A Checklist for Creating Sexual Tension by Sierra Cartwright

Writing.ie | Resources | The Art of Description

Sierra Cartwright

Romance novels rake in well over a billion dollars every year. Probably more so than in any other genre, readers are looking for stories in which a character’s emotions are explored. We want to be voyeurs in a relationship we can invest in and root for.

In a romance, sexual tension is the lifeblood of the novel, the magic ingredient that keeps readers turning the page. And there are techniques that can ensure you’ve crafted a compelling story that will keep the reader up all night, rooting for the characters’ happily ever after. Here’s a list of things to look for when you’re writing your bestselling romance:

Goals, Motivation, Conflict

Like all good fiction, conflict is at the heart of a romance novel. And I mean real, deep-seated conflict, not arguments or petty disagreements. Two people who want to get married, have 2.3 children, a dog, and a house with a white-picket fence don’t generally have conflict, even if they disagree about whether the walls should be mauve or taupe.

For a story that will keep your reader awake all night, we need to dig deeper, and that comes from understanding why a character wants a certain thing.

Let’s start with a hero named Jake. He comes from a solid background, a mum and dad who are happy, lots of uncles and aunts and cousins. Jake has a good job, falls in love with the perfect woman, and gets married. Four months later, his bride is killed in a car accident. While he’s talking to the doctor, he discovers she was pregnant. He’s now bereft. He knows the only way his heart will heal is by having a child and being a father.

Our heroine, Mary, is committed to her career because her father abandoned the family when she was young. She had numerous siblings, and their care fell to her. She’s has spent her life ensuring she is not reliant on anyone. And caring for her young siblings, maybe still trying to get some of them through college, was enough responsibility for her.

When Mary and Jake meet, their life goals are at odds. And that means even a kiss is potentially fraught with tension. What if the kiss is so spectacular, she wants more? What if she begins to think about having sex with Jake? What if she understands that taking that step may lead her closer to falling in love with him? And what if she realizes he’s not a love ‘em and leave ‘em type of man? That he may expect commitment from her?

In some forms of fiction, information is withheld from the reader. In romance novels, the more we show the reader up front, the more she can invest in the story. If Mary knows about the unborn child, she will ache for the hero. If Jake knows how exhausted the heroine is from taking care of her siblings and her mother, the more likely the reader is to sympathize with the Mary’s emotions.

sierra cartwrightPerfectly Imperfect Characters

Flaws make characters more interesting and adds tension to scenes that play into the overarching conflict. We all have quirks and contradictions that can be played up. For example, I shop at the local farmer’s market, buy organic foods, exercise every day, drink plenty of water, try to get adequate sleep, but I have a secret stash of chocolate. And by stash, I’m talking a pirate’s-booty worth. I drink organic coffee and organic half and half at home, but I’ll pay a ridiculous amount of money for an iced mocha that’s made from corn syrup, regular milk, and non-organic coffee.

Even something that appears to be a strength can be made into conflict. Continuing with the idea outlined above… Mary, our hard-working heroine, can cause Jake aggravation on an evening when they have a date scheduled and she forgets to call or notify him of a change of plans.

His alpha male sexiness might ordinarily appeal to her, but what if he comes to her workplace, charms his way past the receptionist, enters her office, informs her they’re late for their reservation at a pricey restaurant then turns her over his shoulder and carries her out to his waiting car?

Chances are, she won’t appreciate it his alpha male sexiness at that point. In fact, I’m betting she’d be pissed off.

As the reader, you can see both points, his annoyance at being kept waiting, especially if it happens repeatedly, and hers because she doesn’t like him being high-handed when she has an important deadline.

The sex at the end of the evening, or the kiss in the parking lot, has potential for ratcheting up the tension that plays into the overarching conflict. This can reinforce her belief that she needs to stay single. She definitely doesn’t want a man who is going to interrupt her work. After all, she’s working toward a much-needed promotion, and her younger sister’s college tuition payment is due.

Hot, Steamy and Meaningful Sex…

This may be shocking, but to create compelling tension in a romance, even an erotic romance, there can’t be gratuitous sex, not ever. Every touch, kiss, sexual encounter needs to heighten the tension between the characters. It can make them more vulnerable, needy, committed, scared, trusting. No matter what, it must evoke some sort of emotional reaction. Even if the character is masturbating, his or her thoughts will be centered on the love interest. Scorch the pages, but remember to imbue the scene with some emotion that changes the character and makes the conflict more pronounced.

Well-Chosen Dialogue

Dialogue in stories shouldn’t sound like your conversation with your BFF. It needs to reveal information, increase the stakes or, in a romance novel, advance the relationship or make the reader tingle.

Meg Ryan’s iconic line from Top Gun, “Goose, you big stud. Take me to bed or lose me forever,” is a stellar example of how to create a memorable line of dialogue that makes a reader care for your characters. In the scene, we see Goose, playing the piano. His wife calls out the line, and he responds with, “Show me the way home!” We see them happy, laughing, and we know they’re in love. Since she has shouted the words in a busy bar, we know the couple is not afraid for the whole world to share their love.

Later in the movie, the line is repeated by Kelly McGillis, who plays the female lead. There’s been a lot of sexual tension between her and Maverick, played by Tom Cruise. He’s been pursuing her. And when she’s finally ready to be intimate with him, she says, “Take me to bed or lose me forever.” Making the same line work double duty is writing brilliance. (Spoiler ahead…) When Goose is killed, the line then takes on a new meaning, becoming emotionally laden, a reminder of the happiness all of the characters once had.

Dialogue is perhaps the greatest tool at a writer’s disposal. The choice of words, syntax, even subtext changes meaning and breathes life into characters. “Let’s make love tonight” causes a different emotional reaction than, “Wanna fuck, baby?” And yes, our hero can say either of those things and still be heroic. It just depends on the context surrounding them.

Keep It Between the Characters

Remember that romance readers expect to make an emotional investment in your characters. Rather than the heroine learning about the hero’s unborn baby from his sister, why not let him reveal the information to her? Let your reader watch his hand shake as he picks up a picture of his deceased bride, see his unshed tears, the lump in his throat, his ashen color, the starkness in his eyes. Allow us to ache with her as she touches his wrist. Make us hurt as his voice is thick with unshed emotion. Force us to be as emotionally invested as the heroine is. And when she hugs him, what happens then? Does compassion flare into passion? Or is it something even more potentially dangerous to the heroine, a softening of her resistance to him?

A Final Bit of Advice…

No matter how tempting, don’t phone it in. Writing is damn hard work. It can be tempting to take shortcuts, but in order to have a sustainable writing career, you’ll want to avoid a reliance on contrivances or clichés. Doing some work in the beginning to figure out each character’s goal, motivation and conflict can save you hours of aggravation later.

Some things you may want to watch out for include overheard conversations, misunderstandings, the bitchy ex-girlfriend, falling in love too quickly and the good-ole broken condoms. There are numerous examples in every genre where these crutches work, but ask yourself if there’s a way to do a little more excavating into your character’s background to find a new, fresh, exciting way of increasing the tension.

Should you discover that your story has a lull or that the tension is lacking, I recommend you have a look at your goal, motivation and conflict worksheet to see if there’s a way to increase the emotional stakes for your characters. The more they have at risk, the more your reader will invest in your story. It’s all about the emotion and allowing us to vicariously go along for the ride.

Slàinte, and many happy sales!

(c) Sierra Cartwright

About BIND

Book one in The Donovan Dynasty series

Only one man can help her. Is she willing to pay his price?

Faced with the potentially overwhelming loss of her family’s fortune, Lara Bertrand turns to the one man who can help her, the gorgeous and powerful Connor Donovan.

She knows he’s dangerous to her on every level. Only desperation would drive her to make such a risky proposition. After all, she knows all about his ruthless nature and relentless determination to succeed.

When the classy, elegant Lara walks into his office with an outrageous proposal, Connor is stunned and more than a little intrigued. Ever since he first met her, he’s been attracted to the cool beauty, but she’s more than kept her distance.

Connor is absolutely willing to help her out. For a price. He not only wants her hand in marriage, but also her total submissive surrender…

BIND is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

About the author

Sierra Cartwright is a USA Today and #1 international bestselling author of more than fifty romance novels. Bind, the first novel in her award-winning Donovan Dynasty series, is available in mass market paperback. Originally from Manchester, England, Sierra now calls Texas home.

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