Please welcome Michael Mohr to WU today, to talk about something that may be in most of our books, at least to some degree: sexual tension. A little about Michael, from his bio:
Michael is a Bay Area writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in the following: Adelaide Literary Magazine; Bethlehem Writers’ Roundtable; Freedom Fiction Journal; Full of Crow; Fiction Magazines; Tincture; Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine; Aaduna; MacGuffin; Gothic City Press; Alfie Dog Press; Milvia Street; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest, The Kimberley Cameron & Associates [literary agency] blog; the San Francisco Writers Conference Newsletter; Writer Unboxed and MASH.
Sexual Tension in Fiction
There are many different genres of novel– literary; mystery; thriller; suspense; sci-fi; fantasy; romance; crime; young adult; etc.– and sub-genres which sprout from underneath each genre. Then there are, generally speaking, two major types of novel: Plot-driven and character-driven. One, plot-driven, as is implied, generally follows a strong plot, in the Joseph Campbell descent-into-hell-and-return, James Scott Bell two-pillars of story structure mold. There is exposition. A protagonist who wants something and faces major hurdles. Rising action and conflict. A climax. Falling action. A beginning, middle, and end. Lee Child. John Grisham. Anne Perry. This is a grotesque oversimplification but I do this for the sake of brevity.
The second type is the character-driven novel. This is more in the vein of—dare I say it and risk sounding pompous—“literature.” These novels—Hemingway, James Baldwin, Paul Auster, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Stephanie Danler, Emma Cline, etc—seek more to understand their characters and the world around them; they seek, ergo, to attempt to grasp the concept of meaning and existence, or at least to explore those ideas. In other words: Entertainment serves the story, instead of the story serving entertainment. The “mystery” (nature of existence) and “manners” (psychology of human behavior) that Flannery O’ Connor sought to explore.
It’s not that one type is superior to the other. Really, it is a matter of preference and audience. And there are audiences for both. And reasons for both. Of course, some writers beautifully sit right on the fence between the two. Bay Area authors David Corbett (The Mercy of the Night) and Joe Clifford (Lamentation) both come to mind here.
But no matter what type of novel you write, or what genre or subgenre it may fall into, one technique is crucial for both, in order to force readers to care and keep reading: The utilization of sexual tension.
There are two novels I read recently which stand out in this regard. One, Another Country (James Baldwin), was published in 1962, and the other, Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)was published in 2010. Though nearly 50 years separates these two literary, character-driven novels (which both do contain plot, though clearly the characters and their social and internal explorations and revelations are more important in these books than the plot itself) they contain one identical writing technique: They use sexual tension expertly.
In both novels, almost every single character is somehow, in some way, involved sexually with another character, or if they’re not, they want to be involved sexually with another character. Often the character they want to be sexually involved with is, in some manner, forbidden. This pushes said desirous character into an emotional or moral state of internal panic. In Another Country a female character, Cass, who is married to Richard, feels emotionally abandoned by her husband and so seeks out another male, Eric, who is bisexual and freshly back from Paris. Eric is friends with Richard. And yet he desires his wife, Cass. That desire is hinted at but never acted on. Until the right time arrives.
(Spoiler Alert. If you have not read Freedom, be aware.)
In Freedom, one of the main characters, Patty, has a sort of pseudo love triangle going on early in the book, with Walter, and his rock-and-roll college buddy, Richard. Later, she falls for and marries Walter. But part of her still yearns, internally and secretly, for Richard, who remains Walter’s close friend. Finally, deep into the 576-page behemoth of a novel, Richard and Patty have the opportunity and sleep together. But the sexual tension leading up to that point is a major contributor to caring about these characters and their story.
Cheryl St. John, in her book, Writing with Emotion, Tension and Conflict, says, “Tension is always about a questionable outcome. Deprive the character, and therefore the reader, of a satisfactory resolution, until the very end. Waiting always makes something more desirable. Use elements of surprise and keep the reader on her toes. Make every scene immediate.”
If your novel feels a bit slow, dry, not electric and thrumming with emotional intensity, try adding in sexual tension. I guarantee, if done right, it will make your prose sing like a well-oiled machine. Donald Maass, WU contributor and respected literary agent and writing How-To author, says in his book Writing 21st Century Fiction, “When you create in your reader an unconscious apprehension, anxiety, worry, question, or uncertainty, then the reader will unconsciously seek to relieve that uneasiness. And there’s only one way to do that: Read the next thing on the page.”
Returning to Another Country and Freedom, in both cases there is much inner turmoil and moral panic when it comes to the characters’ choices to seek others sexually. Cass, in Country, and Patty, in Freedom, are both married women who love their respective husbands and yet deep down they feel neglected and want more. And in both cases the men they seek are friends with their husbands. This creates interior tension, that internal/external conflict which, like two twigs rubbed together, creates fire. And fire drives the story forward, increases our empathy and interest, and makes us care. This is why we watch Madmen or Glow or Friends (to use outdated but still relevant examples).
James Scott Bell in his famous, Plot & Structure says, “…Pack your scenes with tension. How? Primarily through the writer’s best friend: conflict. When two characters with opposing agendas meet, you have built-in tension.” On the next paragraph Bell adds, “Even scenes with allies—two characters who agree on a goal—should have tension. Otherwise you’ll end up with dull exchanges of informational dialogue.”
So, when adding effective sexual tension to your novel, try a few of these techniques.
- Create forbidden sexual desire. A married man desires a much younger married woman. Or a married woman desires a much older married man. Or, walk away from the more conventional stereotypes and try something else. Maybe a married man has a desire for a much younger male. A married woman for a woman. Etc. Get creative. Surprise your readers.
- Have characters interact and yet do not have them act or speak directly about their sexual desire for each other, or don’t have one character express his/her sexual desire for the other. Instead, show, through subtle, hinted actions, their desire. Also, go into the characters’ interior lives and tell us or show us how they desire the other character. Internal/external conflict or dissonance is key. The idea that a character says one thing while thinking its opposite: This increases the emotional tension and adds to that friction which drives the story. All the while their desire for each other, or one character’s desire for another, should slowly be rising.
- Don’t allow characters to clash and sleep together after one scene. Stretch. Again, in Freedom, and in Another Country, some of the characters’ sexual desires last and are unfulfilled for hundreds of pages. Literally. Sexual tension is one the strongest methods for drawing readers to a text and holding their interest. Especially for character-driven literary fiction, where you’re often trying to explore deep themes of morality, mortality, existence, and meaning, you’ll be able to wander off the main path much more (though not too much) when using effective sexual tension, because we need to know if Patty and Richard or Cass and Eric are finally going to get together or not, and what might happen as a result. Get readers closer, closer, closer, but keep holding back. One of the tricks of suspense writing is to start an intense action scene, hook us in, and then slow time down, forcing us to read through the rest to get to the end result. Slowing time down after you’ve hooked a reader in can actually, paradoxically, increase the tension. In the same way, over the course of the novel, draw out the sexual tension and desire. Get us very close, slow time, and then yank us away again, then come back later. Play with us like a cat with a mouse. But make sure you give us our mouse eventually. We need resolution.
- Make sure it’s clear how morally confused the characters feel. This goes back to the first point, creating forbidden desire. Especially if the character is married, you don’t want to risk losing readers due to the characters’ actions being unethical. At the same time, characters, mirroring real human beings, are complex. They do stupid things. They make mistakes. They have complicated motivation and wounding and back-story. They feel a spectrum of emotion when anything major happens. Use both technique writing (drawing your characters’ feelings and desires from your own life experience), and method writing (placing yourself in the shoes of the character you’ve created, seeing if you can fully understand what they are going through/experiencing).
- Create more friction by creating characters who are sexually drawn to each other and are not only involved with other people but do not like each other. One character might loathe another character, might not respect them at all. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be sexually drawn to that character. Or, perhaps better yet: have one character desire and chase another character who doesn’t desire the first character, but then over the course of the novel have the desirous character seduce the other. You can play with this endlessly. Don’t be afraid to have your protagonist and/or multiple POV characters desire more than one other character and for multiple reasons. Think Murakami’s The Windup Bird Chronicle. Same with Freedom, and same in Another Country.
Have fun with sexual tension. Read books such as Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler, The Girls by Emma Cline, Cherry by Mary Karr (memoir), John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s This is the Part Where you Laugh, Another Country by James Baldwin, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and many other novels (and memoir) and really focus in on their use of sexual tension and how that draws you in and holds you there, making you want to know what will happen next. Making you need to know.
Now practice on your own novel or story.
Have tips or observations on sexual tension in fiction? Over to you.