The Romantic Tension Recipe

This week I am sharing my secret recipe for my favorite kind of tension- the romantic kind.  I use the term broadly, because while romantic tension may include sexual tension, the best kind of romantic tension is emotional- when we know that that there is no one in the world as right for this character as the other person, and we are emotionally invested in the outcome.

For starters, romantic tension is a combination of sexual tension, emotional tension and external conflicts.  Any one of these types of tension alone is not enough for a reader to care.  A combination of two of the three can work, but when all three are present?  Yowza! 

Start by liberally mixing the three main ingredients to smoking romantic tension:

Sexual Tension:  This is the purely physical.  Handle with extreme caution.  Without emotion or heart, sex can read like a letter to Penthouse, or worse, like a dry anatomy text.  Like the best sex, sexual tension is usually (but not always) better when there has been a slow build up.  A starting place is attraction, sometimes something as small as an awareness of the other person.  Attention to small details or a physical reaction when they walk into a room.  Tension is created by unfulfilled desire. It's the wanting but not being able to have that creates tension.  The act of not touching someone is often sexier than the physical act.

Physical awareness is often stoked by intense feelings or strong emotions, even if those emotions are not always positive.  (Yes, I know, emotional conflict is sneaking in already).  But aren't the sexiest relationships the ones that are layered with emotion?  A girl who is wildly attracted to a guy she's never seen before is far less interesting than the girl who is wildly attracted to the ex-boyfriend she swore she would never forgive, or the girl who is attracted to the guy who is running against her for class president.  (Wait, is that external conflict sneaking in?  Yes, yet it is).  Conflict is sexy.  Emotion is sexy.  Sex is sometimes, but not always, sexy.  Throw in some strong emotions (positive and negative) and external conflict, and chances are the physical attraction will ignite as well.

Emotional Tension:  Developing emotional conflicts among love interests is an excellent way to build romantic tension.  Emotional tension can take many forms, but the heart of emotional tension is a fight against the romance itself.  For example, emotional tension can come from a growing romantic attraction warring against the hero's distrust of relationships.  Or a character who finds herself falling in love with the one person who hurt her badly in the past.  How about a girl who finds herself in love with someone who is otherwise off limits- a teacher, a sister's boyfriend, or her best friend?  Emotional tension is the heart of most romantic stories, and there is something deeply satisfying about that moment when a hero not only stops fighting against the romantic feelings, but starts fighting for them.

External Conflicts:  Montagues and Capulets.  Wars.  Elections.  Contests.  Competing desires.  Macguffins.  You get the picture.  Think Tracy and Hepburn.  External conflict not only helps to drive the story forward and build tension, it gives our characters something to do, something to butt heads over and ultimately something to overcome.  No one wants to watch a movie where two characters sit around and talk about their feelings the whole time do they?  (Okay, sometimes I do want to watch this kind of movie, but most of the time I want some action).   The couple can fight each other, or they can band together, but there should be something for them to fight against.  Something for them to do besides stare at each other moonily (or cross-eyed).  This conflict can be used to put the couple in close proximity and fuel the emotional conflicts.

Mix well.

Now that you have a nice combination of physical attraction, strong emotion and conflicts that feed the other two, sprinkle in a few seasonings that will really make your romantic tension sing:

Great Characters:  Give us some characters we can root for.  They don't have to be particularly gorgeous, likeable or perfect.  They do have to be interesting, engaging and entertaining.  Give us a reason to fall in love with the ourselves, and we will eat up every last bit of the romantic tension.

Humor:  A liberal dose of humor goes a long way in my book.  It's easier to love someone who can make you laugh.  Let your characters banter and flirt.  Humor is a great way to build a rapport between your characters.

Chemistry:  As in life, a romance without chemistry is a friendship.  The physical attraction doesn't need to be a raging inferno, but there needs to be some attraction between the characters beyond a purely emotional one.

Let it Sit:  Remember the slow build?  Yeah, that.  Do not rush these things.  Part of the fun of a great romance is wondering if the couple will ever really be able to be together.  Tension is strongest when it builds on things that have come before.  Can you throw your characters in bed together in the first scene?  Of course you can.  But that should be the start of the conflict, not the end of it.  Readers need something to root for.

What are some things that you think work particularly well to build romantic tension?


Awesome post. Exactly what I needed to read today! THANK YOU!!!

Humor is my favorite of these tips! But really, this whole post is packed full of golden advice!

Great advice - I love building the different kinds of tension between the characters. Adding in those external conflicts can be so much fun! :)

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