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. [Read more…]