Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sexual Tension

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!


  1. LOL I didn't think anyone remembered La Femme Nikita! Oh, memories...

    Great points about keeping tension going--haven't they shown that when two characters finally do get together (ie Ross and Rachel style) that ratings drop? Funny--the viewer or reader just wants to see the two get together...but loses interest when they finally do. We like the chase!

  2. LFN was, and remains to this day, the best show to ever grace a television screen. I am SO glad someone else remembers that show!

  3. Samantha writes:

    "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."

    Which is basically true, but I think it takes a too-narrow view of tension and conflict in narrative writing. Sadly, it is a narrow view that is overly embraced (and thus fostered) by commercial television writing.

    It's true that once the tension (or any other source of conflict) is resolved, the tension and its attendent drama goes away. And thus, you can't use that to hook the reader anymore.

    But why does that have to be the end of the show (or the novel)?

    No reason I can think of.

    It doesn't _have_ to be the end of the show. It's only the end of the show if the writers haven't been creative enough to imbue the show with _multiple_ sources of core conflict.

    Basically, they've created shows that are "one trick ponies" and once the pony does its trick (ahem!), there's little more you can do.

    I think it's fine to let your characters get together and resolve the sexual tension, as long as:

    * you're doing it at an intelligent place in the novel. That is, don't let them hook up simply because your story is sagging and you think that'll spice it up. Do it because it's the natural thing for those characters to do at that point in their lives.
    * you have already established one or more additional sources of _significant_ conflict or tension that can carry the story forward.

    Indeed, depending on what else is going on in your novel, getting the love-interests together may be a brilliant move: by taking formerly independent actors and turning them into a deeply emotional _unit_ within the story, they each implicitly take on some measure of each other's stakes. Whatever was formerly threatening one character is, suddenly, that much more important to the other character too. If you do it right, that additional level of emotional bonding between characters can actually ratchet up the tension arising from other parts of the story.

    Lesson of the day: if you want to have your sexual tension and eat it too (as it were), don't write a story that's a one-trick pony.

  4. Ha! Thanks you! My sister-in-law and I are fighting about this (with Bones). I am firmly against them getting together or anywhere close to each other because then it's all over (I agree it's faltering). Let's just say she doesn't agree.

    Jason may be right that the story doesn't *have* to end when the tension characters get together, but you're right in that it pretty much signals the end.

    The Office managed to pull it off, but (as Jason mentioned) they shifted the focus from Jim and Pam to the rest of the office characters.

    I'm interested in *how* you even write tension. In my writing it's either over-wrought or so subtle that only I can see it. Arg.

  5. 1. DIE HANNAH

    2. The tension in my book is killing me. I like makeout scenes. They're fun. I'm at 28k and I do not have one. I'm going to have a brain aneurysm soon XD

  6. Jason: I think you're right. Ending the sexual tension doesn't have to mean the death of a show (or book) -- it just often does. To be honest, I like watching the chase more, so I tend to lose interest once the conflict's been resolved. But there are definitely instances where that isn't true.

    Theemptypen: You're welcome! I think Booth and Bones should've left well enough alone until the series came to an end. Because right now it's just ridiculous and a mess and uninteresting.
    There's definitely a fine line when writing sexual tension. I think mine tends to lean more toward the obvious side, but there are definitely some older stories I've written where I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who knew it was there. I think you just have to be very conscious of what you're writing and how you would respond in a similar situation. I feel you get a more realistic response that way!

    Laina: YES. Hannah needs to go away. Now.

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