I got a D in Chemistry in ninth grade. Let’s just get that out there for the world to know. There didn’t seem to be a thing about this particular science that made sense to my intensely right brained self. Other than the fact that the teacher was kind of cute, I hated everything about the class.
And yet, years later, I have based an entire career on the understanding of chemistry. Sexual chemistry. Emotional chemistry. Physical chemistry. You know, the nuclear reaction when opposites attract and sparks fly and pheromones dance and every atom in the air gets all charged up and ready for some molecular bonding. I may have hated ninth grade chemistry, but I madly love the science of romance.
For me, the magic of combustible chemistry is why I read and write and seek out movies that promise to create romantic thermodynamics. Whether you call it sexual tension or the romance arc or the characters’ chemistry, this element of any story is paramount to me, and why my romantic suspense novels definitely lean more toward romantic than suspenseful.
I have been asked several times to do workshops on sexual tension, to explain how to write combustible sexual chemistry, and to define exactly what it is and how to recognize it. While I’m deeply complimented that readers and fellow writers like this aspect of my work, I always decline, even though I love to give craft workshops. Because no matter how hard I try, I simply can’t think of how to explain sexual chemistry in romance novels any more than I could predict whether a precipitate will form in a solution. I don’t have a list of five or ten tips for guaranteed sexual tension because I believe that creating it is kind of like making magic, and if you give the process too much thought and empirical “evidence,” then you’ve taken away what makes the whole business beautiful and exciting.
But since I’ve been asked, I’m going to try and pinpoint a few things that I grapple with when trying to increase sexual tension in a book. Perhaps being conscious of these elements of a story and a scene will help writers, like me, who struggle with romantic chemistry, and appeal to readers, like me, who gobble up sexual tension and are always on the hunt for more.
First of all, writer, when the characters are on the page together, are your toes curling? Are you smiling? Is your breath caught in your throat? Are you getting a little tingle (up your spine, I mean!)? If so, then you’ve probably got the makings of some chemistry between these two. Think about it…if you feel this way, the characters do, too. That would be a good time to layer in the physical responses your POV character is experiencing, so that the reader can experience them along with the character.
Let me attempt to demonstrate that with a scenelet from my own work. Not because I think I’m All That and a Gin & Tonic in the sexual tension department, but because I don’t pretend to know what another writer was thinking when she wrote a scene. I do know what I was thinking when I wrote this one. The heroine is about to make a huge change of direction and I want two things to force it: 1) hero knows how to do stuff she can’t and 2) he’s sexually irresistible (which is both a plus and a negative right now).
From Then You Hide
“Why are you staring at me like that?” she demanded.
“I’m just curious about how badly you want it.”
“How badly I want…” She raked his face and chest with a slow look, lingering on his wide shoulders and the golden hairs at the top button. “What?”
“To get into the Palm Grove villa.”
She held his gaze, awareness and understanding sparking at the same time. He closed the space between them enough for her to smell the wind on him, and the salt of the sea. So he’d been in an open air car, too. Right behind her on that hairpin turn that she had taken too fast. Warmth curled up inside her, settling low in her belly, tightening her thighs and drying her throat.
“You’d like to go there and see who answers the door, wouldn’t you?” he asked.
Of course she would.
“And if no one is there, you’d like to go inside to look for his things or a clue to where he might be, am I right?”
So, so right.
His gaze slid down her face, settled on her mouth, then returned to her eyes. “How badly?”
“Not badly enough to make deals with the devil.” She gave him her profile again, an act of sheer self-preservation. “Nice try, but forget it.”
He leaned right into her ear. “I can get you in there.” He breathed just enough to flutter her hair and curl her toes. “I can do that.”
She’d bet her next commission check he could. “How?”
“I found you, didn’t I?”
There’s a lot of physicality in that exchange, a lot of senses, a lot of feeling, all buried deep into the real plot point of the scene (him convincing her to let him help). And isn’t that what sexual chemistry is all about?
When this happens is almost as important as what happens. Sexual tension has to unfold and develop in a natural, believable way. While there’s nothing wrong with Lust At First Sight, when to act on it is a huge decision for every writer in every romance novel. The pace of the sensuality is every bit as important as the pace of the suspense plot or any other part of story; it has to move quickly enough to hold the readers attention, but not so quickly that it destroys the build up and promise of a breathtaking love scene.
Let’s talk the infamous shed scene that has generated such a strong and lovely response from readers of Hunt Her Down. In this scene, the hero and heroine are trapped in a pitch black, airless outdoor shed in the mid-summer Miami heat, forced to strip to keep their body temps down and wait for help. But the lesson isn’t how the scene is written — the real lesson is in the fifteen attempts that I drafted and, mercifully, deleted.
Because, of course, if two people with incendiary chemistry are trapped in an enclosed space and forced to undress…sex will ensue, correct? And that’s how I attempted to write it over and over again. And with each frustratingly bad day of writing, I wanted to cry. It was far too early in my story for a love scene, and these two people have way too much history and baggage (much of which took place in the very same shed fourteen years earlier) for them to have a sexual encounter at this point. The solution took some time for me to uncover; but I knew I’d nailed it the minute I wrote it. In the end, they never touch each other once, and yet it has been called by many readers one of the sexiest scenes I’ve ever written. (On another blog, it was decided that my gravestone epitaph will read “She Wrote The Shed Scene.” Which beats “She Got a D in Chemistry.”)
Another hard-learned lesson in sexual chemistry is what I call the Show-Don’t-Imply rule, a distant cousin to Show-Don’t-Tell. I make this error in my first drafts all the time. I figure that if I suggest there will be, say, forced intimacy due to the situation, then just the implication of what could happen will be enough for the reader to “infer” sexual tension. Sorry, but it is not. Far better to show that it will be a Herculean task to keep their hands off each other during their forced intimacy, and if they do give into temptation, it will screw everything up.
I give a workshop on scene structure and use an example of this, found in the first and last drafts of my second novel, French Twist. In the first draft, they are “talking” (oh so much!) about being stuck in a hotel room for three days, and you can just about hear me elbow-nudging the reader and whispering, “Won’t that be sexy?” Implying that there will be sex does not make sexual tension. In the final draft, I cut out all the talking and just have him walk in on her in the steam room in their bathroom (yeah, it’s a VERY nice hotel) to see exactly what he’d be missing while they are trapped together. Once again, they don’t touch or, in this case, talk. But the scene is…steamy.
And my final pointer in today’s chemistry lesson is actually borrowed from the physics department: the laws of nature hold true in books as well. Opposites do attract, although that doesn’t mean every hero and heroine must be polar opposite personalities in order to have electrifying scenes together. But there has to be conflict, and plot complications that evolve from giving in to their burning chemistry. Otherwise it’s not sexual tension, it’s sexual filler.
As well, remember that an object in motion really does tend to stay in motion unless something else stops it with a stone cold sexy smile or an unexpected brush of knuckles against bare skin. Powerful sexual chemistry can and will force that all-important “change” in a character, and really will catapult a hero or heroine into action that he or she might not realize they’re capable of taking.
And speaking of action, remember that every one has an equal and opposite reaction. Meaning, the most powerful sexual tension is a give and take, a push and pull, an in and out (if I must go there, and I must) between the two characters. That should start from their very first banter and never end until their last mutual declaration of love.
Sexual chemistry — in real life and in fiction — is mysterious, magical, and miraculous to this writer, as elusive and arcane as scientific chemistry, but so much more fun. Let’s hear it from the crowds — what makes a sexy scene (not a sex scene!) really work for you? Any tips from the trenches? Fan favorites? (I’m thinking the balcony scene in Linda Howard’s KILL AND TELL. Yikes.) Let’s talk chemistry, kids, and I do NOT mean the periodic table of the elements.
PS. Please don’t tell my kids I got a D in anything. I’ll lose all my leverage.