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21 February 2011 @ 08:06 am
The Elements of Sexual Tension  
Last week, Wendy Delsol wrote an excellent post on popular romantic archetypes in young adult fiction. Our specific reasons for falling in love with a couple and their story may vary, but they all have at least one thing in common: sexual tension.

Sexual tension is what keeps us readers involved with a couple’s ongoing struggles. It keeps us whipping through the pages, hoping for a touch, a kiss, a proclamation. It’s what makes us tear our hair out every time that touch, kiss, or proclamation is postponed . . . again.

Here are some elements that writers use to create sexual tension, and keep us both loving (and hating!) the ongoing romantic tango.

Physical Attraction

The most obvious element of sexual tension is physical attraction. The moment when two characters first lay eyes on each other can be a powerful one, and often serves as the springboard for pages and pages of longing, desire, and curiosity.

But characters don’t have to be beautiful to have great physical chemistry. Sometimes the most powerful physical attributes are more fascinating than handsome. Scars and abnormalities make a character intriguing, to both a potential mate and the reader. One of my favorite examples of this is in Crazy Beautiful by Lauren Baratz-Logsted, in which the hero has hooks (yes, hooks) for hands. While he’s treated like a freak by other students, the new girl at school finds the hooks strange… but oddly attractive in their strangeness.

“Beauty and the Beast” archetype stories are celebrated for taking advantage of the abnormality-as-attraction technique. (See also: Juliet Marillier’s Heart’s Blood and Alex Flinn’s Beastly.)

That said, great sexual tension is made up of more than physical attributes. The best romantic couples are faced with a balancing act of push and pull, give and take—they are simultaneously being drawn closer together while also being pushed farther apart. In other words…

There Is Something Pulling the Couple Together . . .

In fact, the best chemistry comes about when there are two things drawing them together: something external and something internal.

An external force might be that they go to the same school together (and switching schools is not an option), or are working together on a very important project, or perhaps the hero is trying to solve a mystery in which the heroine is his prime suspect. There is something that keeps their paths crossing again and again.

But being in the same room all the time isn’t enough to make a couple fall in love. There is usually an internal force drawing them together as well. There is something about the heroine’s personality that the hero is drawn to, and vice versa. Perhaps he admires her intelligence, a unique skill she has, her strength or bravery, her goodness, or her generosity. Maybe they share a common interest or similar morals.

Compare Disney’s Cinderella to one of my favorite retellings, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. While the Disney prince falls in love-at-first-sight with a beautiful girl, Levine’s Prince Charmand falls for Ella because of her sharp wit, intelligence and, to some degree, her hot-headedness, making for a much more believable crush. The sexual tension that arises between them is almost palpable.

But There Is Also Something Pushing Them Apart

That said, if all a couple had were reasons to be together, then they would just get together, right? Where's the tension in that? Which is why the most intense sexual tension has an equally strong, or stronger, element keeping the would-be-lovers apart. Again, this can be an external or an internal force working against true love. Oftentimes, there will be both.

External forces could be a family that disapproves of the relationship, a jealous friend conniving to keep the couple apart, or a villain who swoops in and kidnaps the girl just as things are heating up.

These things are all great for plot and twists and turns, but it’s the internal forces keeping a couple apart that spark the hottest tension. Heroes and heroines may have deep biases against each other—the heroine who despises men who flaunt their strength and muscles versus the hero who is a star athlete. Or the hero who is convinced that the heroine deserves much better than he could give her, and goes out of his way to make her think so as well. These are internal obstacles they must overcome to be together.

An obvious example is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Love the book or hate it, I believe the sexual tension between Edward and Bella (will he kiss her or will he kill her?) is at the heart of the book’s success. A favorite example of mine is Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, in which Katsa fights against her growing feelings for Po because of her initial distrust of Po’s grace, and also her desire for independence.

Postponing Satisfaction

Once the foundation for sexual tension is laid, the struggle for the characters begins. Every step forward in the relationship, such as a compliment or a subtle caress, can be just as quickly snatched away, and it’s the constant, just-out-of-reach promise of a happy resolution that keeps us rooting for a fictional couple until the very end.

What are some of your favorite books that display great sexual tension? What made the relationship so intense?
annastanannastan on February 21st, 2011 04:21 pm (UTC)
Great post! GRACELING is a perfect example of what you're talking about, and I think FIRE is even better! I have a YA story that I'll be going back to soon that needs a lot more sexual tension, so I'll definitely be keeping all this in mind. :-)
kikihamiltonkikihamilton on February 21st, 2011 04:33 pm (UTC)
Ah, I love a little romance / sexual tension in a story. It's almost an essential ingredient for me. You've done a great job of summarizing the components of it, Maurissa. I enjoyed the Queen of Attolia. Gen's attraction to Attolia was at first almost unbelievable, but in the end, Megan Whalen Turner makes believers of us.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 01:22 am (UTC) (Expand)
katecoombs on February 21st, 2011 04:42 pm (UTC)
I think I keep bringing this up, but the sexual tension between Laura and Sorry in Margaret Mahy's Changeover is just perfect. She doesn't trust him, but she's drawn to him and needs his help dealing with the supernatural menace that has attacked her toddler brother. While he needs to connect with someone real and relatively normal to be healed. Great banter in this one, too! The relationship is a nice, slow build/burn.
readwriterockreadwriterock on February 22nd, 2011 03:20 am (UTC)
This book can never be mentioned too much, because it is just that awesome :).
(no subject) - ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 01:25 am (UTC) (Expand)
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on February 21st, 2011 05:39 pm (UTC)

Marissa, Great post!

I, like Kiki, also need a little romance in a story.

I think you summarize so well the laws of attraction between lovers, that I may have to change the post I planned to write on Favorite Love Stories.

But, I'm really glad to see my idea was a good one.
ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 01:26 am (UTC)
Oh no! I hope I didn't derail you too much. But thanks, I'm glad you liked it!
(Deleted comment)
ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 01:28 am (UTC)
Definitely! It drives me crazy when I'm left scratching my head, wondering, "what does he SEE in her?" or vice versa. NOT what we want our readers to think!
goddess_of_icegoddess_of_ice on February 21st, 2011 05:55 pm (UTC)
Oh great post! Sexual tension is definitely something that stops me from being able to put a book down. The Mortal Instruments series is a great example of this, I think. The sexual tension between Clary/Jace makes me go from rage to love in half a second flat.
ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 01:30 am (UTC)
Thanks! I haven't read Mortal Instruments but I hear SO much about it. Definitely moving it up the list...
mattie: [DW] your body is not a wordstarry_eyed on February 21st, 2011 05:58 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this post! I'm working on a story right now and this is super helpful.
ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 01:30 am (UTC)
Thank you, I'm so glad!
ebooraem on February 21st, 2011 06:00 pm (UTC)
Kiki, I was thinking of Gen and Attolia the whole time I was reading this post. Talk about tension! And, as you say, hard to believe the relationship would prosper after SUCH a beginning--but it's all the more satisfying because of that. (Now I want to re-read those books).

Interesting post, Marissa!
ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 01:31 am (UTC)
Well that settles it, I am definitely adding these books to my February reading list!
Emma: Books: Lovesailorem on February 21st, 2011 11:33 pm (UTC)
This was such a helpful post, Marissa! You actually nailed down the concept that had always sort of eluded me in the sense of why it is that I like a couple's struggles (external and internal forces), and how they makes the tension stronger.

I'm going to remember this as I continue in my drafts for last year's NaNo (although that takes four books of sexual tension to get somewhere/anywhere - which is definitely harder!!)
ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 01:40 am (UTC)
I'm so glad it was helpful, Emma! I have the same problem with my four-book series - sometimes you just want to let them KISS already!

Good luck!
Sayantani DasGuptaSayantani16 on February 21st, 2011 11:34 pm (UTC)
darcy and elizabeth
I know, I know, they're not YA... or are they? they were young people at the brink of autonomous adulthood... and as you say what made their romance amazing was their, well, pride about themselves and their prejudice against each other... so INTERNAL forces making this great romantic couple a classic love story...
In recent times, the Mortal Instruments love story is full of tension - but the "are we siblings or aren't we?" twist made it a bit creepier than necessary for me. Graceling's a great love tale, and Vampire Academy has good tension - but for me, one of the greatest is is Meg Cabot's Avalon - the overlay of the Arthur myth raises this otherwise ordinary HS romance to folkloric heights...
A Deserving Porcupinerockinlibrarian on February 21st, 2011 11:40 pm (UTC)
Re: darcy and elizabeth
Hee hee, you commented just when I was commenting. Which renders my comment about "only Char and Ella are really my sort of couple" or whatever a bit moot, because DARCY AND ELIZABETH. THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT! Couples based on personality rather than just hormones! Whoo-hoo!
Re: darcy and elizabeth - ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 01:48 am (UTC) (Expand)
A Deserving Porcupinerockinlibrarian on February 21st, 2011 11:35 pm (UTC)
I am not big on SEXY sexual tension, so it's very important to me that fictional couples have INTELLECTUAL, or at least ACTUAL PERSONALITY TRAIT, chemistry rather than just physical attraction. I like my couples to have actual RELATIONSHIPS, ie THEY RELATE WITH EACH OTHER, rather than just lust after each other. Of all the examples given in the original post (and in the comments so far for that matter), my favorite is Ella and Char, which is probably the least steamy of all of them, but they are SO CLEARLY FRIENDS that it's just WONDERFUL. I UNDERSTOOD them, understood why they were meant to be together, and I LOVED seeing a romance that actually had substance instead of being just "well obviously they fell in love because he was a prince and she was our heroine." Another of my favorite couples in fantasy is COMPLETELY different and yet still based more on personality than hormones: Sophie and Howl in Howl's Moving Castle-- because even though they spend most of their time FIGHTING with each other, this is obviously because they GET each other more than anyone else in the multiverse does-- they are quick to confront the worst in each other while at the same time bringing out the BEST in each other. HOW is that not awesome? HOW can you not root for a couple like that?

I like my romantic couples to talk rather than make out. This is probably why my favorite so-called "romance" writer is Jane Austen.
ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 01:58 am (UTC)
Oh, I LOVE Sophie and Howl! What a great example! I've always had a soft spot for love/hate relationships. Battles of wit get me every time, and I agree are so much more interesting than tension that is 100% lust-based.

Thanks so much for your comment!
readwriterockreadwriterock on February 22nd, 2011 03:24 am (UTC)
I think you are 100% right about Twilight. I wouldn't describe myself as a Twihard by any means, but I do think the first book really nailed that forbidden-yet-all-consuming quality of attraction.

Some other books that I think do it well are Holly Black's Tithe and Ironside (Kaye and Roiben) and Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle trilogy (Gemma and Kartik).
ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 02:01 am (UTC)
Thank you! There are so many mixed opinions about Twilight, but for me, reading it put me in that lovestruck 16-year-old-girl mindset, which was all about the tension!

Thanks so much for your comment and the recommendations. I'll definitely be adding them to my read list.
wendydelsol on February 22nd, 2011 08:26 pm (UTC)
Great post, Marissa. And so well expressed. Sexual tension, when done right, is as much a push as it is a pull. How we love to torture our protagonists :)
ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 02:02 am (UTC)
Thanks, Wendy!
Usis Blog: scottyusisblog on February 22nd, 2011 08:45 pm (UTC)
One reason because I prefer YA fiction over Chick-lit for Adults, is indeed sexual tension. They are very little authors for Adults who can differ between sexual tension and their often ridiculous and boring sex.

Funny I bought Beastly today since the story sounded intriguing.

I liked the tension in Twilight but was very dissapointed at the end of the book, that there was no real kiss. I really loved "Der Spiegel von Feuer und Eis" (Mirror of Fire and Ice) by Lynn Raven and "Faunblut" (Faunblood) by Nina Blazon. But I do not know if it is published in English.
The first book is just a cheesy romance where you always know more than the couple. But I just love to see how they grow together. The second one is different. They are more like Twilight and this time both have secrets to keep and not just he. It is more a book about the girl and the way to find her place in changing world and a soulmate.

I also loved Nocturna by Jenny-Mai Nuyen. It don't have that much sexual tension since the heroine is kind of cold and let it slip very little. She won't allow herself something like that ;).

A good sample for sexual tension in an Adult book are Love Virtually/Every Seventh Wave from Daniel Glattauer (Austrian). It is nothing special and maybe for some a bit boring to read since the tension wasn't that open but I bought them as audio book and it was gorgeous. They won two very good actors as readers and they make sexual tension come to life. Sometimes sexual tension isn't just words, they are voices too. And the audio books made me liking Emmi. I never liked her in the book and thought Leo kind of masochistic.
ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 02:04 am (UTC)
Thanks so much for your comments! Not being a huge audiobook listener, it hadn't occurred to me what a difference voice actors could make in the sexual tension, but I can see now how it would. So much sexual tension arises from great back-and-forth dialogue between a couple, I would think good actors could really make it spark!
Queza De Santidsanti_queza on February 23rd, 2011 12:33 am (UTC)
This post is utterly enlightening - like the struck-by-lightning kind! I really love how you explained all the elements that contribute to the sexual tension in such simple terms. Totally helpful, and I'm definitely keeping all this in mind when I plan out my own novel, particularly for NaNo. ;)

Much love, Ali-chan~ <3
ex_marissam on February 26th, 2011 02:05 am (UTC)
Thanks so much, Kihana, I'm glad it was helpful!