Building Sexual Tension

Sexual tension is one of my favorite elements in romance. I love reading it and I love creating it in my own stories.
What is sexual tension? It isn't sex. Nope. Sexual tension is the anticipation, the chemistry, the excitement, the wanting, and the waiting that may eventually lead to sex. Or maybe not. Tension and suspense are created when the outcome is unknown. Will they or won't they? There is a push/pull synergy going on in sexual tension. The two people are drawn together, but something also pushes them apart.
Laying the groundwork for strong sexual tension means thinking about the conflict that already exists between the hero and heroine when they meet. Are they from different social stations? Are their families/ clans/ countries enemies? Are they from two different worlds and won't be allowed to stay together? Did they have a major conflict in the past? If you make sure this stumbling block is big and realistic, then strong sexual tension will be easier to create.
The first appearance of sexual tension in a story is often that first glance between the hero and heroine. They notice each other and are attracted. They each want to move closer to the other person and talk or touch. The more the hero learns about the heroine, the more he wants to know. With each scene, the sexual tension grows and heightens until the characters and the reader can hardly stand the suspense any longer. Will they kiss? Will they get together? Will they confess their feelings for one another?
Many elements of fiction will help you create strong sexual tension. For instance, the five senses can bring sexual tension to vibrant life on the page. When two people are physically and emotionally attracted, they notice tiny details about each other—sexy scents, the exact shade of blue of his eyes, how soft her skin is, how hard his muscles are, how sweet her kiss is. Dialogue is another tool you can use to heighten sexual tension, as you will see in my example below.
Emotion lights the fire under sexual tension and gives it power. Without emotion, there might be sexual attraction, but that will burn out fast without the corresponding emotions to keep it alive.
Something as simple as the touch of a hand can create an inferno of sexual tension, longing and arousal in the hero and heroine. But sexual tension is more than arousal. It affects people in physical, emotional, and visceral ways. If we're talking about your heroine, maybe her heart pounds, her stomach aches, her breathing grows shallow, her skin flushes, and she feels feverish or has chills. The emotional and the physical are tied together, creating something powerful. Once sexual tension and emotion build higher and higher, this leads to falling in love. And this is what romance is all about.

Here is an example showing several of the things I've talked about, an excerpt from my latest book, My Daring Highlander. The blurb explains their external conflict, or the large stumbling block, that keeps them apart for most of the story.

Blurb: Beautiful and fiercely protective of those she loves, Lady Seona Murray captured Keegan MacKay’s attention when she first set foot in Dunnakeil Castle. Though she is a chief’s daughter and forbidden, Keegan has fallen in love with her from afar and burns to possess her. But so does the clan traitor, Haldane, an obsessive outlaw bent on murder and kidnapping.
Sinfully handsome, Keegan MacKay is a fearsome guard as well as the chief’s cousin, but Seona’s father would never consider him a worthy husband for her because he is not a titled laird. Seona has secretly watched the sensual, tawny-haired warrior from across the crowded great hall for months, but when he is tasked with escorting her across Scotland, back to her home, their simmering attraction flames into sizzling passion with just one kiss.
Though she fears she is endangering Keegan’s life, Seona cannot resist his seductive charm or his spellbinding kisses. Keegan sets fire to the memories of her sad past and shows her what it means to truly live. But her father has other plans. He’s arranged for her to marry a wealthy Lowland laird. Is Keegan daring enough to steal her away? Or will the vindictive Haldane snatch her first?

Example/ excerpt of sexual tension from My Daring Highlander:
Seona stared after Isobel as she disappeared up the steps, a bottle of wine and flask of whisky in one hand and the lantern in the other. What was she up to, leaving Seona alone with Keegan in the kitchen?
Well… Seona knew Isobel wanted her and Keegan together. She encouraged her at every opportunity, because she wanted Seona to have a happy marriage like she had. But Seona did not see how that could happen.
Her gaze darted back to Keegan. He watched her as an osprey watches a salmon, with a concentrated focus that might be called hunger. Aye, she hungered for him as well.
His brows quirked in a wee, concerned frown. “Are you afraid?”
“Nay.” Did she look afraid? She tried to smooth out her features. She certainly didn’t fear Keegan. Only what he represented—everything she wanted, standing before her, just waiting. She still wasn’t sure she was brave enough to grab hold and face down all the obstacles.
“Good. I would never want you to be frightened of me, Seona.” His deep, soothing voice was spellbinding.
“I’m not. I trust you more than anyone.” ’Twas the truth and she was not shy about admitting it to him.
“That means more to me than I can say,” he whispered. “But ’haps you shouldn’t.”
His words should have alarmed her, but they didn’t for she suspected she knew what he was about to say. “Why not?”
His gaze grew more penetrating. “Because I wish for things I have no right wishing for.”
Another kiss?
“When I’m alone with you…” he said, shaking his head, “I find I want to…” He blew out a sharp breath and glanced away. “Hell, why am I telling you this?”
“I want you to tell me.” She yearned to know his every thought. “I couldn’t sleep.” That was her confession. Surely he would understand her meaning—she couldn’t sleep because thoughts of him kept taunting her, especially after he’d consumed her mouth earlier.
“Would one more goodnight kiss help?” His expression remained serious. Passionate.
Her heartbeat thumped in her throat. “Aye.” ’Twas a lie. The kiss would not help her sleep; it would keep her awake the rest of the night. But ’twas the one thing she craved most, as a starving person craves bread.
Please let me know if you have any questions about sexual tension and how to create it in your own writing.


Terry Spear said...

What??? No pictures? LOL Great article, Vonda!!

Vonda Sinclair said...

LOL Terry!! Thanks!!

Cynthia Woolf said...

Thanks Vonda. I always can use help with sexual tension and trying to keep it high.

Vonda Sinclair said...

I'm glad you found it helpful, Cynthia. Thanks!

Ella Quinn - Romance Novelist said...

Great post. I can always use more info on sexual tension. Tweeted.

Vanessa Holland said...

Great article, Vonda!

Vonda Sinclair said...

Thanks so much, Ella and Vanessa! I'm glad you both liked it.

Anna Markland said...

Sometimes I think we get too stuck on the word "sexual" instead of thinking about "tension". I find I write better scenes when I concentrate on the tension aspect, and somehow that heightens the sexual aspect-inevitable when you have a man and woman in a conflict situation with confusing emotions thrown in. Great article. Love your books.

Amy Jarecki said...

Nice excerpt, Vonda!

Lane McFarland said...

Very good article, Vonda! Loved the excerpts... Thank you for sharing!


Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Hi Vonda. When are you having another class? I am always struggling with this as you well know. We need you!

As always, you give us great ideas and probe our imaginations.

Beppie Harrison said...

The zing of sexual tension is one of the reasons I enjoy writing of people in the past. Nowadays it's all too easy for people to fall in bed with a slight physical attraction: then there were all the moral and social reasons why that couldn't happen, as well as whatever additional conflict the pair might have. Will-they-or-won't-they isn't much of a question when you're writing contemporary romance, much of the time.

Vonda Sinclair said...

That's true, Anna. That tension is so important. And thanks so much! I'm so happy you enjoy my books. I love yours too!

Thanks, Amy! I'm glad you liked the excerpt.

Lane, thanks tons! I'm glad you enjoyed both!

Pat McDermott said...

When I first started writing, I had an easier time with fist-fighting scenes than with love scenes. I've learned that several of the techniques for depicting both are very similar :-) Great suggestions for describing romantic sparring, Vonda. Wonderful summary.

Vonda Sinclair said...

Thanks, Paisley! I'm sorry I'm not teaching classes now. You're very skilled with sexual tension in your books, so you shouldn't worry. :)

Beppie, absolutely. It probably takes a bit more thought and planning to heighten sexual tension in contemporary stories. Some other conflict to keep modern day characters apart rather than society and morals.

Vonda Sinclair said...

Pat, thank you so much! I enjoy writing both. :)

Anonymous said...

Great Article and a terrific excerpt.
I have never consciously considered the concept of sexual tension being rooted in the main conflict between, but when I think about it, that where it comes from. I also find it useful to keep in mind the ten stages of intimacy when working on creating sexual tension... Thanks so much for sharing

Vonda Sinclair said...

Thanks, Shirley! I agree with you about the stages of intimacy. I think it helps to know those.