I first learned about the 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy from Linda Howard, who used to give a very popular talk on the subject based on the work of Desmond Morris, Intimate Behavior: A Zoologist's Classic Study of Human Intimacy.
On the downside, Linda has stopped giving this workshop. On the upside, she has spoken to enough writers that I was able to find a great post on the topic by one of our WITS readers, Terry O’Dell.
I give the stages and my thoughts here, but if you want a more detailed description of how to use the 12 Stages in writing romance, skip on over to Terry's blog and read her wonderful post called the 12 Steps to Intimacy. 🙂
Believe it or not, I’ve always found it terribly hard to write sex scenes. I don’t mind talking about sex, but when it comes to my characters, I’ve been stymied by "The Big Sexy," as we call in at my house.
WHY couldn’t I write a sex scene?
The last one was the real key. I’m pretty well-practiced at overcoming fear. But boring is not a word I want associated with me and my writing. Plus, it’s a pretty good guarantee that if you’re bored with your sex scenes, your reader will be too. So...I was back to Square One where I wanted to tattoo “I HATE SEX SCENES” on my forehead.
Enter Linda Howard.
Not only is she a warm, amazing lady but I LOVE the way she writes sex scenes. She is the very best at using sex as a plot device, and her books are fast-paced and hot. My favorite of hers is Son of the Morning, but you pretty much can’t find a bad read with her.
When Linda came to my writing chapter back in 2010 and gave her wonderful talk, light bulbs went off for me. I began to understand why I found Janet Evanovich’s books so sexy, even though most of the sex happened off-screen. I started to understand why Nora Roberts's sex scenes are so hot, even though she rarely discusses how “A” goes into “B.”
My aha moment opened the door to how to get intimacy onto the page and how to escalate the intimacy logically throughout a novel so the readers are satisfied. Below are the steps — use them wisely!
The 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy
1. Eye to body – the first “summing up” glance where one character notices the height, weight, dress code of another and registers an “overall impression.” A man will never approach a woman without this step, and it’s important to get that first glimpse onto the page.
This step is why “the heroine studying herself in the mirror” is considered such a rookie writing mistake. We want to be in one character’s head when they see their fellow main character. Even if the glance is between two friends or business associates, this is the first step in building the emotional intimacy between them.
2. Eye to eye – the first step of active interaction between characters. There is a lot of tension to be found in eye contact, and writers need to take a moment to get it on the page. Whether it’s a menacing stare or a long glance, you need to bring it to your reader. Remember, the point of view character needs to always be the person in the scene with the most to lose. When you bring up eye contact, make sure you’re in that vulnerable character’s head.
3. Voice to voice – once the two characters have met, they must speak. Who speaks first is important, as is what they say. What if one character touches the other before they speak? Whoa! Serious tension. It’s your story so I’ll let you figure this out, but think about how to get the most mileage from your scenes as you move through this chart.
4. Hand to hand (or arm) – “Mom, he’s touching me!” Don’t you remember how invasive you found the slightest look or touch from your siblings during a fight? My brother standing at the door of my room staring or putting a fingertip over “the line” and touching me were a big deal when we were at war. It wasn’t about the touch — it was about crossing my boundary. Remember this when you write, and be purposeful in your touching. Push boundaries when it helps your story.
5. Arm to shoulder – Ah…it’s the old yawn and drop the arm around the girl move. Why is this a classic? It’s because this is serious intimacy. Up close and able to kiss or smell. This is a gateway move to more intimacy.
I HATE it when someone I don’t know well puts their arm around me. Why? Because it’s intimate and invasive. But if I know them or feel close to them, it’s loving and welcome. It’s all about boundaries. How wide are your character’s boundaries? Why? How quickly does your character relax those boundaries? Again, why? These are important questions for you to answer.
6. Arm to waist, or back – Oooh…the hand on the small of the back to guide a woman through the room. *sigh* It melts me every time my guy does this.
Why is this so romantic? Because a warm hand against the small of the back sends the message to the woman and the rest of the room that this man is allowed to touch her, right above her bottom. There is physical comfort between these two people, and they are engaging in nonverbal behavior that’s nearly always sexual. Yummy.
7. Mouth to mouth – Have you ever wondered why a kiss is so intimate? You’ve skipped though half the intimacy chart with this one move. Depending on how the kiss progresses, several more intimacy levels may be skipped. WOOT!
Why do so many romance authors spend time and tension on the kiss, breaking it off or prolonging it? Because it works! Seriously, kissing creates tension in the pages of your novel, if you do it right, and keeps your readers fanning themselves and turning your pages to see when your characters are going to do it again.
8. Hand to head – Perhaps your first kiss back at Step 7 was a lip-lock, possibly including some stroking of the back. Sexy and intimate, but not a “skip-a-level” moment. What about when a man holds a woman’s face or vice-versa? What about when the yanking of hair ensues? It’s hot, hot, HOT because it’s extraordinarily intimate to touch a person’s head or face.
Use this in your books. The back of a fingertip along someone’s cheek and down their neck…is it good, as in hero and heroine? Or evil, as in villain, heroine? You are the creator of your world, be it loving or creepy.
9. Hand to body – As Terry says in her post, this step moves the couple into the beginnings of foreplay. This is a key place to break your couple apart, have deep emotional issues surface or just to collide your internal and external conflict. You haven’t reached the “point of no return” yet, so break the intimacy up a bit. Throw your characters up a tree and shoot at them...it's a nice gift for your readers.
10. Mouth to breast – My baby sister is going to laugh when she reads this. I always told her, "No matter what, keep your shirt on until you're really sure you want to sleep with a guy."
A woman can still turn back at this point, as can a man, but there’s likely to be some stomped feelings on both sides if she does. That's not why I told her to stay clothed. Most women excrete the bonding hormone oxytocin, the “love hormone,” when they have skin-to-skin contact. Why bond with some schmuck if it could have been avoided by just keeping your shirt on?
11. Hand to genitals – OK, we’re pretty much at the point of no return at this stage. If somebody changes their mind, labels like “tease” are likely to be assigned and major conflict will ensue. I love the idea of having the external conflict be the coitus interruptus. There’s some major mileage to be gained from messing with your characters in these final stages.
12. Genitals to genitals – He shoots, he scores! You’re at the sex act, and your characters will commit violence if you interrupt now.
It’s nice to decide in advance what you want from The Big Sexy. You’ve made your readers pant for this step throughout the journey, dragging them through ALL the other stages to get here. It is up to you whether this is the payoff, as it is in many romance novels, or if it’s just a step to something else in your story.
The entire point to this chart is to get the most from your characters' intimacy. Being deliberate in your steps will pay off big in your stories.
Have you heard Linda Howard give this talk? Were you familiar with this Intimacy Chart? How do you see this changing your writing process? What is your favorite step in terms of breaking down barriers between your characters?
By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
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