Friday, July 4, 2008

Fireworks: The Secret of Sexual Tension

By Kendra Leigh Castle

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! I hope you're all enjoying the day with friends and family and gorging yourselves on good barbecue. Freedom is always worth celebrating (speaking as someone who is making a living thanks to free speech!). And though it isn't perfect, America is a pretty amazing place to call home. So par-tay, people!

Even though I've got a limited audience today, I thought I'd post about something both writing and July-Fourth-related: fireworks. Except I'm not talking about the kind that will singe your eyebrows off if you get too close. I'm talking about that main ingredient of romance novels everywhere: sexual tension. You know how it goes. Boy meets girl, boy and girl talk, girl thinks boy is an idiot (because boy does stupid things), boy and girl each secretly want to rip one another's clothes off and refuse to act on it so by the time they finally do it you are just DYING and possibly yelling at the characters the way your husband yells at the television during football games. Seriously, I have read books that were dripping with so much sexual tension that when the hero and heroine started to get it on and then didn't come through AGAIN, I got vocal. I'm all for spooling up the lust factor, but there's a fine line between excitement and despair there.

Tension can go on for too long, of course (if I'm yelling, this is a good indication), or it can come to fruition too quickly ("Um, wait...didn't they hate each other three pages ago? Like, actually, really hate each other?"), or sometimes, it never really exists at all. I recently read a book wherein the hero and heroine never managed to generate a single spark of heat together. Not in their kisses. Not in their horribly awkward sex scenes. Not ever. I was bummed for them. They were so not right for one another.

Working sexual tension in a story so that the reader stays interested without eventually hurling the book at the wall is a delicate balance. I don't know that I've got the formula right any more than anyone does, but there is one main thing that often seems to make or break the sexual tension in a story. It's gonna sound completely obvious, but in every book I've read where the sexual tension was lacking, this has been missing. Ready for it? Here goes.

The hero and heroine have to like each other. And we have to buy that they would.

Sounds simple, right? But there are plenty of books out there where the hero and heroine are sleeping together, and yet there seems to be no connection except the physical for an extended period of time. Generally, the reader is asked to accept that some magical thing happens in the last chapter or two where these two mismatched souls discover that they can talk to one another without fighting and/or passing out from boredom, but I never manage to believe it. Because at that point, the hero has usually been a jerk for about three hundred pages, and the heroine has often been a doormat for just as long. I may be angry enough at both of them for their excessive and endless obnoxiousness to be wishing them on one another at that point, but I still can't believe that, were they living and breathing, they would ever be giving one another the time of day. And that's they key, isn't it? Marriages work when the partners are both friends and lovers. And lust dies very quickly if there's not any cerebral stimulation to back it up.

Now, I'm not saying that the friendship has to bloom before there can be sexy time. I have beloved books in which there is plenty of action before too many words occur. In those cases, though, I've met the hero and heroine separately, and I can see the compatability. I know they're going to like one another, even if they don't...yet. And I want to see them together, so the sexual tension is there from the get-go. But being able to see even the beginnings of that "click" that two compatible people make is crucial to sexual tension. If they can't talk to one another and be interested, intrigued, fascinated on some level, the sex, at least for me, is going to fall flat. I think that's why I love Regencies so much...the buildup is huge, and the tension has lots of time to develop because all the interested parties can DO is talk!

Some of my favorite scenes to write are the ones where the hero and heroine are just bantering. My characters generally refuse to do much pawing unless I let them interact a little first. And I don't blame them...watching those sparks fly is endlessly entertaining, and I get to watch not just the formation of a pair of lovers, but of partners, and friends.

So what are your thoughts on sexual tension? I'd love to hear!

Happy Fourth of July!


  1. I totally agree with you, Kendra. Sometimes too much tension is exactly that--too much. I also hate romances where they keep "almost" having sex. COME ON, people, enough already. One of the things that's fun about writing romance, however, (at least for me) is deciding when that first time should be. Timing is as important in fiction as it is in real life.

    Happy Fourth of July!

  2. Great post, Kendra! The best advice I was ever given has to do with AFTER the fireworks are over. If we don't have conflict, then halfway through the book or whenever the couple finally "do it," the story is over. We've been hooked through to the big build up...we've finally reached the sexual climax and then, bam! They go to sleep, happy as two little bedbugs. Nope! Got to add the conflict back in there or it's the end. And to me, that's half the fun--discovering what problems they might encounter to think, oh-oh, they shouldn't have done that. :)

  3. Marie~

    I guess I've always been pretty impatient. Both couples in my books have sex almost immediately. I tend to back-load my sexual tension. That way when it begins...they know what their missing and it makes them crazy.

    Still, it's there and it's a powerful thing.

    Happy Fourth of July!

    Robin :)

  4. That sounds good to me, Robin. The more sex the better! LOL! In the book that I think will be my second one for Sourcebooks (we're still deciding that) my main couple has sex right away and then it takes them a long time to get there again. So I have back-loaded the tension, too, and it's just as much fun.

  5. Kendra, what a terrific tie-in to the holiday! You are so right. I have the same beef with movies. I hate it when the movie's "couple" is getting together simply because they are the two biggest stars or the two best-looking people in the movie, rather than a pair that have anything in common or any sparks flying. I saw a movie once where the kissing started and I had to rewind and watch again because I didn't understand how it had happened. There was just nothing between these two people. As far as books go, I appreciate sexy scenes that actually add something to the story or tell us something about the characters, rather than just being there because it's a "genre requirement". The funny thing is that real hot chemistry between characters will make me forgiving of a not-so-fabulous plot.

    As to sexual tension, I agree that there is a point when it becomes too frustrating for the audience. We know that any real-life couple would have already been in the sack a dozen times over, and there's got to be a pretty good reason for these two being apart or I'm calling it the "genre-requirement" problem again and suspecting a lazy author at work.

  6. Happy Fourth of July, everybody!

    Marie, I agree...the "almost" sex is fine once or maybe twice, but any more and I get grouchy. Timing really is everything!

    And Terry, I know what you mean about the conflict. I have stopped halfway through a book before because the couple "did it" and, well, there went all tension, period. I was happy and everything, but I quit being interested in whatever story was left. This is my greatest fear when I'm writing my own there enough conflict?

    Robin, I am all for backloaded tension! Like I said , as long as we as readers know they're totally compatible, it's all good:-)

    Christina, LOL about the movie rewind. It's like, I love the movie Highlander, but seriously? The love story was the dumbest, most abrupt, most unbelievable thing ever. I was like, "Er, did I miss something?" I love the "sexy" scenes as much as the sex scenes...they're even mroe fun for me to write than the actual getting busy:-)

    Have a great day, you guys! Thanks for coming by on a holiday!

  7. Happy Independence Day, Everyone!

    Great post, Kendra! Yes, sexual tension is one of those magical, mysterious ingredients. Too much and the story is spoiled, too little and why bother?

    I try to let the tension build between my h/h, but most of my characters tend to be like me (imagine that!) and are not very patient. Generally, they are jumping each other long before *I* planned for them too. :-) But, just like in real life, ya gotta go with what feels right!

  8. Once again, it's hard to please everyone. I've heard some readers say they stop reading if there's no sex in the first three chapters, and some who get mad when there is!
    I love sexual tension. It's what makes you want to keep reading. But sometimes that's all you've got.
    Remember "Moonlighting?" Once Bruce & Cybill did the deed, the show was over. Sad, but true.
    It's hard to keep coming up with ways to keep people apart long enough for the tension to build, and sometimes the reasons seem flimsy to the reader, but to the character, it may mean a great deal!

  9. Hi Cindy! Hee hee, my characters are always trying to jump one another. It's actually sort of fun to torture them, but you gotta let it rip eventually! And sex DEFINITELY doesn't have to mean the end of tension. When it's working right, I think it often adds to it.

    Cheryl, you're totally right...can't please everyone. I try to bear that in mind when I get a review I don't love:-) And I don't think there's a secret formula for sexual tension anyway. I don't have criteria for when the h/h get busy, long as I'm interested, I'll keep reading. The only constant I've found is what I wrote about: if the hero and heroine are genuinely compatible people, no matter how different they are, I'll probably follow them anywhere.