Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 14, 2018

Using The 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy To Build Tension In Your Fiction

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. 🙂

Gorgeous woman and handsome man flirting. Loving couple on date looking into each other's eyes falling in love.

Photo credit: anetlanda

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?

  1. I felt like a voyeur. Like I was intruding on a personal moment between my characters.
  2. Evidently I’m more prudish than I thought, and it was embarrassing.
  3. What if my friends and family read this?!
  4. I found all of the “A” goes into “B” details boring to write.

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.

Young couple holding hands4. 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 backOooh…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.

couple kissing up-close7. 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.

couple wrapped in bedsheets, legs and feet only shown12. Genitals to genitalsHe 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?

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About Jenny

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.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on TwitterInstagram and Facebook, or here at Writers In The Storm.

30 comments on “Using The 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy To Build Tension In Your Fiction”

  1. Great post, Jenny. One more thing I think too few writers do is incorporate dialogue into their sex scenes--there is so much you can do here to amplify both the emotional content and the physicality of your story with a little dialogue. It often seems like writers are also afraid to write about sex between married people--the kind of intimacy that's forced or businesslike or even still hot despite the kids watching cartoons downstairs. The late, great writer John O'Hara was a champion at that: https://thestacks.deadspin.com/john-ohara-told-the-truth-about-his-time-1252036214

    1. I love it when people talk during sex. All moans and A into B make a very boring sex scene! Now I'm off to read John O'Hara's post...thanks!

  2. I heard Linda Howard's last workshop on the topic. Since then, I've done a couple of on-line workshops and blogs about it (I actually first learned in while reading Desmond Morris's book, Intimate Behavior, which was Howard's source for her workshops. Those steps are hard wired and go back -- way back -- in human development.

    1. You are welcome for the shout out and yes, I agree it is hard wired. It's interesting, I really thought about the Clan of the Cave Bear series when I mulled over Linda's talk. Jean M. Auel did a great job of showing how seriously early man took privacy and boundaries, even when they lived in a single cave.

  3. Linda Howard is obviously of the age to have grown up with the "baseball" and "bases" metaphor to depict (and prescribe) the progression of physical intimacy.

    Sorry to tell everyone, but young people and many others of all ages and sexual inclinations do NOT go in this sequence. Some don't even kiss first.


    Good luck, though.

    1. And how long do relationships built on skipping to step 12 last? Morris's premise was that for a long-term relationship (and this goes back to prehistoric times) to develop, these steps were necessary. I know that those who write erotica, where lots of steps are skipped, they usually have to go back to fill in the blanks to forge the bonds. Civilization has raced forward at a much faster pace than evolution.

        1. And that leaves even more writing fodder, as you have to work harder to get the strong foundation for a relationship that started as nothing more than sex, as the rest of us who came of age in the 60s had to learn.

    2. How sad is that, Sally? How on earth are they every going to experience the joy of true intimacy if they don't take the time to engage in it and learn what it feels like incrementally?

    3. I don't agree. I guess I'm no longer considered young (I'm 34), but even in one-night-stands couples go through a similar process. It might be quick, and by necessity we slow this down when we write, but the steps are all there. Where there is mutual attraction and consent, no one can jump the other person without prior communication, even if it's brief.

      I do know that when I was a teenager, and then a high school teacher, some girls would perform oral sex for boys without any intervening steps (not something I ever did) but I would argue that that's not about intimacy. I don't know what label you'd put on that though.

      1. It's sex, nonetheless, naked (for at least the guy), which = "intimacy," albeit not emotionally; and, yes it skips almost all the so-called 'steps" to start with oral sex.

  4. Awesome post, Jenny. I would love to get say, 12 different authors together to write their own views on these 12 steps. Twelve different answers! Mary Buckham has a good workshop on Sexual Chemistry. I have it in my library, but forget if I purchased the packet, or it's on her website. She refers to Linda Howard in it. She teaches you to understand what intimacy is about and how and why it works to increase sexual tension when you use it correctly. Like Holly, I love to read dialogue during intimacy...it always ups the tension for me!

    1. Oooooh. I'll go search out Mary Buckham's workshop - I always need help in this area. Seriously, I edit the love scenes and romance more than any other part of my characters' interactions.

  5. I'm laughing at your comment, "what if my friends and family read this?" I belong to a church choir, and after a few of them read the book, they said, "I'll never look at you the same way again, Ann!"

    1. My niece-in-law told me years ago she read my book...she said, "Whoa aunt Laura." I just laughed. Yes, News Flash - the generation ahead of you knows what sex is.

    2. LOLOL. You and Laura are both making me laugh. Every kid prays that none of the adults in their family have ever had sex. Or if they did, maybe at least it was perfunctory. 🙂

  6. Great article, Jenny. This is something I've managed to avoid so far. Thankfully, my genre has different expectations, so I'm able to write around these scenes ...for now. I know the day is coming when I will have to music and pen 'The Big Sexy", but for now I think I'm going to stick to the fist fights, drug deals, and dead bodies!

  7. Love this post! I have read about Linda's 12 steps but I enjoyed reading your comments with each step and how to use them. Thanks!

    I laughed when I read the comment from the person who was in a church choir. I was a church secretary for 14 years before I retired to write full-time. One of the former (female) pastors is my biggest fan. And the current pastor's mother wanted to read my book, I warned her there would be sex and she laughed and said she could handle it. Evidently she could because she wrote me a note and declared herself my #1 fan. And many of the church members were at my book signing.

    And I confess, my sex scenes consist of more dialogue than actual slot A & tab B action.

  8. I don't have any sex on the page in my YA, but I definitely have tension and these stages are so helpful for that! In fact, one of the things I love about writing for teens is getting to write about hand-holding and first kisses being so emotionally powerful. Thanks for the great info, Jenny! Love it.

  9. I struggle with sex-scenes because I always think, "What if my mum reads this!" I've been pregnant twice so I assume she knows that I know what sex is...but still! 🙂

  10. 🙂 A good run-down. I would add 11A or maybe 13) Mouth to genitals, 14) The awkward fumbling over birth control, 15) Coping with embarrassing noise(s), 16) Paranoid fears about one's performance, 17) Post-coital cuddling, or failure thereof, and (my very favorite), 17) Trying to decide what the hell just happened. I also have a number of church friends who read my books. What freaked me out most recently, though, was a grandson slyly announcing he'd seen one of my books. "You're too young for that book!" I told him. I then added "And you'd think it was really boring" just in case he reacted to that message the way I usually did when I was younger!

  11. Great post, Jenny! Notice that the comments expand to include real-life behavior not only stories -- the mark of a thought-provoking post. And I hope littlemissw is right and the intervening steps are still present. Otherwise people are missing a lot. IMHO (the last initialism is to prove that I'm still With It.)

  12. Great article, Jenny! The topic is one that doesn't get a lot of coverage, or maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places? I was so happy to discover Elizabeth Benedict's The Joy of Writing Sex. I had stopped by a Half-Price Books on my walk to a first date (Match.com, ugh...). He ended up driving me home and I forgot my bag in the car. The date did NOT go well but I really wanted my book back, so I swallowed my embarrassment and texted him. Of course he had seen the title! It made for an uncomfortable second (brief!) meeting, but it was worth it. The book is really good!

    Also, one more point--even if you don't write romance or sex, it's a fun practice to write a short erotica story. It's a playful way to get the writing juices going :).

  13. I love this post! Especially to help with the book I am currently writing which is less explicit than the first. I really enjoyed (cough cough) writing the sexually explicit scenes in The Sleeping Serpent. And I am delighted that I got good reviews! The slow steps and descriptions... the gaze from across the room describing mannerisms and attire. The intimate hand on thigh, and the way he teases his prey... yes prey. And he is a master. The tension worked. Now I am at a difficult place. I don't want the next book to be as sexually explicit because the first book was not a romance (HEA) - it was about Nico being a narcissistic sociopath and it was Luna's journey to reclaim her life. Second book is about Nico on his journey. Do I need to reissue the first book and tone down the sex scenes? The sexually explicit scenes really helped me get more widely read, and get reviews in the "romance" arena - with only a few complaints that there was no HEA as exactly required for romance genre.

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