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The Exquisite Heat of Sexual Tension

Awhile back, we read a great snippet on one of the romance listservs on sexual tension that had been previously published in the newsletter for the Romance Writers of Austrailia. Joanna Somersby, aka Marg Riseley, who publishes erotica and writes romance as well, expanded her thoughts for The Romance Reader. We hope you enjoy her take on sexual tension.

Remember when you were a kid, that spine-itching excitement, the delicious anticipation of waiting for Christmas? You could think of little else but the big day and the presents to unwrap. In fact, the waiting was half, if not most of, the fun.

Picture a scene: The heroine, Jane, is at a party when a handsome stranger enters the room. Exuding masculinity, he draws Jane onto the dance floor and kisses her. Romantic? I don’t think so. Exciting? Maybe if parties and dance floors were around in cave-man time. Poor Jane has had her present unwrapped almost before she’s realized it’s Christmas.

Now picture the same scene with some sexual tension: Every bit as powerfully masculine as before, Jane’s stranger enters the room. Their gazes collide, and linger. She wants him to approach, but this time he acts like the civilized hero he is, with enough social graces to prevent him from charging over.

Someone talks to her, but she’s distracted, intrigued by the man who commands her attention. He’s gradually working his way closer. . . and closer. Finally, the host introduces them. Jack. Jack shakes her hand. Or kisses it.

Maybe his eyes do all the touching.

How does Jane feel? Maybe her heart is beating fast, her mouth has gone dry, the music and chatter of the party faded into the background. Jack’s hand could be rough, or warm, or cool.

He asks her to dance, so of course we have physical contact, but it’s polite, restrained. Is Jane wishing he’d draw her closer? Does she want to inhale more of his wonderful, tantalizing aroma? Maybe his voice reverberates through her body.

The song ends. They separate, with Jane longing for more. But she can’t have more. Not yet. That would spoil the anticipation, the fun.

Eventually they dance again. This time Jack pulls her closer. Not close enough for Jane’s (or our) liking. Afterwards they stroll out onto the balcony where balmy breezes and a full moon create the mood for romance. Jane is expecting him to kiss her – wishing he would.

He touches her face, tucks hair behind her ear, tilts her chin, brushes his thumb over her lips and moves closer. She’s primed for his kiss and then. . . he doesn’t. We share Jane’s let-down. And can’t wait for the next episode.

Of course, Jack has a very good reason for resisting the urge, but Jane may not be aware of the conflict waiting to tear them apart. Maybe she is. We’ll get to that later.

So what is sexual tension? Delaying gratification plays a part, but it’s much more than that. We could compare the above scene to the “present under the tree” stage, when our characters see a package, suspect their name is on the present, and would love to start unwrapping.

Effective sexual tension is when two characters, whether they want to be or not, are so focused on each other that they’re feeling intangible things like looks and thoughts through their senses. Just think of Darcy and Miss Bennett in Pride & Prejudice, or Scully and Mulder in The X-Files. While very little happens between them, the air crackles with expectancy.

How do writers achieve this kind of tension in a story? By sharing not only what the hero and heroine see, smell, hear, touch and taste, but also what they think. By bringing alive the hero’s and heroine’s senses, and letting us in on their thoughts and feelings, it is possible to weave a sensual, almost magical spell.

Compare: “Jane wanted nothing more than to kiss Jack.” to:

“The heavy throbbing of background music echoed Jane’s heartbeat. A warm breeze, scented with jasmine, drifted across her heated cheeks like a lover’s touch. Jack watched her, his eyes gleaming dark and dangerous, daring her to do something bold. Like kiss him. She touched a fingertip to his chest, where she found his heart beating just as rapidly as her own. As though magnetized, she swayed closer, all the while captured by that challenge in his eyes. Masculine, spicy, his scent teased her nostrils. Jack. She flickered a glance at his mouth, barely inches away now. All she had to do was tilt her chin, reach her tongue out to his lips and. . . . She closed her eyes, swallowed, took a deep breath. Flattening her palm against his chest, she pushed herself away.”

We’ve now popped open one end of the present. Step by step, the writer will build on the attraction between the hero and heroine, putting them into situations where the tension grows and the wrap begins to open.

But there’s still more to sexual tension. Let’s get back to Jane and Jack and the instant attraction they feel. We can’t just let them unwrap the present together and hold it up for everyone to see. What if Jane is just back from overseas, she arrives at her sister’s engagement party and Jack is the fiance? Imagine if there’s a history between Jack and Jane, a story of love gone wrong.

Now there’s conflict and emotion in the equation, so the sexual tension becomes much stronger because there’s an element of the forbidden. Imagine how Jane would feel when the only man she’s ever loved takes her in his arms again – and he’s engaged to her sister. Conflict heightens sexual tension.

And then there’s dialogue, those not-so-idle comments that snap our attention back to where it should be.

Let’s go back to Jane again. Perhaps she’s looking tired at the engagement party.

“Poor Jane.” Her mother’s voice floated on the night air to where they stood on the balcony. “It’s all those hotels. She never could get a good night’s sleep in a strange bed.”

“I know,” Jack murmured. His eyes were full of memories.

In the background, one of her old CDs was playing, the Billy Joel double album Jack had given her on her twenty-second birthday. Any reminders of him had been too painful to take into her new life.

“Tell me.” His breath feathered her cheek as he leaned close enough for only her to hear. “Do you still sleep with that battered old Teddy?”

Sexual tension can be anything that keeps the hero and heroine from indulging their instincts. It’s that ants-in-the-pants feeling of anticipation that keeps us peeling away the wrapping paper until the present is finally ours. It’s then up to the writer to make sure that present is a gift worth receiving.

Marg Riseley

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