This article, written by Naima Simone is from the February 2022 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Oh, sexual tension.
What is it? Why do we need it? Is it that important?
I’m going to explain it.
I’ll explain that, too.
And bite your tongue, yes it is!
Encyclopedia.com gives us a clear and accurate definition, especially as pertaining to romance as “… often hidden or suppressed feelings of anticipation, excitement, attraction, and desire that may occur in relation to another person … a necessary part of the sexual flirtations, courtships, and sexual foreplay. In the context of the sexual, the term tension refers to sets of unresolved, sometimes unidentified, feelings of excitement, which are disguised by an appearance of outward calm or even disdain. Sexual tension is an intrinsic part of … the plots of many novels, films, and television shows and often drawn out to pique and retain viewer interest.”
Sexual tension is:
- The push and pull. It’s the tango or the hustle. It’s coming together, chest to chest, thigh to thigh, only to swing apart, then collide again. It’s this resistance that keeps the reader breathless, on edge and invested.
- Necessary. Whether the romance has closed-door or no sex, reader investment in the main characters’ (MCs’) journey and love story is a must. We want readers to root for our MCs and buy into them and their HEA. If not, a story can be incredibly well-written, but the reader will simply not care about the characters.
- Chemistry. A spark must be immediate. That instant chemistry sets the two—or three, or four, hello, reverse harem!—MCs apart from the rest of the characters. It signifies to the reader who will be falling in love.
- A vehicle for the romance. Sexual tension drives the romance forward, but it is not the romance. If the story was a car, the plot is the vehicle, the romance is the driver, and sexual tension is in the passenger’s seat.
Sexual tension is not:
- Sex. Do not mistake sex for sexual tension. A romance can have delicious sexual tension and no sex scenes. Which also means sexual tension isn’t only for books with higher heat levels. Regardless of whether the romance is sweet or erotic, physical attraction should be evident.
- Optional. In a romance, that dynamic, taut push and pull between the MCs is not elective.
- Love. Characters can experience sexual tension and not end up in a relationship or in love. Consider romances with love triangles or ménages. There is chemistry between other characters but often—unless it is a defined trope or genre such as polyamory or reverse harem—there is a clear, definite choice of the love interest.
- Abusive. Sexual tension is never an excuse or vehicle to steal a character’s voice or consent.
Who our characters are influences sexual tension. Their backstory, issues, dysfunctions, strengths, weaknesses—all affect how the characters demonstrate attraction, excitement or resistance. A hero or heroine’s age, where they are in their maturity, and the experiences only life can bring will determine their willingness to be vulnerable or show their attraction. For example, with an age-gap trope, a younger character may be more forward or bolder in their display of affection, not caring what other people think. An older, more established person with children, a settled job, and community connections might be more cautious and reserved with their demonstration. The cost of “not caring” may be too high. A character’s job, personality, and sexual history can all influence expression of desire and chemistry. A lawyer, whose job calls for control, possibly won’t be as open and demonstrative as a kindergarten teacher. An extrovert, playboy hero will be more confident and flirtatious, while an introvert, bitter “beast” hero will lash out and resist the attraction in fear of being rejected. If we, as the authors, know “who” our characters are, we also know how they reveal that push and pull.
Think of your current manuscript. What are your tropes? If there are power dynamics in the book, what are they? What are the surrounding, supportive relationships? What are my MCs’ needs, wants, desires? All of these influence sexual tension. Tropes aren’t just for shaping the plot. Because one purpose of a trope is to heighten conflict, it also increases sexual tension. In the older brother’s best friend trope, the heroine may not feel desired or pretty enough for the hero, especially if he previously friend-zoned her. And the hero doesn’t feel worthy enough of the heroine, especially if the brother warned him away. Then throw in the added conflict of them not wanting to lose their friendship. This is rife with conflict, which leads to very organic sexual tension. If the MCs are employer/employee, they will resist their attraction because of that power dynamic. So there might be longing glances, furtive touches, or snarky dialogue and heated, I-hate-to-want-you looks. The display of the tension is different, but it keeps the reader on edge for when they finally give in to each other. Most of these—the tropes, power dynamics, the MCs' needs—are rooted in conflict.
Why are your MCs’ goals opposed? Why are they apart? Why do the MCs believe they shouldn’t be together? Not to beat a dead horse, but conflict. The opposition of goals equals conflict, and the greater the conflict, the greater the tension. So surface conflict leads to surface sexual tension. The deeper the conflict is rooted in the MCs themselves, the greater the tension as the conflict is much harder to overcome. Emotionally, the MCs hold out longer, even if they surrender to each other sexually.
Think of a book where the setting is at a wedding where wine is flowing, love is in the air, and matchmaking shenanigans are afoot. Now consider a book where a hero and heroine are tucked away in a safe house with the Bad Guys on their trail and danger’s surrounding them. In the wedding book, the sexual tension will look flirtier, feel lighter, the banter sexy and even funny. But in the safe house book, the tension will be thicker, the conversation heavier, maybe more emotional, the touches more desperate because they’re in a dangerous place with a ticking clock and tomorrow isn’t promised. The “where”—where the story takes place, where the MCs are from—directly affects sexual tension.
I’ve been asked, “When does sexual tension start?” Easy answer. From their first meeting, the reader should know these two people are destined to have an HEA, and they should be desperate to take the journey with your characters. How do you reel your reader in? Yes, plot. Yes, amazing characterization. But, oh yes, that immediate chemistry between your characters. Even if it’s subtle or confusing to the MCs, it is not to the reader. “When does sexual tension end?” It doesn’t. Sexual tension does not end after sex. It continues until the end of the book, overlayed with emotional tension. After sex, the emotional tension is as high as the sexual, but the sexual does not end. Also, with “when,” think about the time period. The demonstration of sexual tension will look different in Victorian England than it will in the 21st century. “When” is timing and it’s a time.
How to show sexual tension?
We are in the business of “show vs. tell,” and when we write sexual tension, it’s not enough to tell the reader, “He wants her,” or “She’s falling for him.” Readers want to see it, and it’s our job to draw the picture. Here are several ways to show sexual tension:
- The senses. Sight. Describe body language or facial expression. Smell. The character’s unique scent or the scent of lust in a paranormal. Hearing. The drum of a heart or a pulse. The fading of sound. Touch. A shiver running through a body. A bristle of beard over fingertips. Taste. The taste of an almost kiss. A romantic dinner. The musky tang of skin.
- Action. Is there an aggressive pursuit or a romantic, slow wooing? A dominant/submission power exchange? Do the MCs act on the tension or resist it, ignore it? Is there no action at all?
- Internal dialogue. Inner thoughts that share with the reader what the character is thinking. An invaluable tool for the reader to receive a perspective into the MCs that others aren’t privy to.
- Sexual scenes. Not the complete sexual act, but oral sex or manual stimulation. It kicks the tension into high gear and has the MCs even hungrier for each other, no matter the external or internal conflict that is keeping them apart.
- Emotional growth/fear of emotional growth. This comes with conflict. One character might want to push the physical aspect of the relationship because being vulnerable terrifies them. While the other character will insist on the emotional because physical isn’t enough for them anymore. Character arc brings amazing sexual tension.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to write or show sexual tension. It is as different and varied as our stories and the characters in them. And more than all of the tips above, our characters influence sexual tension. But do ask yourself: Is your conflict deep enough? Are you using all the senses in your scenes? Are your characters fleshed out enough? Are you showing the progress of the romance? Because, remember, tension builds with pacing. Are you using sex to replace a lack of sexual tension? Consider these questions and I leave you with one last piece of advice.