Sexual Tension

on May 24, 2007

After reading Karin’s sexy and fabulous book SKIN, I had a bit of an ephiphany. Then this morning, when reading one of my email lists and the talk prompt was about sexual tension (and I read all the advice given), I realized that there are some misconceptions about sexual tension, but more than that, there are misconceptions about reader expectations.

Karin does sexual tension really, really well. It pops off the page. The h/h don’t have to go to bed together for the book to be sexy (though they do eventually get to relieve their sexual tension!) The sexiness is in the anticipation and conflict. Karin can explain this better than me because she’s the one who does it so well. It’s part of what makes her stand out as a writer. It’s part of her voice. Even in her earlier unpublished books, which I’ve read in parts, her sexual tension was well-done.

If you don’t naturally write sexy, it’s really hard to force it. Like forced sex, it’s no fun, painful, and–frankly–a crime. If you’re forcing it, it shows on the page. The reader cringes.

One bit of advice on this loop I’m on suggested that all romance novels no matter what the genre must have sexual tension. Hmm, yes and no. Yes, in a romance you are expecting some sexual undercurrent, more or less. This is where reader expectations come in. If a reader is expecting a sexy story, you’d better deliver it. If the reader is expecting a scary story or a suspenseful story, such as what I write, the relationship is icing on the cake and should raise the stakes in the suspense.

One thing my editor usually catches is my lack of sexual awareness among my characters. In SPEAK NO EVIL, for example, she commented after my love scene, “Good, but can Nick and Carina be sexually aware of each before they go to bed?” Hmm, good point. In my opinion, it was there, but obviously too subtle. I fixed the problem by adding a conversation between them that tied them together emotionally, and by adding a passionate kiss earlier in the book. But there was no way I could have layered in pages and pages of sexual tension. It’s not my voice, and it would have messed with my reader expectations.

I may be wrong, but I think people who read me expect a good suspense story, a well-developed villain, and a hero and heroine who rise above to save the people they love and the innocent. The developing relationship between the h/h must compliment my story, and show that two people who may naturally be loners or grieving or angry at the injustices in the world, can find happiness.

Amanda, a regular visitor here, found my “brand” or my common theme in my books, and I think she was right. She said “no man (or woman) is an island.” This is something that my characters need to learn in order to attain that happily ever after.

Romantic suspense is such a broad genre, that almost anything goes. Sexual tension works if that’s your voice, like Karin. So if you want a master lesson in sexual tension, read SKIN. If that’s your voice, you’ll learn so much. But if it’s not your voice, and you try to do the same thing because people tell you you HAVE to do it, then you’ll fail, and that certainly won’t get you anywhere in your career. (But still, read the book because it’s good.)

Be wary of people who tell you that you HAVE to do anything. Unless, of course, that person is paying you for the book. Editors definitely get a lot more leeway in telling me what to do, but the BEST editors will always make suggestions or show that something isn’t working, and let the author fix it to suit their voice and story goals.

So where am I going with all this? Well, in my current work-in-progress, KILLING FEAR, my heroine Robin McKenna is a former stripper. I thought that by having a sexy profession my book would be sexier. But it’s not. Why? Because even though that’s what she used to do, I’m not writing the scenes where I describe her moves or her costumes or anything like that. It doesn’t fit the story. What fits is how she views herself, how the hero views her, and more important, how the villain views her.

In fact, my hero and heroine both remember passionate love scenes because they were really hot for each other seven years ago. Thing is, I don’t think I could write the actual scene if I tried. I’m doing snippets of the scenes, like the core purpose of the past scene, because otherwise I wouldn’t be true to my voice. I wouldn’t do it well. Reader expectations are, frankly, more about the FEELINGS of your reader when they put down the book. For me, I want to make sure that they have some sort of adrendalin rush, a thrill if you will; I want them to be scared and then relieved and elated when good triumphs over evil, and the girl gets the guy should be a smile on their face–it’s the reward after a life and death journey.

The single best thing about being unpublished is that you have no reader expectations. You can do anything you want, try anything you want, any genre, any story, any tone. Do it now, while you have the chance. Because when you sell, you’ll have reader expectations and fulfilling them should be your number one goal.

Now, for a question. I have two huge pet peeves in romantic suspense. The first is when the author stops the action in order for the hero and heroine to scope each other out, and then I have a couple pages of physical descriptions and/or reactions to something physical about the h/h when there’s other things going on. Time doesn’t stop, so why are they standing their lusting after each other? My other big pet peeve is the h/h having sex when they shouldn’t, i.e. when they KNOW (or should know) that the bad guy is about to catch up with them, or when an innocent is in danger, or when bullets are flying. You know what I mean.

What’s your big pet peeve about sex or sexual tension in romantic suspense novels?