The road to writing a successful romance always leads through good sexual tension. It doesn’t matter whether your characters are having actual sex every other scene, or indulge in nothing more than a chaste kiss during the course of the story. In romance, sexual tension is the name of the game. But in many books I’ve been reading recently, the sexual tension has seemed a little flat, so I’ve been doing some thinking about what makes good sexual tension. I think there are about six secrets.
Remember the movie The Ugly Truth? It’s a guilty pleasure of mine. Gerard Butler’s character, a crass male talk show host, says, “ThighMaster, ladies. He can’t fall in love with your personality from across the room.” Fair enough. Physical characteristics attract. But how? Through the effect those physical characteristics have on your hero’s or heroine’s imagination and their psyche. So noticing physical details about each other is very important. It’s also a great way to get in a description of your characters, by the way.
The very act of paying very close attention is in itself a way to display sexual tension, especially if your character notices things about the object of their attentions that others might not see.
Just having your heroine think, “That’s the most handsome man I’ve ever met,” is not very effective at evoking sexual tension. Why? Because it’s a generic statement. When the heroine notices something particular, your tension is much more effective.
That means choosing details that will serve your story or your characters. The same thing is true of what your character notices about the object of attention. I happen to be partial to strong forearms and the vulnerable nape of the neck, but you’ll have your own favorites.
If the detail can tell you something about the character being described or the character doing the describing, so much the better. “Sure, his eyes were a gorgeous blue, but their expression was guarded somehow,” or “but a sadness lurked there that spoke of tragedy in his life.” Not great prose, but you get the idea.
Don’t: use clichés to describe your object of sexual attention. If I see one more description of a hero’s cheekbones or nose as anything related to a “blade,” I swear I will scream. Ditto for the heroine’s blond hair likened to any kind of a coin (especially in historicals.)
Don’t: describe your hero (or your heroine) by relating him (or her) to a current movie star. Using pictures to inspire you is fine. They stand still so you can think about how to describe that particular set of mouth or shape of eyes. But don’t name names or make the description too recognizable. Your movie star is going to get older or fall out of fashion. What if he turns out to be an alcoholic, or dumps America’s Sweetheart, or has a meltdown on Jimmy Kimmel Live? You want your book to be timeless.
Never tell the reader the character is “hot.” Remember all that stuff about showing being more effective than telling. Plus, it’s a generic not a particular observation. Instead, show that a guy or girl is hot by the reactions of the observer of the “hotness.” Both physical and mental reactions include, flushing, feeling faint, sensations in parts of your body, an inability to speak, a stutter, or talking obsessively. Characters who are sexually attracted either 1) make up excuses to touch each other in casual interaction or 2) wouldn’t touch the other person on a bet because they’re afraid they might lose control. Either way, small intimacies, or the opportunity for same that aren’t taken, are ideal opportunities to show sexual tension.
The level of sensuality in your novel will dictate what the characters notice about each other. In a sweet romance, the heroine probably wouldn’t notice the bulge in the hero’s jeans and wonder how big he was in that department. If she did notice a “growing attraction” on the hero’s part, her mental reaction would be embarrassment, not, “Bring that on, honey.” In an erotic romance, however, all is fair. Your sexual tension details must fit the situation.
I’ve seen a lot of “he has a cute butt,” in romances recently. That’s okay as far as it goes (though a bit of a cliché at this point). But there had better be more than physical attraction fast. Would we really want to spend time with a heroine who only thought about cute butts? Would we feel that such a relationship had much of a chance long term? What would happen when the heroine notices an even cuter butt?
Fortunately, people are also powerfully attracted by things they have in common, differences that fascinate, observations about the other’s character traits, interest in their history, etc. This is what shows us the characters are right for each other, even if they don’t think so. And these are the long-term attractors, the ones that make us believe they can stay together as a couple. Showing these things about your characters, not in an info dump or by telling us about them, but by constructing your scenes and incidents to show them, is a great way to create a force pulling the characters together mentally and emotionally. (Though please, no more hero saving a puppy scenes. See above, screaming.)
Tension means opposing forces pulling in opposite directions. So you have no tension if there aren’t things that pull your characters apart sexually as well as pull them together. Sexual tension is part of a dance, as readers watch the characters twirl together, twirl apart, coming ever closer until the relationship is resolved. Many books I’ve read recently start with characters that are very attracted to each other for reasons the reader doesn’t really understand. The ending seems inevitable and any barriers artificial.
So, carefully construct reasons why the characters won’t get together immediately. (If this is an erotic romance, they may actually have sex right away, but they still need something to pull them apart or the story is over, the tension released.)
Know their sexual and relationship histories—it’s often useful for pulling characters apart. Are there social pressures acting as barriers? What fears and internal resistors make getting together difficult? What internal dialogue are the characters having with themselves about their attraction? Why is this absolutely the wrong character, the wrong time, or the wrong circumstance for sexual attraction? Denial of a feeling can be as important a confirmation as giving in to it. Restraint, hard won, carries a lot of sexual tension. And it all happens in the character’s head.
If sexual tension happens in your head, then voice and maintaining a specific POV are essential. Obviously, your hero and your heroine have a very different slant on what’s happening, if for no other reason than that they are male and female. Getting that right can make your hero sound like a real guy, not a girl in drag. (Hint: he might not go on about his feelings at length and in great detail.) But the character’s individualized values, experience, fears, vulnerabilities and the walls they’ve built to make them seem invincible, all contribute in a very particular way to how they approach the opposite sex. By making that approach individual, you make your sexual tension feel real, compelling.
I think my favorite scenes in any romance are the “getting to know you” scenes: the surprises, the excitement, but also the reluctance and dismay. Like many readers, they’re the reason I want to take the journey over and over again. You want them to seem natural, like what would happen with real people. The way to do that takes some planning, and getting inside their head. But don’t worry, you can keep layering in more sexual tension in each draft. It’s worth the time and effort. Now, can you imagine how this might be applied to actual sex scenes?
What are some of your 'go to' tricks to increase sexual tension?
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Susan Squires is New York Times bestselling author known for breaking the rules of romance writing. She has won multiple contests for published novels and reviewer’s choice awards. Publisher’s Weekly named Body Electric one of the most influential mass market books of 2003 and One with the Shadows, the fifth in her vampire Companion Series, a Best book of 2007.
Susan has a Masters in English literature from UCLA and once toiled as an executive for a Fortune 500 company. Now she lives at the beach in Southern California with her husband, Harry, a writer of supernatural thrillers, and three very active Belgian Sheepdogs, who like to help by putting their chins on the keyboarddddddddddddddddd.
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