Monday, April 2, 2012

Wagons East!: Turning Up the Tension

For me, the Writer’s Compass (for the Directionally Challenged) primarily focuses on character and conflict. North and South. And even now, a lot of time is spent debating on who has the bigger dog in the fight: the north or the south. Good arguments can be made for both sides; we’ll never agree. (It’s North, I tell you, NORTH is the bigger dog.) But in our bid to win our arguments about if it’s our characters that should be bigger or our plot, we forget about our East and our West. Which is a shame because although both of these directions are shamefully underrated while standing next to their flashier, cooler counterparts, the fact is you wouldn’t have a story without them either.

Ironically, the East—despite not being as “important” as the North—is a lot harder to manage because you have to be subtle, pervasive, and never, ever give the characters what they really want. You’re told to be big and bold with your characters, to give big problems and blow stuff up with your conflict—and now you have to simultaneously be as subtle and sly as a covert operator to plant the tension and suspense of “will they or won’t they” in between the lines of your action.

The tension in your novel—sexual, situational, relationship—makes the pages hum. The conflict of a story gives us reason for concern, like a physical thing, but the tension makes it personal. It taps into readers’ emotions. You want to make your story personal, empathetic, draw your readers in until they can’t stop reading until the last page is read. You always want the reader to be concerned about your characters. (See, told you that North was the bigger dog.)

I think the number one reason why romance novels get dinged for being “sex books” rather than “romantic stories” is that it’s a very fine line to walk between romance and sex. As authors, it’s key to make sure we know that the hero and heroine are meant for each other, and in romance, there is a constant hyper-awareness of the other person. In a way they’ve never felt for any other person.

Sexual tension has to be as plausible as your conflict. Sexual tension is not the same as constantly being aware of how good he smells, or if he touches your hand for the first time, electrical shocks go to that special place. Tingles or gushing…or a rush of moisture. Believe me, I’ve read it; and believe me, I’ve mocked it. I’m not always able to articulate what sexual tension is, but I do know what it isn’t.

Sexual tension is just as much about emotional response as the physical one. In fact, when it comes to our romance, the emotion is the part we really care about. I think this is why this requires some subtly—emotion requires a patient hand. You can’t beat people over the head or tell them what they should feel. You have to show them what aches and why, tie up the emotional connections between your characters and their past so we can all believe the love story as it develops.

It’s hard to ignore articles that tell you to write your sex scenes hotter-hotter-hotter; and I’m not trying to steer you from that. Write as hot as you are comfortable with—that’s the key phrase—and write what you enjoy reading. If you’re adding sex for sex’s sake, or dumping in “tension” in the form of physical attributes only, you’re missing out on the big picture. Romance. It’s always romance first. Romance and angst—what is romantic and what is the angst the character is feeling?

Sex is tricky in written form. To demonstrate affection and bonding between a new couple, sex is a straightforward way to show how feelings have changed, show how characters feel even if they’re not willing to say it. Sex can be incredibly romantic, exactly what is called for; however, it can’t be denied that writing a scene between characters who want to make love but can’t can be wayyyyy hotter. Your scenes where they aren’t having sex should be as hot if not hotter than the ones where they are.

Romantic love is all about the anticipation and the potential heartbreak, the risk. It makes for excellent tension. It’s great for amplifying conflict; it’s perfect for creating empathy for your characters. See how necessary the East turned out to be? It’s like a flavor booster.

What ways do you use in your writing to show tension? Do you try to make sexual tension as much about the emotional as the physical? Have you read any books lately that handled the sexual tension particularly well?


MsHellion said...

Wow. This blog is that bad. Good to know. *LOL* Will revise for the class.

TerriOsburn said...

I was fortunate with the current MS in that my characters COULD NOT have sex. Absolutely not. After all, she's engaged to his brother. Attraction is all fine and good, but when characters cannot act on it, you get major tension.

At least I hope so.

I love the idea of this being a flavor booster. LOL! Tension can enhance so many other aspects. The characters' senses are heightened which then heightens the reaction in the reader. The conflict feels bigger because this growing frustration is driving them nuts ON TOP OF all the other obstacles.

How the character handles the tension can even tell you what kind of person he/she is. Tension is definitely essential. Besides, if we didn't have East, we wouldn't have the sunrise. :)

TerriOsburn said...

I was wondering where everyone was hiding. LOL! Must be one of those Mondays. I took Friday off so had to catch up on something before I could get over here. Maybe the start of a new month has everyone lagging behind.

Sabrina Shields (Scapegoat) said...

It is SOOOOO one of those Mondays!

I read the post but wanted to mull it over a little before responding.

Terri and I had a short conversation along these same lines on Friday. That there's more to romance than just the kind of sexual tension where EVERY SINGLE TIME the man walks in the room all you get is the woman reacting to him or noticing him physically.

A romance is more than just sexual tension, it's got to have emotion blended in, or for me more emotion than tension - for it to truly feel like a convincing romance.

TerriOsburn said...

Exactly, Scape. We (or at least *I*) want to read about characters falling in love, not lust. Though there's always lust too. I mean, that helps. But at some point, it has to be more than that.

MsHellion said...

Terri, so you have a book with ALL sexual tension, for me, the best kind. *LOL* I'm always wanting what I can't have. Cadbury Creme Eggs. Chocolate Cake. Piles of buttery nutritionless spaghetti with parmesan. I want it...but I can't have it. I could make it, but everyone would know. :)

Great point--tension does SHOW how the character is able to handle tension, and if he/she is able to handle tension in the right way, it makes us root for them all the more.

MsHellion said...

Sabrina, exactly--it's about the emotion. Or at least, I think the emotion should play a bigger part or you just have a lot of Tab A fitting into Slot B. There's no meaning.

MsHellion said...

I finished reading a novel yesterday--An Affair with Mr. Kennedy. Which I thought was a second book in a series with another author, but it turns out this is a debut novel of a GH finalist. *coughs* (Way to pay attention, right? Those publishers, so tricksy!)

But this book was AWESOME. Actually it was better in a lot of ways than the one I thought it was following. *coughs* I wanted to hand out a copy of the book to everyone on the ship because this author was excellent with her writing. I was jealous of her ability to think of active verbs in her writing. (I'm going to have to change so much with mine!) Pacing great. A great blend of the physical and emotional, I thought. At least no "rushing of moisture"--I swear that phrase pisses me off. She was staring at his butt when he got on his horse and he knew it--stuff like that. It was cute.

She had all sorts of tension, not just the sexual kind. She made great use of tension everywhere, and the characters were great at handling it. (And the best "mother" character I've read ever. Loved her!)

TerriOsburn said...

So how about telling us the author's name. LOL! Will this be a future review? That reminds me, I need to write that review for tomorrow.

MsHellion said...

Yes, I was going to review it on the 10th actually. *sticks out tongue* So that's why I didn't share everything. But you could google the title I gave you--it would pull her right up.

TerriOsburn said...

I've heard of her! What an awesome website. That book sounds AMAZING!

MsHellion said...

I love her website. I don't know where she found her historic resources, but they. are. awesome.

And seriously the heroine's mother going on and on about Victorian condoms had me in stitches.

I like that it's got a steampunk vibe, but it's set in "reality"--it's not a wallpaper by any means. Very cool.

Marnee Bailey said...

Sorry I'm late too. It's one of those Mondays for me too.

As to bumping up sexual tension... this time I made it that he's had an unrequited thing for her since he was a kid. But, she wanted his cousin. So, she never noticed him. Now, they do.

I think the key is giving them lots of reasons not to get together. It's always the thing you can't have that you want the most. Sad humans that we are.

And I have that book on my TBR! I guess I need to get going. I just decided yesterday to start A Game of Thrones. So I'm not sure if I"ll have any time in the next, oh, five months to read anything else. LOL

MsHellion said...

I'm going to say, no you're not going to have time for anything else, but by the time you get to the book, the 2nd one in the series will be out...and RAFE is so darned sexy. I was hoping his book would be next. So you'll have 2 for the price of 1.

Yes--I agree, you have to have LOTS of reasons to keep them apart, really good dark reasons. :)

Maureen said...

I like to tread the path of countering or ignoring the attraction. Or even better, give into the sex but just call it sex, not love. Never falling in love! Denial of what the heart is clammoring about is a good way to give out tension. Because one of them always figures it out first.

Janga said...

My textbooks on creating sexual tension are some of the older trad Regencies. Those writers were much more limited in the sensuality level, and consequently, the best of them were extraordinary in creating sexual tension with a dance, brief touches as the H/H descend from a carriage, and the like. Among contemporary romance authors, I think Julie James is a wonder at creating sexual tension. Even in her releasing-tomorrow book, which has some sizzling hot scenes, the sexual tension is still powerful.

In contrast, I've read two books recently, both by authors whose books I've loved in the past, that got thumbs-down ratings from me because essentially all the characters do is have sex multiple times in various positions with oral sex added. The prose is purple, the stamina of the heroes incredible, and the character development thin since there are too few pages alloted to interactions other than sex. I was surprised and disappointed, and I am unlikely to buy the next books by these authors.

Less I sound like a prude, let me add that I regularly read and enjoy authors whose books are rated as "hot" by the review site. The difference is the second group of authors understands how to use sex scenes to reveal character and advance the plot.

TerriOsburn said...

Preach it, Janga. I read a book like that (been a couple years so nothing recent) and I got so tired of the sex (that made NO sense for the characters to be having) I tried to jump ahead to a scene without sex. No lie, I had to jump 150 pages and then the author seemed to change her mind about everything that came before. Plot shifted so hard I got whiplash. I've never read another book by that author.

P. Kirby said...

This is going to sound [initially] contrary, but I think sexual IS largely physical, though not in the tedious, “Oh, he’s/she’s so hot” crassly obvious manner. I admit, I get pretty bored with that approach. It’s also, why, for the most part, I don’t read erotic books. Too much secks; not enough tension.

But...for me, the best sexual tension IS derived from a growing and heightened *physical* awareness of the other person. It’s not simply that the couple have an overt attraction–though they might–but that their physical attraction is essentially revealed through their interactions, interactions which are in themselves, nonsexual.

For example, my favorite romance that isn’t a romance is War for the Oaks. It’s was written in the Eighties and dates itself by all manner of references from the time, but I love it anyway. In it, Eddi, a musician, finds herself an unwilling recruit into the war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts by a character who is called phouka (yeah, that’s his name). Initially, because he’s sort of holding her hostage, she wants to strangle him. I particularly like that fact that she has a relationship with someone else early in the novel, breaking the old, no relationship except The Relationship rule that binds actual romance novels.

Anyway, there’s this one scene where Eddi comes out of her room, and sees phouka standing by the window, backlit by the streetlights, and she watches him for a moment. There’s nothing sexual in the moment, not in any obvious way. (I think she’s still dating the other guy at the time.) She simply is observing his gestures, the expression on his face. But at that moment, it’s so bloody obvious that she’s falling for this guy. Her growing attraction and emotion need for him are shown continually in moments, big and small, where she is essentially just noticing something about him. The way he moves his hands. How he interacts with someone else. Etc.

Oddly, enough, the characters in my current WIP get to the sex early. So totally not my style. OTOH, they probably won't get much action for the rest of the novel.

P. Kirby said...

"but I think sexual 'tension' IS largely physical"

I is terrible editor.

MsHellion said...

Mo, denial of the heart IS sexual tension. Are you meaning they never think about it at all? If they're ignoring the attraction, that's one thing...that's tension, but if they are going through the motions without noticing at all until the other person has left and they're alone, I'm not sure I'm a fan. I mean, I've met those people in real life, they're annoying as hell. You don't know if they only want you because they don't like to be alone or if they really do miss you.

I think I prefer my characters to possess some self-awareness, however vague. *LOL*

MsHellion said...

Janga, that's too bad. I hate picking up a tried and true author and being burnt by the outcome.

I do love some of those older Regencies--you do get the spark of the dance and kiss but no more. The brushing up against each other by accident. *swoons* Too often in some books, I'm like, "How are they able to even do that? Wouldn't they get caught?" I go out with my parents, they are EVERYWHERE. You can't be alone for a minute, let alone the amount of time for a romance hero to do everything he outlined for fifteen pages.

What I hate is the immediate comeback of "fantasy"--we're writing fantasy. Yes, but romantic fantasy. If I wanted sex, I could get that. I want romance. I want a beautiful dress and a dance...and a man to fall head over heels for me. ;)

MsHellion said...

I'm also curious about the books so I know which ones to avoid...or at least restrict to library borrowing alone.

MsHellion said...

the best sexual tension IS derived from a growing and heightened *physical* awareness of the other person. It’s not simply that the couple have an overt attraction–though they might–but that their physical attraction is essentially revealed through their interactions, interactions which are in themselves, nonsexual.

I'd agree with this. I guess that's what I mean--I don't like the TEDIOUS descriptions. *LOL* Seriously I read--or started to read because I DNF--a book where the heroine meets the hero on page 3 and a rush of moisture surged between her thighs upon shaking hands with him. Please. Come on. I need a build up, not an explosion right as they meet. That's why I like when they meet and they may or may not like each other, but they watch each other first--and then get drawn in, by the nonsexual cues as you say.

MsHellion said...

Some stories call for sex early. I also like the one night stand things that develop into something more. But I like they have the ONS and then back off for whatever reason. Then the tension can build again. I just think sometimes sex gets mistaken for tension and it's not necessarily the same or in some cases even close.

Janga said...

Hellie, I'll email you the titles and authors.

Sin said...

I'm so struggling with tension and sex right now. It feels like I'm plucking out my hair one strand at a time to get any sort of reaction that seems "real" to me. I want to facepalm and then bang my head on my desk. I've forgotten how to word such things.

Haven't been reading lately since I've been writing. I'm living with tunnel vision, too afraid anything might accidentally influence me.

TerriOsburn said...

You're going to have to read something, Sin. Sounds like you need to be less worried about something influencing you (though I don't think that's always a bad thing) and finding something that inspires you.

quantum said...

Romantic love is such a powerful emotion that I suspect that you need to have experienced it to truly reach the pinnacles of writing it. Many will have experienced it second hand through reading or talking to a friend, but that's not quite the same.

We can all produce a string of authors who write great love scenes, but I would really like to know which of those authors have truly experienced the deepest love, and which are just good actors, exploiting secondary knowledge.

I wouldn't mind betting that if accurate statistics could be obtained, they would reveal some very strong correlations!

But that's just my theory. LOL

TerriOsburn said...

There's something to that theory, Q. For me, since the best books have heartbreaking black moments, I think you have to have had your heart broken to really make that scene sing. Sadly, most of us have experienced heartbreak at some point.

But I also read work by a writer who, shall we say, was inexperienced. It definitely showed on the page.

MsHellion said...

Romantic love is near impossible to imitate, yes, Q. But even when I didn't experience it first hand as a teen, I *knew* it had to do with being with someone who made you a better person or made you want to be a better person. And more importantly someone who noticed you, the little stuff that makes you, not just that you're gorgeous (should you be so lucky), but that you're scared of spiders, you melt when someone pushes the hair out of your eyes, and knows you have 27 freckles on your nose. That's the romantic stuff to me, at least when I was a teen.'s definitely the first, what with the "we're both the best people when we're together" thing, but it's also knowing when he scrapes the ice off my car because I like to sleep in or has a name for all your sighs and tells you why #4 is the best one. It's definitely the "paying attention" thing. We all want to be paid attention to.

But I'll go with Terri too--in order to write about incredibly moving and believable heartache, you had to have known some yourself.

quantum said...

Agreed Terri. When dealing with powerful emotions we all write best when drawing on personal experience. That experience may get filtered and distorted in the writing, but the essence is there in your soul. It will show in the writing.

Maybe this kind of consideration is important when constructing a plot. Design the plot to exploit your personal emotional experience.

I haven't really had any heart breaking black romantic moments so I shouldn't try to write many of those. Heart rending disappointment in other areas is familiar though. So my romantic black moments might seem a little like failing to score from the penalty spot in a vital needle soccer match!

Helli, those caring moments can be deeply touching, and with your skills you could exploit them brilliantly in hilarious romantic comedy. Kinsella comes to mind. I really think you could do worse than use her as a template. *smile*

TerriOsburn said...

Oddly enough, Q. I've had my heart broken pretty bad and yet the real emotion is what I left out of my black moment scene. Marn was nice enough to read it and let me know where I'd pulled my punches.

So while it's best to have the experience, sometimes that experience makes you leery of trudging up those emotions again. Thank goodness for unbiased eyes who will recognize and let you know when you're selling your characters (and readers) short.

TerriOsburn said...

Oh, and Hellie is working on a story that is PERFECT for what she describes and you suggest. She'll probably smack me for saying so, but this one is going to blow the doors...err...port holes off this ship. :)

MsHellion said...

Helli, those caring moments can be deeply touching, and with your skills you could exploit them brilliantly in hilarious romantic comedy. Kinsella comes to mind. I really think you could do worse than use her as a template. *smile*

I love Kinsella too, as you know. I would love to use her as a template--characters are in DENIAL, DENIAL, DENIAL. And then everything gets worse and worse and worse, until they're embarrassed before God and Everyone. Good times! I love her.

MsHellion said...

I think a lot of us pull our punches at the Black Moment. We wouldn't wish that kind of heartache on anyone--and we like our characters, so they'd definitely be the first people we'd protect. I guess we forget that we survive it. I think it's proof that no matter how much time heals, we're all still a bit wounded by our lost loves.

MsHellion said...

Terri, you ARE talking about the cowboy one right? I'm not sure how I can make that Sophie Kinsella, but I'm flattered by your positive flag-waving anyway. :)

TerriOsburn said...

Of course I am. What I meant is that you can use all that stuff you mentioned, but then throw in humor with them. Him sliding back her hair. Noticing something specific no one else does. And she can always deny anything he does affects her. And it gets worse. See, totally fits.

MsHellion said...

Oh, okay. Sure. He does that with the raccoon scene. But I'm not sure that makes it in...but we'll see.

Maureen said...

Nah, Hels, I don't ignore it in an oblivious way. More the "No, that isn't what is happening to me. I am not falling for him/her. It's just a temporary thing and it feels good, nothing to do with the heart. Nope. Nada. Not that."


I do love the showing how one feels in the little ways. Terri's first book had the hero build bookshelves. My Silvestri expanded the cabin and added a place for Emily to work on her bookbinding... All before the Heroine had agreed to show up... There's a great level of confidence in that, and faith.