How To Amp Up Sexual Tension In Your Story

Kidlet's dolls having a special moment

Today's topic...sexual tension. From YA all the way to the steamiest of romances, this is a vital ingredient if you have any kind of romance thread whatsoever. Even if a kiss never happens, you can have you're reader sweating through the will they/won't they tension so bad that even if the characters grab each others hands you're holding your breath.


Romance writers are known for this talent, but YA is also a fabulous genre that does this well. The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare is a good example. The tension between Jace and Clary is palpable. Sexual tension is also a huge part of the appeal of Twilight. Each are so aware of each other, but a mere touch or kiss could cause Edward to lose control. And of course, in tv shows, this is the workhorse. Dawson's Creek (pic above) held me for all seven (?) seasons with their use of sexual tension. Oh how I love Joey and Pacey, but I digress.

So how do we create this tension so that when you finally give your reader the big payoff--the kiss, the I love you, the bom-chicka-wah-wah, whatever is right for your story, you have your reader cheering.
To build tension:
Make the attraction that each feels for the other obvious to the reader.
--The characters are hyper aware of all the little details of the person when he/she is around. Use all the senses not just sight.
No conflict=no tension
--Make sure there are good reasons why these two can't be together--internal and external. Bella and Edward can't get together because, well, he may kill her.
Use internal dialogue
--The hero may be clenching his hands at his sides, but tell us why. The urge to reach out and touch the heroine's hair is overwhelming him.
Always on each other's mind
--If your hero and heroine aren't together in a scene, then have their thoughts go to the other so that we know he/she can't get the other off his/her mind.
Patience, grasshopper
--Don't relieve the tension too quickly. Frustration must build and build. There's a reason why the first love scene doesn't usually happen until 2/3 the way through a book.
Here we go, wait, not so fast
--Give you characters a taste of what they could have, then make them stop. This is the famous device on sitcoms where they start to kiss, but then someone burst in to interrupt. It doesn't have to be that obvious. One of the characters could be the one to stop (usually for some internal reason related to the conflict between them.)
It's addictive
--Once you do let the two get together the first time (be that a kiss or full out lovin'), leave them wanting more. Instead of satisfying their need/curiosity/etc., they want each other even more. Now they know what they could have if not for all that pesky conflict. Damn those mean authors who put so much in their way.
When all looks like it's going to work out, pull them apart again.
--Romantic comedy movies do this all the time. The characters seem to resolve some conflict and get together. Oh but wait, there's more! Some conflict wedges between them again.
--Don't resolve the relationship until very near the end. Otherwise, the reader will lose interest.
So how about you? Does your novel have a romance or undercurrent of one? What author do you read that is a master at creating sexual tension? (I love Charlaine Harris for this. I wait with bated breath for my Eric and Sookie scenes.)

*updated post from 2009