What is Sexual Tension?
Sexual tension is a key ingredient in many successful published novels and produced screenplays. Whilst sexual tension turns up most in romance stories, it can be part of ANY story in any genre. For example, I wrote sexual tension in my crime novel, The Other Twin.
Sexual tension is that feeling of excitement and anticipation you get when something hot and heavy is happening between the characters, but they haven’t yet acted on their desires.
Done well, sexual tension can be incredibly addictive for readers and viewers. It keeps them turning pages late into the night, or bingeing episode after episode, eager to see what will happen next.
If you’re hoping to create some sexual tension in your own novel or screenplay, there are a few key things to keep in mind. Ready? Let’s go!
i) First, don’t rush it
Take your time building up the attraction between your characters. Let them flirt with each other, or exchange longing looks. Maybe they even engage in some light physical contact before they finally give in to their desires.
ii) Make sure the stakes are high
If there’s no risk involved, then there’s no real tension. Will giving in to their feelings ruin their friendship? Threaten their careers? Put them in danger? The more at stake, the higher the tension can be. This works particularly well in novels, since we can access characters’ thought patterns.
Sometimes we see characters in movies and television utilising their sexuality in damaging ways that in turn feed the plot. In Bosch, Julia Brasher is a patrol officer involved in a sexual relationship with our protagonist, Harry.
When she gets into trouble at work in an unrelated matter, Julia’s superior, Captain Pounds, makes an unethical suggestion. He tells Julia she can get herself out of it by launching a propriety complaint against Harry.
Pounds is an A Grade asshole, using systems designed to protect women and marginalised people, for his own ends. This in turn makes us worried Harry will lose his job when there was no real inappropriateness. (Bosch is technically Julia’s superior, but he is NOT in her chain of command, theirs is a ‘workplace romance’).
It should also be noted that in the post #MeToo era, sleazy movie characters frequently get their comeuppance in the 2020s. We even saw this in Zak Snyder’s Army of Dead, in which a sleazy character taking advantage of refugees ends up eaten by zombies. It’s a moment designed to make audiences cheer. Sadly, sleazy people in real life don’t always get their just desserts like this, so it is cathartic for us.
iii) Establish what each character wants
What are their goals? What do they want? Why do they want it? This will help create conflict and tension between your characters as they try to achieve their goals while also dealing with their attraction to one another.
iv) Build up the sexual chemistry between your characters gradually
Don’t let them fall into bed together too quickly. Let the reader see the simmering desire between them, the little looks and touches that build up the anticipation.
v) Use body language
A lot of communication is non-verbal. Use this to your advantage by having your characters give each other smouldering looks, brush up against each other accidentally, or engage in subtle flirtation.
When writing sexual tension between your characters, it is important to consider the body language you use. The way your characters stand, sit, or move can amplify the attraction and tension between them.
For example, if two characters are standing close together, their bodies may be angled toward each other in a way that suggests they are eager to be close. Or, if they are sitting next to each other on a couch, their legs may be intertwined in a way that suggests they cannot keep their hands off each other.
vi) Build up the anticipation
Don’t let your characters act on their desires too soon. Make them yearn for each other, or wonder what it would be like to touch or be touched by the other person. The longer you can drag this out, the greater the pay-off will be when they finally give in to temptation.
By building up that sense of anticipation, you build up the sexual tension between characters. This means you can create a scene that is truly sizzling with sexual tension.
vii) Establish boundaries early on
For example, in the TV series The Rookie, there was sexual tension between Officer Bradford and his rookie Chen from the offset. However, he is her superior and a stand-up guy, so he would never act on this.
Similarly, when Chen graduates and becomes an officer herself, she will not act on her feelings and cheat on her boyfriend with Bradford.
When the officers DO finally get together, Bradford has been promoted to sergeant. This prompts him to take a demotion so he can drop out of Chen’s line of command.
vii) Make sure your characters have flaws
No one is perfect, so by giving your characters believable flaws and vulnerabilities, you’ll make them more relatable—and increase the sexual tension as they try to hide those imperfections from each other.
viii) Write sexually charged dialogue
Sexually charged dialogue can be a great way to build sexual tension between characters in a novel or screenplay. By writing dialogue that is flirty, suggestive, or even graphic, you can create a scene that is full of sexual tension. Erotica novels often do this, but you can utilise this technique in any story you choose.
ix) Don’t forget about the little things
Sexual tension is often created as much by what is NOT said or done. A charged silence, a stolen glance, an accidental touch … These are all things that can ratchet up the tension and leave readers desperate for more.
Last Points …
Sexual tension can be a key ingredient in making your novel or screenplay sizzle. When it comes to writing romance into ANY story, one of the most important elements is sexual tension. This is what will keep your readers turning the pages, desperate to find out what happens next.
Remember to pay attention to the characters’ emotional states and body language. This will make all the difference between writing a mundane scene or a passionate encounter. If used correctly, creating this type of atmosphere can help readers get deeply invested in your book and its characters. MORE: Top 5 Mistakes Writers Make With Sex Scenes