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.
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.
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?