How to Write Sexual Tension: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know

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If you want to know how to write sexual tension like bestselling authors, you have come to the right place.

Get ready to explore everything you ever wanted to know about writing sexual tension, sensual tension, and romantic tension.

I did tons of research to create this ultimate guide to everything related to writing sexual tension in your stories. My goal is that you never have to read another article (or book or course) about sexual tension ever again.

Let’s get started!

What is Sexual Tension?

Sexual tension is desire unfulfilled. It’s sometimes called sensual tension, romantic tension, sexual attraction, chemistry, or even just attraction.

By whatever name, writing sexual tension in a novel can be hard. We don’t want to go overboard with cliches and awkward descriptions. But we also don’t want to ignore or underplay a very real and powerful social phenomenon.

Like any other form of tension, sexual tension can elevate a story and drive readers mad as they flip page after page to find out what happens.

Sexual tension is a vital part of almost every genre but it’s most prevalent and pronounced in romance or erotic fiction.

Even though lots of people use the terms interchangeably, and the concepts are interconnected, it’s probably helpful to point out that there are some small but important nuances between sexual tension, sensual tension and romantic tension.

  • Sensual tension – Sensual tension is associated with all of the senses like sight and smell and touch and taste. It often involves the tapestry of sensory-based details and experiences.
  • Romantic tension – romantic tension involves an emotional connection that is over and above the immediate biological urge to get it on (procreate). In other words, it’s about relationships, not just sex.
  • Sexual tension – Sexual tension is the urgent biological need to mate or have sex with someone. It is often an overpowering urge that has an almost substantial weight inside of us. There is a definite sense of urgency and a focus on physical attraction.
  • Sexual attraction – Sexual attraction is the foundation of sexual tension but they’re not the same. You can be attracted to somebody without feeling tense or the overwhelming urge to immediately sleep with them.

Sex and Sexual Tension

A lot of people are confused about the role of sex in sexual tension. Because sexual tension is, by definition, unfulfilled sexual desire, sex is the end and the release of tension. Once two characters (or more, I don’t know what kind of books you write :)) have sex, there is no longer any urgent sexual tension.

One of the keys to sexual tension is to expand the distance between sexual tension and the act of having sex. Most often, this means preventing the characters from having sex until later in the story, sometimes the very end.

The more the characters are made to wait to have sex, the more tension in both the characters and in the reader.

This is exactly what you want because it keeps the readers flipping pages late into the night.

Types of Sexual Tension

There are two major types of sexual tension – negative and positive. Both are related and interconnected, and we see both play out between characters in fiction (and in movies). Both offer value to the story and the reader.

In a way, you can see these two types of sexual tension as the yin and yang of powerful chemistry between characters.

Characters in bestselling novels often experience both negative and positive sexual tension that evolves over the course of the story. As you read the rest of this article, keep in mind how these two sexual polarities impact both the people in the story and the story itself.

Negative Sexual Tension

In negative sexual tension, characters feel anxious, sad, and even angry thinking about another character. This is the sexual tension of micro and macro rejection, waiting for the other person to text or make a move, being uncertain about the other person’s feelings for us, and the inability to satisfy our sexual urges and, therefore, release the tension.

This is also the tension of antagonism, conflict, and arguing. Sometimes this is even referred to as antagonistic sexual tension or arguing sexual tension.

You’ve seen this in movies of million times where the two lead characters are screaming at each other before suddenly embracing, making out, and having sex.

The purpose of negative sexual tension is to create uncertainty about the relationship between two characters.

Positive Sexual Tension

In positive sexual tension, characters feel more pleasant emotions like happiness and excitement, and a powerful spark that lights them up with desire.

This is the sexual tension of fairy tales, cheesy romance scenes, and the dopamine drug-fueled honeymoon phase. This is the tension of not knowing what might happen. Just as intense as negative sexual tension, positive sexual tension breathes life and hope and a thrilling form of attraction into a character, scene, and story.

The purpose of positive sexual tension is to create certainty in the relationship between two characters.

Signs of Sexual Tension

One of the biggest points about sexual attraction that I want to emphasize for you to write authentic and realistic sexual tension is that attraction is not a choice. Attraction is a biological certainty.

In other words, you’re either automatically sexually attracted to someone or you’re not. There are ways to build and grow sexual attraction and tension over time (and we’ll talk about some of those forms of sexual tension in this article) but for most characters, the sexual attraction will be immediate.

There are common and predictable signs of sexual tension. Use these signs as a way to liven up your writing and make your characters go, Grrrr!

The following list of signs was collected and adapted from various sources including Healthline, a respected Medical website:

  • Intense eye contact (staring, gazing).
  • Eyes drawn to the mouth and lips.
  • Checking each other out (butt, breasts, pecs, muscles, everything).
  • Extreme awareness of any kind of physical touch, no matter how subtle.
  • Heightened focus on the present (flow state or being in the “now”).
  • Sharper senses (see better, hear better, more sensitive to touch, etc.).
  • Leaning into each other.
  • Feet pointed toward each other (According to body language experts, our feet don’t lie).
  • Open body positions with torsos (and crotches) pointed at each other.
  • Voice changes. Science has proven that our voice changes when we are talking to someone to whom we feel attraction.
  • Characters bring the other person up in random conversations where it doesn’t make sense.
  • Characters daydream about each other.
  • Daydreaming about kissing them.
  • Intense reactions (positive or negative) to each other.
  • Anxiety or fear (negative sexual tension).
  • Fantasizing about sexual experiences with them.
  • Other characters say how good they would look together as a couple. (The explosive chemistry is super obvious to others)
  • Sweaty palms.
  • Fast heart rate around them.
  • Pupils dilated (large) – intense sexual attraction has a similar affect on the body (and eyes) as fear (negative sexual tension).
  • Smile more around them.
  • If one of the two characters has a partner (or someone who is interested in them but not necessarily committed yet), the partner may get jealous.
  • Feeling turned on (Obvious but has to be said. Yeah, you get aroused – typically this means flushed faces, enlarged pupils, erections for men and “getting wet” for females).

How To Write Sexual Tension Between Two Characters

OK, let’s get into the meat of things and talk about how to actually write sexual tension between two characters in your story. Let’s explore a number of techniques that professional writers use to inject sexual tension into the dynamic between two fictional people.

We’ll look at even more tips, tricks, and secrets for writing sexual tension in just a little bit, but for now, let’s focus on the major elements of explosive chemistry.

Starts from Go

One of the hallmarks of sexual tension is its immediacy. Characters are instantly attracted the moment they lay eyes on each other.

There is no delay or hesitation, just a “I gotta have it” lusty sexual attraction.

Remember, attraction is not a choice. It’s a biological imperative. So when your characters first meet in your novel, make sure that the sexual attraction starts from go.

Instant (Nicholas) Sparks

Not only is there instant sexual attraction, but there are instant sparks. These characters are definitely not platonic. They may not even like that they are attracted to the other person, and they might not even have the self awareness to acknowledge their intense desire, but it is there and it’s potent.

Fireworks

just to drive this home one more time, the sparks are really fireworks that go off inside of their mind and their heart and their body when they are around each other. Typically these fireworks get stronger throughout the course of the story as the sexual tension builds toward the inevitable release.

Check All the Boxes

A big part of the reason for the immediate strong reaction is that the other character ticks off all of their boxes for the kind of person that they’re attracted to and want, at least in a sexual partner.

Depending on your story and the relationship between the two characters, this sexual tension may evolve past the physical into the mental and emotional, and in some cases spiritual spaces.

Another way to say this is that the other person is their perfect sexual partner.

Twin Flames

Are you familiar with the concept of twin flames? It’s a kind of spiritual idea that goes beyond just soul mates. Twin flames are the ultimate soul mates. They are viewed as one soul split into two bodies, their relationships characterized by extraordinarily strong immediate attraction to each other.

This is a great way to think about the relationship between your characters as you go to write sexual tension in your stories.

Here are a few other ways the concept of Twin Flames can inform your sexual writing:

  • There is a sense of “déjà vu” between them as if they have always known each other.
  • Time stops or slows down or doesn’t seem to exist when they are with each other.
  • They are deeply tuned in to each other’s energies.
  • They are mirrors for each other, reflecting both the other person’s deepest fears and greatest dreams.
  • They enjoy intense, mind-blowing sex that includes simultaneous orgasms.
  • Uncannily and perfectly matched in every way.

Tension with Themselves (they fight it at first)

Even though there is this intense sexual attraction and chemistry from the moment the two characters meet, one or both characters internally struggle with the idea of being attracted to the other person.

One or both characters often engage in in an internal fight with themselves.

When your characters meet in your story, have them deny their feelings and resist the sexual desire. This is not only an authentic way to show sexual tension, it’s also compelling storytelling.

Common forms of this initial internal tension with themselves include:

  • They deny their feelings and attraction.
  • They try to talk themselves out of it.
  • They are disgusted with their own attraction.
  • They promise never to give in to the sexual desire and tension.

Visceral Reactions

The strong reactions don’t stop after the first meeting.

Throughout the entire story, the characters continue to have visceral reactions to each other in each scene. Typically, the reactions get even stronger each time they’re together.

Remember that the reactions can be either positive or pleasant emotional responses or negative or unpleasant feelings.

This goes back to the negative and positive polarity in sexual tension. It’s very common for characters in a story, whether on the page or the big screen, to start out hating each other’s guts and end up in bed and in love.

Push-Pull in Sexual Tension

An effective technique for writing sexual tension is the push pull.

You can think of a push as when the characters are showing interest in each other and getting closer to kissing or engaging in some sort of physical or sexual activity.

Pulling is when one or both characters are at odds with each other, when they are moving farther away from physical intimacy, getting along, or ever being in a relationship – much less having sex.

In push-pull, there is a shifting back and forth positive and negative sexual tension in the story. You can also push and pull in individual scenes. Sometimes one character will be pulling and another will be pushing, and sometimes they’ll both be pushing or pulling.

You can play around with this dynamic to create more authentic chemistry and a better reading experience.

As a hint, there’s usually an increase of pull toward the climax of the story, followed by a giant push in the resolution. Different storytelling models call this something different. Some call it the dark night of the soul.

Whatever you call it, it’s when things get worse before they get better near the end of the story.

Good Reason Not To

In the best stories with sexual tension, there is a very good reason for the characters not to get together, have sex, and release the tension. Despite the powerful urge to have sex, there are personal and plot consequences.

The higher the consequences and the better reason not to act on their feelings, the more tension for the characters and the readers.

Writers often ask, how do I write sexual tension between friends? or how do I write sexual tension between coworkers?

The answer is that you write the sexual tension virtually the same as any other two characters, however, the reason not to get together is different so there is variation.

Between friends, the friendship becomes the reason not to. Lots of people don’t want to risk losing a great friendship that they’ve developed over years for a possible short-lived sexual escapade.

Between coworkers, the risk is an awkward and uncomfortable work setting, possible violations of company policy and even the risk of losing a job.

Sexual Tension Interrupted

The near kiss is almost a cliche or trope of some genres of writing and storytelling.

Interrupted sexual tension, however, is a versatile tool that can be just as effective now in your story as it’s ever been. You can be creative by developing new and original ways to interrupt your characters from engaging in any kind of physical or sexual activity.

The best interruptions are story and character-specific. If one of the characters lives on a sailboat, perhaps choppy waters interrupt them from the kiss. If one of the characters is a chef, perhaps an angry customer or food order or some other food-related emergency interrupts them.

It’s common for there to be several different kinds of interruptions to stop the characters from releasing their sexual tension.

When crafting your own interruptions, keep the following things in mind:

  • Character traits
  • Character occupation
  • Character strengths
  • Character weaknesses
  • Character personality
  • Internal (value or ethical) reasons
  • External (physical or plot-related) reasons
  • Don’t use the same interruption more than once (unless for an intended effect to show a change of character response to the interruption)
  • Create several interruptions for your story
  • Interruptions can be health or well being related (They are exhausted so they fall asleep, or drunk so they pass out)
  • The interruptions should affect the characters differently each time as their sexual tension builds and their attraction for each other grows.

How To Write Good Sexual Tension

Good sexual tension in writing is tension that is authentic, shown not told, and deeply immersed in the characters’ POV so we get all the juicy thoughts and feelings and inner sensations from the characters themselves.

It is also sexual tension that is varied, multidimensional, based on the science of attraction, and relatable to the reader.

Bad or poorly written sexual tension is overblown, overwritten, and overly focused on sex (unless you’re writing erotica, then go for it!).

How To Build Sexual Tension

Sexual tension is a dynamic element in fiction. It evolves, shifts, changes. So, after your characters meet for the first time, your job as the author is to build sexual tension for the rest of the story.

How do you build sexual tension?

You can use the Striptease Method. The Striptease Method is revealing little by little, only what is necessary to keep the characters and the readers interested. A strip tease is all about prolonging and building anticipation.

We’ll get to prolonging anticipation in a moment.

First, you build attraction and tension through gradual escalation (like a striptease). Your characters get closer (or farther away) from having sex each time they encounter each other.

Keeping with the striptease example, you either put clothes back on or take them off.

A helpful structure is to think of sexual tension as another arc in your story with a beginning, middle, and end. Just like the plot arc or the character arc. The sexual tension grows over time. It builds.

The secret to amplifying sexual tension in stories is to increase the desire while also increasing the inability of the two characters to satisfy that desire.

They are more attracted but less able to act on that attraction.

Another way to look at it is physical touch escalation, also referred to as the 12 Phases of Physical Intimacy:

  1. Eye to body (first look at each other)
  2. Eye to Eye (first real mutual gaze and intimacy)
  3. Voice to Voice (they start talking)
  4. Hand to hand (or arm) The physical touch barrier has been broken.
  5. Arm to shoulder (A more intimate touch)
  6. Arm to waist, or back (An even more intimate touch)
  7. Mouth to mouth (kissing!)
  8. Hand to head (Usually only people very close to use touch our heads)
  9. Hand to body (exploring each other)
  10. Mouth to Breast
  11. Hand to Genitals
  12. Genitals to Genitals

Obviously, each story doesn’t need to follow these stages exactly, but you can use this escalation pattern as a blueprint guide to help you ramp up the tension in your story.

How To Make Sexual Tension Last (throughout the entire scene, book and series)

Creating sexual tension between two characters is one thing, prolonging it is another. There are proven ways to keep sexual tension alive in your story.

Let’s look at a few clever ways to sustain sexual tension across the scene, book, and even a multi book series.

  • Keep reminding the characters and the readers about the sexual tension by having the characters thinking or talking about it.
  • Interrupt the two characters in different ways at different points in the story.
  • Keep forcing the characters together so that their sexual tension has an opportunity to resurface and even grow.
  • Allow the sexual tension to escalate, change, and evolve throughout a scene, multiple scenes, and the entire story or series. Static sexual tension is boring sexual tension. and boring tension defeats the purpose. It’s really no tension at all. Any kind of tension is, by definition, exciting and immediate.
  • Increase the story and character consequences for both maintaining the sexual tension without satisfaction and releasing the tension with satisfaction. In other words, consequences for having sex or not having sex. This dual consequence will not only ramp up the sexual tension but also add an extra level of story tension on top of it.

Tips for Writing Sexual Tension (Just the tips, I promise)

There are so many tips for writing sexual tension, so I want to list some of the most important strategies here in this section. Get out your notebook because we’re about to go deep.

Sexual Tension and Subtext

Subtlety and subtext are your best friends when writing sexual tension.

Of course, the degree of subtlety depends on your specific characters, story, and genre expectations. However, even in the most erotic and sexual sub-genres, there is almost always an element of subtext and indirectness.

Characters in stories shouldn’t always do or say exactly what they mean. There should be layered meanings and indirectness. This is just another way to say show don’t tell.

Instead of having your characters confess their animalistic lust for each other, show it by their actions, by what they do and don’t do, by an “almost kiss” and shudder at each light touch.

Sexual Tension in Dialogue

Dialogue is related to indirectness and subtext. Dialogue in scenes and stories with sensual or romantic tension should be more indirect than direct, generally. This avoids the trouble with “on the nose” dialogue where characters are always saying exactly what they mean.

In real life, people often slant their language, leave things out, misunderstand each other and say things indirectly, for example, by beating around the bush.

When writing your dialogue, see if you can have your characters talk about one thing when they actually mean another . In this case, the real or deeper meaning should be about the relationship or sexual attraction.

An excellent example of sexual tension and dialogue comes from the movie Phenomenon, starring John Travolta.

The scene takes place outside with Travolta’s character standing next to his romantic interest’s truck. She is sitting inside the truck.

Travolta’s character: “I’d love to get my hands on your carburetor.”
Love interest: “I bet you would.”

Sexual Tension in Symbols

There is also a place for symbols in creating, building, and prolonging sexual tension. Symbols are things like pictures, a piece of clothing or anything else represents the other character or the sexual tension itself. This can be background motifs of spurting fountains, sizzling food, or any other running motif in your story.

The symbol should be story and character specific to be most affective.

Sexual Tension in Settings

Setting can be a wonderful opportunity for developing and showcasing sexual tension in your story. Forcing characters together who are at odds or who are still resisting their sexual tension makes the tension even more potent and immediate.

You can force characters together in lots of different ways with a setting, for example, by locking them in a stalled elevator, a grounded flight, or harnessing them together for a skydiving adventure.

Again, the specific details of the setting and situation depends on your story, the plot and your characters themselves.

Be creative and come up with some original ways to trap your characters together so that their sexual tension can bubble to the surface.

Sexual Tension through Contrast

Contrast is another element of sexual tension in bestselling novels.

There are lots of ways contrast can play out in your story. Below I’ve listed a few of these ways that I hope will help you inject contrast into your narrative:

  • The two characters should be in contrast to each other (values, social standing, opposite sides of a legal battle, etc.)
  • They should also act differently with each other than they do with other people in the story.
  • Their dialogue and manner of speech should be different and varied.
  • Each new scene an expression of sexual tension should be different and in contrast with all the other scenes.
  • If there is a love triangle in your story, the two choices for love interests should be in clear contrast with each other.
  • Setting can be another way to contrast characters or a scene. Consider putting your characters in settings that contrast their sexual tension (or amplify it). depending on your story and characters, this could be a bedroom, a boardroom, or a battlefield.

How To Write Antagonistic Sexual Tension

This special form of sexual tension is sometimes also called belligerent sexual tension. It’s also been referred to, hilariously in my opinion, as Slap-Slap-Kiss .

The idea is that the characters are at odds at first, hence the “slap” the first few times they encounter each other, followed by the kiss of sexual chemistry.

“Wonderful girl! Either I’m gonna kill her, or I’m beginning to like her!” –

Han Solo (said about Princess Leia in A New Hope.

Here is the basic outline of antagonistic sexual tension:

  1. Two characters meet and are at odds (first slap).
  2. The characters meet again and are even more at odds (second, stronger slap).
  3. Repeat the slaps and conflict scenes as many times as makes sense for your story.
  4. The two characters finally get together despite their differences (kiss).

How To Write One-Sided Sexual Tension

Sexual tension can be one-sided.

In this circumstance, only one of the characters is experiencing sexual tension. Typically, we want to be in the POV of the person most affected in the scene, which would probably be the person who is experiencing sexual tension.

For variety and contrast, you might want to consider including at least one scene, but perhaps more, of the point of view of the love interest that’s not experiencing any tension.

Because the readers know that the other character is feeling strong chemistry, they will interpret everything differently than the POV character in these scenes.

This is called “audience superiority” (when the readers know more than the character or characters) and it’s a powerful technique for storytelling.

32 Words and Phrases that Create Instant Sexual Tension (bow chica bow wow)

Now we’re going to drill down to the word and phrase level for writing sexual tension in your stories. Use this list of words and phrases to inspire you at the sentence level.

Make meWanna bet?Stop looking at me like thatWe really shouldn’t…
I’m not sure you can handle itYou wishCan you help me with something in the bedroom?/bathroom?/My apartment?Explode
MmmmmmDid you come? (when not talking about sex)WetHard
I know you want meLet’s find outGuess what I’m wearing?Beg me
I’m laying in bed right nowI wish we weren’t in publicWhat’s in it for me?Prove it
Is that so?Oh reallyYou’re naughtyI just got out of the shower
You’re cute/sexy when you’re angryYou’re troubleI’m so turned onI can’t get you out of my head
I wish you were hereI want to touch/bite/kiss you right nowI had a dream about youI dare you
Created by Christopher Kokoski

Sexual Tension Checklist

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. I really appreciate you sticking around to the end.

Because there’s so many tools and techniques to create chemistry in a story, I wanted to give you a checklist to use when writing.

As you plot, write or rewrite, see if you have included these elements into your story.

Here’s your checklist!

Sexual Tension Checklist

Download a 100% free PDF copy of this checklist below!

Wrap Up

If you made it all the way to end of this article, let me take this opportunity to say thank you. I worked really hard to create this resource for you so that it would be the best information available on how to write sexual tension.

Before you go, check out these other articles that you might also enjoy:

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