As regular readers of this blog know, I’m going on a writer’s cruise in July. I hope some of you will join me!

I’ll be giving two talks and one of them is about Sexual Tension in the Sweet Romance.

I asked my inspirational writer friends for some help and advice for this and in spite of the fact that this is a very talented group of women, I think the lack of response is more about the difficulty of adequately explaining what this is and how to do it. In fact, one respondent said she thought it was a great topic and hoped I’d do an online workshop about it sometime!

Okay, so this morning, I decided to do a little Google research to see what else has been written on this subject. One of the things I found was an interview here where Susan Krinard says that she doesn’t like books that don’t have sexual tension in them so sweet romances wouldn’t appeal to her at all.

Well, I’ve never met Ms. Krinard and I’ve never read any of her books, but checking out her website made me think there are a couple I’d love to read. However, I would like to argue just a bit that because a book is “sweet” doesn’t automatically mean there’s no sexual tension.

To begin, let me just define my terms so we’re all on the same page.

A sweet romance is a story about a man and a woman’s relationship where there is no unmarried sex and certainly no sex “onstage.” I’d like to divide sweet romances into two types:

  1. Inspirationals – these are, for lack of a better, less cumbersome definition, Christian romance. Now someone can email me or comment that there are Jewish romances and/or Muslim romances or even Wiccan romances, but I’ve never seen them and I don’t believe they make up a large part of the market. If I’m wrong, and you have evidence of that I’ll stand corrected, but for the purpose of this essay and just to make things simpler, I’m going to stick to my statement.
    • Inspirationals are books where a couple’s relationship with God plays an important role in the romance. These can be the story of one partner’s conversion, but that’s not necessary or even, nowadays, the norm. Often God, and a Christian world view, with all the moral code that goes with that, is part of the people’s lives and they live out their faith and values fully onstage.
    • By virtue of this, there is no sex in these books because sex before marriage is a sin and modesty is important. These characters are people and their private lives remain private.
  2. Secular romances – To put it simply, these are books where a faith element isn’t prominent but there is still no sex scenes “visible” to the readers.

Okay, all that said, the question then becomes, “Well, if you’re not going to show sex, how can there be sexual tension?”

My answer to that is, “Without sex, all you’re left with is sexual tension.”

All romances have sexual tension if they are successful. I add these last few words because I’ve read a few books labeled romances where the couple was together, even married, in the beginning of the book, and there was no real conflict between them.

So, you’re asking, “Are you saying that sexual tension is conflict?”

Yes and No.

The major conflict in your book should NOT be the sexual tension. In another post I’ll deal with what conflict ia and how it works.

However, the sexual tension can add to the conflict. Almost always, the hero and heroine in a romance are not looking for a relationship and in addition, a relationship will only wreck his/her plans, so the sexual tension serves to keep the conflict going.

Again, I want to emphasize that sexual tension shouldn’t be the only or even a major part of the conflict, especially in a sweet romance.

Now, sexual tension is tough to define but easy to show.

You may remember the TV show Moonlighting, with Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepard. This was a romantic comedy about private detectives but for me, and for most people, I’m willing to bet, the detective work was secondary. I watched the show because (1) Okay, I’ll admit it, I thought Bruce Willis was cute and (2) because of the sexual tension between the two characters.

For about four seasons, David Addison (Bruce) and Maddie Hayes (Cybil) bantered back and forth, flirting, moving together and pulling back.

That is sexual tension in all it’s glory. We, as viewers, waited, almost breathlessly, to see if their relationship would move to the next level.

As a side note, I believe that when the writers took the relationship to the next level (because Cybil Shepard was pregnant in real life), and the sexual tension was broken, the show began to decline. No longer were we, the viewers, intrigued with the question, “Will they or won’t they?”

The same kind of scenario went on with Cheers, especially during the Sam and Diane years. Sam and Rebecca had some tension when Kirstie Alley took over for Shelley Long, but they didn’t have the same chemistry that Sam and Diane did. And if you think about it, even though Sam and Diane got together, the writers were smart enough to pull them apart and allow the flirting to continue.

Now that we have examples of sexual tension, you probably want a definition.

Sexual tension is simply, awareness and anticipation.

We are in the “showing, not telling” business. You can’t just tell your readers, “She wanted him. She wanted him bad.”

Show that she did, but remember in a sweet romance it’s not about tearing off his clothes and tossing him into bed. It’s about emotions, love, slow seduction.

Focus on the emotions, not the physical, although the physical is important. Just be careful not to get too graphic in the physical. For sweet romance, stay above the shoulder and in the head. Below that area, the physical reactions tend to get graphic and beyond the boundaries of “sweet.”

One tool to help in knowing how to build sexual tension is the Twelve Steps of Intimacy. I’ve linked where I found this list, but you can find it on many sites. I’m adding my own notes to the list.


1. Eye to Body – This is the fist time your characters see each other. This is a fairly “safe” place, but it is the beginning of an awareness of one another. Pretty self-explanatory.

2. Eye to Eye – This is where your characters actually become aware of one another. Eyes are important, and generally this kind of contact occurs very early in the book, probably immediately after #1.

3. Voice to voice – This is obviously a simple step and very casual. Through these three steps, we haven’t reach a high degree of intimacy. It’s possible that our characters, while they are aware of one another at this step, may not be attracted to one another or even realize that their paths will cross again. This is how we deal with most of the people we come into contact with on a daily basis.

4. Hand to Hand – This is the place where things begin to heat up. The touch of skin on skin is intimate and requires a sense of trust. This touch can leave a lasting awareness. There’s a scene in Pride and Prejudice – the 2005 version. Mr. Darcy helps Lizzie into a carriage. They touch hands. As he walks away, the camera focuses on his hand which he flexes and at that moment, you know that he is very aware of Lizzie and could still feel her presence.

5. Arm to Shoulder – This is not a casual contact, but it is non-threatening. Friendship is implied at this point, and from this point things change. Even if the embrace is a form of comfort in a tough, emotional situation, something changes because of it. The relationship has moved from casual to close.

Up to this point, our couple could go their separate ways with no real pain or loss. However, enough has changed that if the relationship continues, separation is harder and will cause increasing pain as the steps progress.

A line has been crossed at this point, and expectations have begun.

When you’re writing a sweet romance, or I venture to say, any romance, take your time with the emotions. Explore and show us what she’s feeling, what he’s feeling and their emotional state now and immediately after the contact.

Without sex scenes to take up pages, you have the time and space to heighten the emotional stakes in your book.

6. Arm to Waist – This is a higher level of trust needed for this act and it is also a sign of protectiveness or even a sign of possession. If the act isn’t rebuffed, those signs are accepted and agreed to. Feelings escalate here.

7. Mouth to Mouth – This is as far as sweet romances go, and in the words of an Avalon editor, “We go as far as kissing but not tongues.” Now this step does mark as significant step in the heightening sexual tension, instead of releasing it. Our couple will generally be shaken by their responses and probably take a step back.

8. Hand to Head – I will include this step because I think this one and the previous one can go together without slipping out of the sweet romance boundaries. This contact increases the intimacy of a kiss.


I will list the rest of the steps just for your information, but understand these never appear in a sweet romance.

9. Hand to BodyGenerally, a body part that is not exposed in public.

10. Mouth to Breast

11. Hand to Genital

12. Genital to Genital


Think about how you felt when you were first dating. The anticipation of HIM coming to pick you up for your first date or the anticipation of that first kiss. Those are the feelings you want to explore and expand on to show us the sexual tension in your story.

Remember, sweet romances may not have sex scenes, but there MUST be sexual tension. Our couples are humans and humans are sexual beings. Regardless of their convictions or values, they will still feel those emotions and reactions. Don’t cheat them or the readers, but remember to respect their modesty!

Have fun and get your book written. The world is waiting!