Steam and Simmer, Part Three: Sexual Tension

The recap:

I taught a class at LDStorymakers 2016 called, “Steam and Simmer: Writing Sexual Tension without Crossing the Line.” People asked for notes from the class or for me to post my power point for download, but I thought it might be better for me to convert my power point into something a little more coherent (considering they would not also be able to download me to explain it). 

To see Part One and my thoughts on “the line,” go here. WARNING: that post is more of a theoretical discussion about whether or not it’s okay for LDS writers to include sex in fiction and not so much practical writing advice. For that, keep reading this post.

To see Part Two, which contains a few thoughts on romantic tension, go here.

Now let’s talk about what you all came here looking for: how to write sexual tension.

First, remember that attraction has nothing to do with how objectively beautiful someone is. Novels are filled to the brim with people who are so pretty they don’t know what to do with themselves, and I think it’s a little silly. Your characters don’t have to be insanely beautiful people for their relationship to  sizzle. Attraction is nothing more than how desirable one character finds another, regardless of popular opinion.

Now, let’s get down to it.

The basic building blocks of sexual tension consist of two things. First, your characters must notice each other (observation). Then they have to be affected by what they’ve noticed.

Human beings center our orbits on the things we desire. We live our normal lives, but we’re always aware of The Thing We Want Desperately. We think about it, daydream, try to accidentally run into it at its work, etc. The desire for that thing colors our thoughts, actions, and interactions with other people. Characters who desire each other should be hyper-aware of their love interest at all times, especially when he or she is present. Make sure when your characters are noticing each other that they aren’t just seeing–use all the senses. And if you’re intertwining your romantic tension well, you’ll also have them notice non-physical things like talent and intellect.

The other half of making observations is reacting. Unless you’re depicting a relationship that’s purely physical, make sure your characters react emotionally to each other as well as physically. It takes both types of reactions to build good sexual tension.

In class, I used examples from contemporary romance novels to show you what I mean when I say observation/reaction. Because I’m not sure what the rules are, I don’t know what or if I can share of other peoples’ works of fiction on the internet. So you’re stuck with mine. Sorry! Here’s a notice/reaction moment from my book, Soul of Smoke.

“Rhys!” He still didn’t turn. Kai marched over and inserted herself between him and the wall.

Mistake. She knew it as soon as he looked down, his surprised, electric gaze locking first on her eyes, then her lips. The scant inches of air between their bodies grew so hot Kai expected it to spark and steam. Her breath caught. This close, he took up the world. 

In that example we see Kai, my female MC, notice that Rhys, my male MC noticing her (which is totally a legit thing when you write sexual tension). She also observes how close they are. Then she reacts, first physically with a hitch in her breathing (yes, yes, it’s a cliche, but this was my first book) then emotionally with the feeling that he takes up the world.

This is one of several observation/reaction moments in this scene. Which brings me to one of my main points. Sexual tension isn’t a complex construct, it’s as simple as stacking these moments on top of each other and steadily raising the stakes. And by that I don’t mean you have to get more explicit. I’ve been told this is a pretty steamy scene, and you know what? They barely touch. That’s another important thing about sexual tension. It comes from the things characters DON’T do, not what they do. I’ll talk about this more later, but doing can often diminish sexual tension.

Now let’s talk about the stages of physical intimacy.


Author Linda Howard has talked about 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy (CONTENT WARNING), but because I was teaching at LDStorymakers, I wanted to keep the discussion at PG-13 or lower. So I compressed Linda Howard’s 12 stages into my own eight stages.

1. Eye to eye/eye to body

The characters see each other. They start to notice things about each other. Keep in mind that what they notice is important and reveals a lot about their character. Do they see a smile, or mile long legs?

2. Voice to voice

The characters speak to each other.

3. Platonic touch

This includes hand to hand or hand to arm. It’s the completely non-sexual way you’d touch pretty much any other human being on the planet.

4. Flirtatious touch/Intimate platonic touch

This includes putting an arm around the shoulders, touching the waist, touching the small of the back, and a woman putting her hand on a man’s chest. We do touch our friends this way, but generally only the ones we’re very close with. This is can also be a confusing stage for characters–they might not be sure if their love interest has their arm draped around them because they like them or because they like them.

5. Romantic touch

This includes a hand to the face or back of the neck. Unless you’re a parent wiping food off of your kid (or, as was pointed out in class, you’re slapping someone), we don’t touch other people’s faces often. It’s a very intimate act. Generally if there’s face touching it’s closely followed by…

6. Kissing

In my opinion, this covers everything from a peck to hardcore making out. As long as hands aren’t wandering anywhere normally covered by underwear, you’re still in stage 6.

7. Sexual touch

This is the wandering hands (and/or mouths) stage. It’s pretty broad, but I’ll spare you the details, as this is a post aimed at LDS authors. Most adults are well aware of the goings-on of this stage.

8. Sex


So, how do you go about applying these things?

Pace your story according to the stage you want your characters to reach. If you’re writing a clean romance that builds up to a kiss, your characters are going to spend a lot of the book really wanting to touch but not touching. Clean romance is about 98% not touching. But if you build up the tension right with your observation/reaction building blocks, well-rounded characters, and a well-intertwined romantic plot, people will be just as satisfied by the kiss at the end as they are by other books that go a lot further.

Basically, choose the stage you want to get to and spend the book putting the characters through what I’ll call “the Cycle of Almosts,” increasing the magnitude of their observations and reactions over the course of the book.


  1. Give your characters a taste of what they could have.
  2. Allow life/plot/a person (including the characters themselves) to interrupt.
  3. The taste has left them addicted. Their resistance to the romance drops and/or their desire for each other increases.
  4. Give them a little more.
  5. Interrupt them again.
  6. Desire increases again. Emotions deepen.
  7. Repeat indefinitely, raising the magnitude of the interactions and romantic/character stakes as the story goes on.

Or, more simply:

Cycle of almosts

This is the cycle that makes readers go

baby book reading interested lesson

And authors go

smiling smirk grinch smiley

Remember, once characters–and readers–get what they’re after, much of the sexual tension disappears. Generally speaking, the longer you make your characters wait (within reason) the more satisfying the payoff is for readers.

Every time your romantically involved characters have a moment, let them move up a stage or show that they’ve become more emotionally invested. The quicksand of love has sucked them a little deeper and they’re finding it harder and harder to escape.

You can extend readers’ tolerance of tension by sprinkling little micro-payoffs throughout the story–say a scene where the characters hold hands or have a moment of romantic connection. In other words, a scene where the MOMENT in the cycle above is allowed to play out. Never enough to satisfy, just enough to whet readers’ appetites and give them hope.

Just beware of making readers wait too long. If you do, payoff can feel anticlimactic. Tension can be overdone.

Well, that pretty much covers the things I talked about in my class except the different heat levels of romance, a concept thoroughly and humorously covered here (CONTENT WARNING). If you attended the class, this is the article I adapted examples from. There’s also a less humorous but just as informative article here with a slightly different take on heat levels. They’re useful if you plan to write contemporary adult romance, but I don’t know that you’d need them otherwise.

There were things I came across in my research that I didn’t have time to share in class, like a more detailed breakdown of the romantic plot and a hard look at the meet-cute (the scene in which the love interests meet for the first time). I think I’ll call that last bit Part Four and post it sometime soon. Until then, thanks for reading! I hope it was helpful! If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me on Facebook or Twitter, or email me at

About Caitlyn McFarland

Mom of three girls, writer of fantasy novels.
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11 Responses to Steam and Simmer, Part Three: Sexual Tension

  1. Pingback: Steam and Simmer, Part Two: Romantic Tension | Caitlyn H. McFarland

  2. So helpful, thank you!

  3. leahgarriott says:

    Well written. Thanks Caitlyn!

  4. Hayley Hess-Beaumont says:

    Thanks so much for posting all this info. I attended your Friday class and really appreciated the presentation, but was bummed that you didn’t get to cover all the information you had prepared. Very helpful information, thanks for doing all the hard work and research.

    • Thank you for coming to my class! I was bummed, too. And I was really nervous/highly caffeinated on Friday, so I didn’t get to nearly as much relevant info as I did when they let me teach again on Saturday. I’m glad the posts were helpful! I’m going to try and blog about writing a little more regularly from now on.

  5. Great posts, Caitlyn! Thank you for sharing. Are you still planning to post Part 4?

    • Hi Laura! I’m glad it was helpful! Yes! I do plan on posting part four. My WIP and real life got in my way, but I’m going to make it a goal to post again in the next couple of days.

  6. So glad you did these posts since I’d wished you’d been able to do more in the Friday class! These are great and I’m looking forward to part 4!

  7. KGreenwood says:

    Dying laughing at the gifs – but this is SO true!!!! Thanks for posting!

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