Shades Of Romance Magazine

Third Issue -- January/February 2001



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Push Me ― Pull You

Creating Sexual Tension in
Romance Novels



By Kim Louise

Let's start by making a list.  That's always a good way to put off writing a little longer.  If you are reading this you have done two things.  You have decided you want to be (or already are) a writer (like we have a real choice) and you are not writing!  When I decided to write this article I wanted to take a unique approach. Do you think you are alone?  Guess again.  I have oodles of ways to keep from actually writing.  What I want to know is, what is you favorite way to procrastinate?  I wrote to several published author and was not at all surprised to read what they said. (As a side note, I had to check my e-mail about five hundred times to see who    responded.)

Remember the romance novel that kept you so tingly with suspense that, just like a good action movie, it had you on the edge of your seat? Each time the hero and heroine were in the same room, you wondered, "Will they touch?" Each time they touched, you wondered, "Will they kiss?" Each time they kissed, you wondered, "Will they make love?" Your anticipation of their next intimacy is the author's way of creating sexual tension. And sexual tension is one of the most compelling elements that keeps the reader turning page after page to find out what will happen next.

In this article, I will present one definition of sexual tension (although acknowledging there are many others), describe the essence of sexual tension, and finally identify ways in which you can incorporate sexual tension into your own stories.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, sexual is defined as: Implying or symbolizing erotic desires or activity. Tension is defined as: The act of stretching or the condition of being stretched. Using these definitions as a base, we find that a combined definition could be prolonging erotic desires. Therefore, sexual tension is that which heightens erotic suspense in novels and stories.

The hidden tapestry of sexual tension is the sexual act itself. Sexual tension in a novel tends to mirror intercourse in that it is the pulling together and pushing apart of the hero and the heroine.

In the sexual act, there are elements of in/out, up/down, over/under, in front/behind. When these elements are introduced, whether metaphorically or thematically, we recognize them instinctively. We may not identify them specifically as agents of sexual tension, but our human nature picks up on them, and translates them into "good scene," or "great chapter," or simply "Wow!"

Sexual tension can also be thought of in terms of opposites.

on/off

zealous/tempered

loud/soft

bold/banal

casual/reverent

slow/fast

Remember the physics law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction? Creating sexual tension is a lot like obeying this law. If the heroine seems ready to give in, the hero should back away. If he walks in a room, she should withdraw.

The writer's ability to incorporate and capitalize on sexual tension converges at story points that pull the heroine and hero apart and then force them together. This juxtaposition of opposites is then woven throughout your story like a ritual mating dance in which the participants advance and retreat, touch and move away, embrace and then let go.

Armed with this basic explanation of sexual tension, you can begin to create scenes that sizzle with erotic suspense. Here are some ideas:

The strongest sexual tension is constructed with the support of descriptive story elements like setting, weather, clothing, etc.—items in a room utilizing the same concept of opposites that mirror and echo the sexual act.

For example curtains covering an open window that rise and fall with the wind. The flickering neon sign that is always the cornerstone of "steamy" movies, the intermittent flashes of lightening that illuminate the sky and then vanish. A coo-coo sliding in and out of a clock. Sounds that tick, drip, or pulse.

A word of caution. When it comes to sexual tension, less is usually more. Rely on the action/reaction of your characters first. Then reinforce those actions recurrently with one or two items of description to keep the sexual tension at its peak.

Remember, if she says yes, he says no. If he says stop, she says go. Sexual tension is also created when what occurs in the body and mind doesn't match what is said and done. When the hero's heart is racing and he thinks the heroine looks astounding in her strapless dress, sexual tension is heightened if he turns and walks away instead of carrying her off to his bedroom.

In summary, the core of sexual tension is opposites just like the male and female characters you write about. Good sexual tension is seasoned with other converse elements such as the sound of ocean waves lapping rhythmically against the shore. Put these things together and people will remember your scenes and remark to others that you had them on the edge of their seats.