Sexual tension is probably the element that sets romance apart from other genres. Think
about it. Other genres have conflict, suspense, even romance. Other books have historical
settings, western settings, contemporary settings, other worldly settings, just like
romance. Other books even have sexual tension. But it is the emphasis on sexual tension
that makes a
romance a romance. Its the questionwill they or wont they? Or better yet, when will they?
So, what is sexual tension? What its not is sex, although sexual tension can lead to sex, and its not lust, although lust can lead to sexual tension. At its most simplistic definition, it is the awareness between two characters at every level of beingheart, mind, and soul; physical and metaphysical; tangible and intangible. And in a straight forward romance thats between a man and woman. Its how a man and a woman react to each other. Its the sparks that fly between them.
Lets go to a romance novel that were writing. We need to set up the meeting between the hero and heroine. As a general rule, the meeting has to be one that the characters will remember. They dont have to fall in love at first sight, but it does have to make an impact on them. Lets set it at a cocktail party. She is tall, slim and nearsighted. Tonight she doesnt have her glasses, and she cant wear contacts. He is taller, broad shouldered, square jaw, Tom Selleck mustache...you get the picture. Her date has left her standing alone while hes mingling. She decides to wander the room and look at the art work on the wall. Remember shes nearsighted, so she has to get close to see the pictures. She holds a glass of champagne in her hand. A blur of colors on the far wall intrigues her, so she walks across the room to inspect the painting, so intent on getting to the painting she doesnt see the corner of the table that is in her path. Ouch. She falls over, her champagne goes flying and lands on the neck of our hero. Id say we have a moment that neither one will forget.
After the initial meeting, the awareness has to build. It has to grow until it dominates how the hero and heroine respond to each other. This is the tricky part. It cant grow too fast or the story will end before the conclusion. And it cant build too slowly or the story risks becoming boring. Its a balance, probably the hardest part of writing a romance. The sexual tension must be sustained from the moment of meeting through the middle, to the climax.
Back to our novel. We left her on the ground. She looks up and sees a pair of knees, connected to narrow hips attached to a broad chest and even broader shoulders. She thinks to herself, hes probably blonde, too (She has a weakness for blondes). Sure enough, she looks up and theres the head of blonde hair, blurry to be sure, but becoming ever clearer as he bends down to her. Oh God. Blue eyes, blue that makes her teeth ache.
What is he thinking? After the initial shock of the champagne dribbling down his neck wears off, he turns to see this woman sprawled out on the floor, her tight red dress hiked up to her hips, with a pair of long legs sticking out, legs that go on for miles. Her auburn hair hides part of her features, but not her green eyes. Hes seen eyes like that...on a jaguar.
Now lets give them a conflict. His date is the bimbo that broke up her previous engagement. Her date is the man he thinks killed his brother. Conflicts arent necessarily about the attraction to each other. Conflicts can be internal or external, affect one or both characters, but sexual tension must affect both characters. All sexual tension must have conflict. They must have a reason they dont jump into bed right away. Or if they do, there has to be a reason they wont live happily ever after...yet. Something must happen to tear them apart again. This can be achieved by either having the relationship be an obstacle in
one characters path toward his /her goal, or having something happen in the plot that separates them either physically or emotionally. If there is no conflict, there is no tension, and no romance novel. If the characters do have sex, then you need a new conflict to prolong the sexual tension. Think of their relationship as a roller coaster ride. Just when you thought they have overcome their problems, another turn, another drop and you lose your cookies again.
Just a note: a book filled with sexual tension does not need to have a love scene. Think of regency novels where every page crackles with sexual tension, yet the hero and heroine do not have explicit sex. On the opposite side, sustaining sexual tension does not preclude a sex scene.
How do we achieve sexual tension? There are several ways to show the tension. The first is through point of view. Use the hero to describe the heroine. We see her through his eyes. And use the heroine to describe the hero. This is a neat trick anyway, because it takes the description out of the author's viewpoint and puts it into the characters thoughts. But you need more than a description of physical attributes. We need to see why the hero would like the heroine. What are her characteristics? How does she see past the Alpha male to the sensitive side we know is underneath?
Back to our story. The hero is kneeling beside the heroine. She looks up. The first words out of her mouth are, Ohmigod. Im so sorry. Ill get it cleaned for you. He gives her a quirky little smile. What? My neck? She blushes. No, your suit. OK. This tells him that 1) she is responsible and willing to take responsibility for her actions, and 2) shes a bit demure. He responds. First, are you all right? I think so. She starts to get up and he lends her a hand, then steps between her and the onlookers to shield her from their view as she adjusts her dress. This tells her that he is compassionate and also a gentleman. Now all this is a simplistic, but you get the idea. Already were waiting to see what their next encounter will be, which is the next tool in building sexual tensionanticipation. You cant give the reader too much too soon.
Your use of language is another way to build sexual tension. Similes and metaphors create vivid emotional responses in readers. Short intense passages also build sexual tension, just as short choppy passages can build tension or suspense in a story.
Comparisons are another way to establish sexual tension. One character cant help but compare the hero/heroine to someone else. Its those ER words that help you here (and Im not talking about George Clooney)stronger, bigger, hotter. And we all remember those essay test from high school or college: compare and contrast.... How things are different can also be an effective to bring out the awareness between two characters.
Inner dialog is a great way to show the reader the characters' thoughts, and how better
to show sexual tension. On the out side the character could be seen as calm and cool, but
unless we have access to their thoughts, we cannot possibly know how they feel.
Actions speak louder than words. A cliché to be sure, but and apt one to show sexual tension. Reactions are just as important. And of course we all know that one word can mean many different things. Clever dialog can convey one characters desire for the other.
Dont neglect the five senses either. Sight is by far the easiest to achieve. What does he/she look like? What does the lighting in the room do to them? Are they pale, ruddy, or tan? Next is sound. His voice sent shivers down her spine. Touch. What does her skin feel like? What does his beard feel like? The silk camisole shes wearing? Smell. A tougher one. Is he a stablemaster? I want to smell the horses. Is she a baker? Does she smell of the cinnamon rolls she baked this morning? Taste. Perhaps the toughest of all. Do they kiss in the ocean? Let me taste the salt.
Last words. Show me the sizzle, the fire, the way they are drawn to each other. And dont let it end too soon or the romance is dead. If the characters are overcoming some other obstacle, it isnt a romance. Yes other obstacles can be overcome, but remember the focus of your story. If you are writing a romance, then the focus has to be the romance, and the only way to achieve that is to focus on the sexual tension. Oh yes, and be original.
Gabriella's first release is from Kensington BALLAD.
THE DESTINY COIN series, beginning with A MATTER OF
CONVENIENCE, will appear in September 2000.
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