All of us here love hot, hot romance, full of luscious love scenes. Realistically, if you’re writing an erotic romance, your characters can’t be frolicking in the sack the entire time. The difference between erotica and erotic romance is that the latter has three-dimensional characters and things actually happen in the story.
Still, you want to keep the sexual tension as close to the simmer point as possible. This is especially true at the beginning of the story. Unless you have a plot where the h/h already know each other and the action begins with them in bed, they’ll have to meet and become attracted to each other before they get to the really hot stuff. So, how do you maintain sexual tension when the characters aren’t actually having sex?
Last month, I discussed the sexy or erotic premise. This month, let me share some tips on creating sexual tension outside of the love scenes.
The first encounter
Beginning writers often make the mistake of having their characters drooling all over each other from the first time they meet. Even in erotic romance, a character seldom goes from neutral to sexual excitement when an intriguing new person enters the room.
Time stops briefly while the two people become aware of each other for the first time. What you need is a beat while their “eyes met across a crowded room.” (Note: Eyes don’t fly out of people’s heads.) Now, notice one thing or two maximum about the other character.
Continue the scene, dropping in more details as you go along. When the two characters interact, make clear that the non POV character has also noticed things about the POV character. Does he focus on parts of her body? Does he comment on her personal attributes in his dialogue? (“I’ve never seen you here before.” “Do you smile like that at every man?”)
Indicate interest with eye contact. The classic indicator of feminine interest is for the woman to make eye contact, look down or away (perhaps smiling or biting her lip), and then make eye contact again. That should tell your reader that she’ll welcome a man into her personal space. It’ll get a man’s attention, for sure.
Men are probably more forthright in expressing interest with eye contact. If the non-POV man does this, it may fluster the POV woman in a pleasant way. Her skin may grow warm, and she’ll almost certainly look away.
Next step – personal space
Shortly after the attraction between h/h is formed, one is certainly likely to enter into the other’s personal space. In historical romance, this often takes the form of a dance at a ball. This is a socially acceptable way for the two people to embrace, but that doesn’t mean it’s a trivial matter for either of them. Again, one or both of them may experience a flush of excitement, although it won’t be felt as truly sexual. All the senses may be heightened. Your character may notice the rustle of skirts, light and shadow in the hall, and various smells.
Dance or no, once the characters are up close and personal, they’re literally within breathing space of each other. That is, if their faces are pointed toward each other, they’ll be able to feel each other’s breath. Naturally, they can smell each other. One hopes, they smell good, whether that’s historically accurate for your book or not. Soap, shampoo, cologne, skin lotion come up often. Leather works for a horsewoman/man. If she’s wearing flowers, he’ll be aware of their scent.
H/h will be aware of each other’s height relative to his/her own. A man might note where the woman’s nose reaches on his body. Does it come up to his shoulder? To his chin? Especially if he’s much taller, he may feel protective of her, which can be frustrating if she insists on maintaining independence. She may feel a bit overwhelmed by his height and the breadth of his shoulders. If she’s always felt ungainly, she may enjoy the feeling of being petite next to him. They very likely will be aware of each other’s body heat.
You can play with physical proximity. If she’s bent over the craps table at a casino, he could reach for the dice, bringing his body close to hers. She can duck under him to help him find a file in the file cabinet. Either can reach past the other to push the elevator button. They can be stuck in a carriage or a cab together.
If you’ve ever found yourself in this position with someone who isn’t a lover or good friend, you know how awkward it feels if you’re not attracted to them or how exciting it feels if you are.
The main form of sexual tension in dialogue falls under the category of sexual banter. This can range from quite innocent to quite explicit.
She stared out over the ocean. “What a beautiful view.”
“It certainly is,” he answered.
“But, you’re not looking at the ocean,” she said.
He gazed into her eyes. “There’s an ocean nearby?”
“What have you heard of me?” he asked.
“That you’re a terrible rake.”
He laughed. “Then, I’ll do my best to be a better rake.”
Even less innocent:
“Late night?” he asked.
“Who’s the lucky guy?”
She stared at him. “William Shakespeare.”
“When he needs a stand-in, let me know.”
Quite explicit. There’s an amazing scene in The Taming of the Shrew where Katharine and Petruchio first meet. There’s a lot of great banter in there, but one of his lines is amazing. They’ve been going back and forth about tongues and telling tales. When she tells him she’s done and she’s leaving, he answers, “What, with my tongue in your tail?” I first heard that about 45 years ago and have never forgotten it.