It's Wednesday night, and you know what that means! Law & Order: SVU! I don't know about you guys, but I can't get enough of that show. I've been watching it since the day it aired, and I'll be a fan until the day I die. Sundays when I have nothing to do? There's always an SVU marathon to keep me busy. Weeknights? Check. Wednesdays? Glued to my TV for an hour.
But I'm not here to preach to you the wonders of SVU (though you should watch it if you haven't). I'm here to talk to you about sexual tension. SVU just happens to be a great jumping off point.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, SVU is centered around the NYC Special Victims Unit, and the cops that work there. Most prominently, partners Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler. I'm pretty sure 99.9% of fans have been cheering for them since day one, but the nice thing about SVU is that it doesn't dwell on personal relationships. Season 8 deviated from that a bit, and there have been a fair amount of episodes that really showcased the closeness Olivia and Elliot have. But what keeps people coming back, besides the incredible acting, is the sexual tension. Maybe us fans have made it all up, but I don't think so. Because the moment the writers put Olivia and Elliot together, the show is over. I'm expecting it to happen during the final episode, whenever that may be, but until then, I don't want to see it.
But why would it mean the end of the show, you ask? Simple. Because the sexual tension would be gone. The "will they or won't they" question will have been answered, and there would be nothing left to build up to. Having Detective Beck step in for a while helped to increase the sexual tension, and the fact that Elliot's married (when is he going to divorce Kathy again?) creates conflict. All of these obstacles are what drive the show and the Olivia/Elliot relationship.
Or how about Bones? Booth and Bones had constant sexual tension until this last season. As soon as they began to actually acknowledge their feelings for each other, the show began to falter. The writers tried to create more conflict by giving Booth a new love interest, but it wasn't the same, and the fire between him and Bones seems to have flickered. Their story isn't nearly as interesting these days, and I really wish they'd kill off Hannah. Now that the overwhelming issue of their attraction has been addressed, the show doesn't have much to run on.
Another good example is Ballykissangel. The writers created conflict via Father Clifford's profession, so while the viewer knew he was attracted to Assumpta, they knew he couldn't act on his feelings, and vice versa. Thus, sexual tension. As soon as the relationship turned into something real, the show was over.
See a pattern? The thing with sexual tension is that you have to have it to create conflict, which is a driving force behind all storytelling. Once the sexual tension is resolved, the story is generally over. It's a great lesson to take away from television, and I've definitely tried to incorporate it into my own writing. As I begin revisions for SILENCE, I'm taking this particular lesson to heart. I'm adding in much more during the first half of the book, and trying to carry it throughout part two, even with a character being absent. This actually works pretty well, because even with one character missing, the other is constantly working to find him, and to get back the love she's lost.
How about sexual tension in literature? Take TWILIGHT, for example. Edward is initially so hot and cold around Bella that it makes the moment where they become an official couple that much more satisfying. And even after that, the fact that Edward so desperately wants to drink her blood but refuses to let himself creates more sexual tension. Especially because Bella is a horny teenager who wants to consummate their relationship.
HUNGER GAMES. Obvious sexual tension there, caused by the triangle of Katniss, Gale, and Peeta. Having a third party automatically ups the ante. Obviously Peeta was going to win in the end, but there were definitely moments where one wondered if Gale would be a better choice.
Going back to the television theme, how many of you remember the show La Femme Nikita? It is my all-time favorite and, coincidentally, offers the best example of unresolved sexual tension. For those who've seen the show from beginning to end, you'll understand this a bit better, but in case anyone decides to start watching the show, I don't want to spoil anything. The thing about LFN is that the two main characters, Michael and Nikita, are put to the test for five seasons. Just when you think they're going to get together, Section does something to force them apart. Sometimes, it's even their own doing. They're always back and forth with their feelings and loyalties, and it created some of the best sexual tension EVER, as far as I'm concerned. For being a man of so few words, Michael manages to convey his feelings and desires in a mere look, while Nikita is constantly pushing him with heartfelt words and actions. Their obvious differences make it that much more difficult for them to be together, and wondering just how they could ever manage to make it work is a huge driving force of the show. Not to mention the fact that the universe is constantly trying to keep the apart. It's the most genius show ever, and if you want a prime example of sexual tension, look no further.
Think back to some of your favorite shows or books. How were the relationships handled? Once the sexual tension was resolved, did the story have to end? I'd say, in most cases, that's true. As I said, it's obviously an important part of storytelling, and I encourage you to look back at your own work and consider the relationships between characters. Is the tension and conflict there? Is it continuous throughout the story? If it isn't, is there a way to fix it? It's definitely something I've come to pay close attention to these days, and I hope you'll remember to focus on sexual tension the next time you sit down to write. Just like in SVU, good sexual tension will keep readers (or viewers) coming back for more!