Will they or won’t they – it’s the most important, infuriating question of every romance novel. Will they give into their desire now, in the dark corners of the library? How about now, in the hidden coves of the rose gardens? Will they be interrupted by a gaggle of debutants, a bomb threat or their own hesitation? When will they finally succumb to what they both desire most?
Building this tension, pushing and pulling, giving and taking away, is fundamental to any good romance novel. We want our characters to take one step forward two steps back, until they were positively wanting for it, desperate for it – whether it is a kiss or a full blown BDSM dungeon session. Every scene with flirtation, innuendo and heavy looks is another way to make the characters earn the heat between them. It makes the reader want to continue reading, to find out when they will actually give into their desires, and how hot it will be when it happens. Here are a couple of my favorite ways to build that unresolved sexual tension until no one can handle it anymore.
The Author Giveth and the Author Taketh Away:
In novellas and novels, there is more room for build up, so let’s focus on that medium for now, rather than the short story format, with the goal of reaching the end as quickly as possible. In longer stories, there is room for scenes to tease, a scene where you think it might just happen and something or someone keeps it from coming to fruition. These are the steps back.
Building good tension is about making each of these steps back a little hotter and a little closer than the one before. A step back could be as simple as their fingers brushing, only to have a character run off without looking at the other person. Or, it could be as intense as two characters about to indulge in their most intimate desires, when an explosion on the other side of the compound takes them out of the fantasy. Knowing your characters and environment is key to measuring these backwards movements, but make sure each one increases in intensity.
Innuendo and flirtation:
How our characters act alone is very different from how they act in front of other characters. Is the flirtation overt and public, or do they catch each other’s loaded gazes across a crowded room. Do they have two conversations within one, with the meaning well-hidden from others around them? Is a promise or a covert message shared in a whisper, to the right hand side of the duke? Is there a swift kick under the table or a thigh squeeze? Building up the tension in public, where they can’t act upon it, creates another barrier that makes both the character and the reader desperate for more.
One of the reasons historical romance is so successful is because there is a built in structure of no, we can’t. Society’s rules keep men and women at a distance, which means even the hint of a sly smile or double entendre means so much more. Whether working in historical or contemporary, forging these barriers – by adding other characters, creating scenarios where characters are strictly forbidden from getting together, or having them share a room with a child, all build up the tension between them, until the opportunity arises when they do get the chance to give into their desires.
The Long Game:
One of the reasons I like series so much, is because you really get to follow the characters, learning their personalities on a deeper, more long-term level. This is true for the secondary and tertiary characters, as well as the main hero and heroine.
For instance, in the Maya Banks KGI series, there is an ongoing flirtation/love-hate relationship between two of the snipers on one of the mercenary teams. Through the first five books, we get snippets of their conversation and arguments, leading to the sixth book in the series, which the reader enters already involved in the flirtation. It is effective and highly charged, and keeps the audience interested over a several book series.
These are just a few of my favorite ways to build tension and keep the audience interested and invested in my characters and their desires. What are some of your favorite tropes for creating that perfect unresolved sexual tension that always leaves you wanting more? ♥