One. Sometimes a sentence can seem like it’s an action, but it’s not really something you can see. Or you can see it, but it still might not be enough. Can you feel it? Sometimes writers can make a mistake in writing something that can be visualized, and a sensation can be inferred, but it can be broken down into a more detailed action that evokes a sensation.

An example
He kissed her neck and nibbled on her ear lobe.

This is a pretty generic action we’ve seen loads of times. Nothing wrong with it, but it’s also not doing the author any favors. If you were evaluating this, you might think it’s an action, and so is not telling, and move along to the next sentence. Stop. This is an example of an action sentence that seems like an action but isn’t fully. Sure, we all know what a kiss feels like and we can visualize this. But do you feel it?

How about:
He dragged his lips up the soft skin of her neck and gently nipped her ear lobe, sipping on the soft flesh. (Must Love Chainmail)

Notice how in revisions, I took the action of the kiss and made it into something the reader can feel along with the hero.

What was added:

  1. Power words. Dragged, nipped, sipping, flesh
  2. Dug deeper. Instead of just ‘kissed her neck,’ the action was described
  3. Senses evoked. Here it’s the sense of touch with the sensation of his lips dragging across her skin.

Another example
We reach the first landing, and he palms the small of my back again, the solid tips of his fingers settling into the dip along my spine, steady and sure. (Earning It, by Angela Quarles)

See how the action of the hand at the small of the back is amplified slightly by showing the fingers settling in, and then giving a little hint as the attitude/competence/confidence of the man palming her back?

Finally, evaluate whole scene

Make sure it’s grounded in their personalities and that the scene moves the plot and character ARC forward. Sex can’t be just sex; it needs to change their relationship to each other, or how they think of their situation now that they’ve had sex. If it’s not the first time, then making sure this scene has a reason to showcase their emotional turning point in the story. Find out if there’s any emotional conflict happening that can be highlighted here.

What about you? Do you have some tricks to share, or have any questions? Let me know!

About Angela

Angela Quarles headshotRisking It Book CoverAn avid reader herself, Angela Quarles writes books she’d like to read—laugh-out-loud, smart romances that suck you into her worlds and won’t let you go until you reach The End. She is an RWA RITA® award-winning and USA Today bestselling author of contemporary, time travel, and steampunk romance. Library Journal named her steampunk, Steam Me Up, Rawley, Best Self-Published Romance of 2015, and Must Love Chainmail won the 2016 RITA® Award in the paranormal category, the first indie to win in that category. Angela loves history, folklore, and family history and combined it with her active imagination to write stories of romance and adventure.

Website: www.angelaquarles.com
Latest release: Risking It

26 comments to Evaluating Sexual Tension on the Sentence Level

  • I just finished writing “the sex scene” for the WIP and will be looking at this post again.

    It’s also important to remain “in character” with word choices. Would your characters think in the terms you’re writing.

    Also, men and women are hard-wired differently, so if you’re writing from the man’s POV, it’s important to keep that in mind.

    • So true Terry! I didn’t cover that because the other posts did that well (I didn’t want to have repeat advice if I could help it) but both of those points do bear repeating as they are important! Thank you!

  • Great post, Angela. Love the comparisons in the various scenarios. Jillian

  • great advice–thank you!

    denise

  • Margie Lawson

    Hellooo Angela!

    Excellent blog. Loved all of your teaching points, especially your emphasis on power words and stimulus-response patterns. 🙂

    This fresh visceral piece below from Must Love Chainmail WOWED me:

    — Her shivers locked her muscles tight. A bolt of tantalizing heat shot down her center.

    Powerful writing — and powerful blog!

  • Great advice. I was wondering if you had any tips for writing sex scenes in YA fiction? I get that the mechanics would be the same, but the audience doesn’t necessarily have the same experience of sex.

    • Great question! For YA, I think the principles are the same as far as sentence-level analyzation. You want to concentrate on the small moments and really pump those up. In other words, find the spots where they’re near each other and slow those down and hyper-focus on sensation and the different senses.

      For example, this is a non-sex scene in Must Love More Kilts that amplifies an innocent moment:

      He reached forward to grab the flask he’d set before him. His forearm brushed against hers. They both froze, and goosebumps broke out along her skin.

      Jeez, they’d just bumped arms not uglies, and yet she was strangely alert and…aroused. With him being inches from her, sitting on the ground, and accidentally brushing against each other. Whoa.

      The air fairly crackled with tension.

      He resumed leaning forward and grasped the flask. “Some whisky to clear your throat.” His voice sounded deeper. Rougher.

      He held the flask out and watched as she reached over and grasped it. Watched as her fingers curled around it. Then those eyes traveled, oh so slowly, up her arm until they lingered on her mouth.

      Oh, she wanted to kiss him, finish what they’d started, but she couldn’t. Though the pull he exerted made it hard to remember exactly why it would be a bad, bad idea.

      His eyes flipped up to hers, the lids hooded. Then back to her mouth. The crackling tension now sparked across her skin.

      A shudder wracked her. And not from the chilly summer air. Jesus, this guy could turn her on with just a look, as warm heat coiled down below.

      She was so screwed.

    • Obviously in that example, you’d ignore the aroused part, but you see what I mean? I don’t read a lot of YA, but I do remember Shaila Patel’s SOULMATED was good at this https://www.amazon.com/Soulmated-Joining-Souls-Shaila-Patel-ebook/dp/B01N9UV5BY

  • Angela, part of why I wrote that 12 Stages of Physical intimacy post is because I have SUCH a tough time writing sex scenes. I love writing all about sexual tension, but I always find I want to shut the bedroom door and give my people some privacy when the clothes start coming off. I have to fight with that, because hello? Characters have sex!

    Seeing the before and after here is extremely helpful to a reluctant sex-scene-writer like me. Thanks so much for posting with us!

  • As a decades-long romance reader, I have to tell you, the tension is what I live for. You know they will, but the back and forth, yes/no leading up to it is the important part. Honestly, many times I skip the actual scene itself, because it’s a let-down for me.

    I may be weird.

  • I love how this post reads like a checklist, and with all those great examples. For those challenged by writing sexual tension, this is a great way to break it down and make sure we have what we need on the page. Thank you so much, Angela!

  • Nora Roberts as J D Robb writing the scenes between Eve and Rourke for the lengthy series she has done on them is inspiring to me. The love, the lust, and the laughter never gets old.

  • A keeper blog post! Awesome, Angela!

  • This is such an important part of writing a romance, the build-up between the characters, the tension between them must be under-laid all the way with sexual tension as the subtext. A fantastic blog that breaks it down to a step by step process. Thank you. This is a keeper for me.

  • […] course, you also need to get the writing correct on a detailed level, too. Angela Quarles shows how to elevate sexual tension on the sentence level, while James Scott Bell warns not to let your dialogue stray from your […]

  • Thank you Angela, your revisions make each word palpable, the sentence hums.

  • Excellent post Angela. Thanks for sharing such an informative and detailed post.

  • Great post and advice. My difficulty comes (haha, no pun intented) when I need to write several sex scenes. I try to avoid repeating myself but there’s only so many ways an author can write how the man’s tongue enters the woman’s mouth. I’ve read erotic scenes in other novels but still come up empty. Any advice?

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