Will They/Won’t They

Last Friday, I wrote about love triangles, and how more often than not, your novel will need one. Love triangles represent conflict and choice, even when they’re not about romance, so I deem them necessary. But, this made me consider another often-used romantic element – sexual tension. Maybe I’ve been watching too much X-Files lately, but I wonder where sexual tension falls on the Necessary scale in literature.

We’ve certainly seen sexual tension in books. All romance novels have it, for example, and it’s used within love triangles themselves in pretty much every genre. The question isn’t whether it exists, or even why it exists. In fact, the only question ever associated with sexual tension is – Will they or won’t they? The “why” never matters.

The Will They/Won’t They question intrigues me for two reasons:
1) It implies that the fate of an entire story arc rests on one question.
2) Rarely do we consider what, exactly, we want to happen (or not happen). Will they or won’t they kiss? Have sex? End up in a relationship? Fall in love?

On this second point, some might argue that there is no clear difference between these things when it comes to fiction, or that it doesn’t really matter. I argue against that.

If I may quote a show I quote all the time, Cordelia Chase says of one Xander Harris: “Okay, it isn’t even like I was that attracted to Xander, it was more just that we kept being put in these life or death situations and that’s always all sexy and stuff.”

It sure is, Cordy. Which is why I don’t understand why, in this post-Mulder and Scully, post-Sam and Diane, post-Moonlighting world, we are still bombarded with Will They/Won’t They plot lines.

Literary mystery writer, Tana French, features male and female police partners in her novel In the Wood. In my opinion, there wasn’t a whole lot of chemistry between the two, at least not an overwhelming amount, but they still (spoiler alert) end up in bed together. Do they fall in love after? No. Do they even really explore the possibility of a relationship? Not so much. Basically sex just made sense at that moment in the novel, so they had it. Just like Xander and Cordy (who didn’t have sex, but rather “groped in broom closets” but you get the idea).

I think this is a realistic view of sexual tension, albeit an anti-climactic one. There’s far less at stake if you kill the tension too soon, or don’t have tension at all. Charlaine Harris does this well with Sookie and Eric in the southern vampire mystery series. If you haven’t read them, True Blood handles their relationship similarly to the books. Sookie is mostly with Bill, but there’s just something about Eric that Sookie sees beneath his “evil.” They flirt, but nothing really happens between them… for a couple books anyway. The tension lasted enough to spark interest, but wasn’t drawn out so long that the reader got bored.

Even so, the more I watch the X-Files, the more I think of Cordelia’s original hypothesis. If you’re with the same person every single day, and you are clearly attracted to each other, and you are more-often-than-not in adrenaline-pumping situations, chances are you’re probably going to at least make out with that person. Even if it’s just out of “Yay! We weren’t killed by aliens!” relief.

I understand that “realistic” isn’t always the most fun option, and who doesn’t love good banter and flirting? Still, as much as I love the anticipation and frustration and the edge-of-my-seat-oh-my-god-just-kiss-already!, I developed a bit of a complex about sexual tension after the ungodly disappointment of casually seeing Josh and Donna literally laying in a bed together on The West Wing, as if it were an afterthought. We waited seven years and we don’t even get to watch them go at it? Sorry, but kissing while a door shuts on them was not enough. Ugh.ย 

There’s a fear, I think, that once the couple in question kiss, the series loses it’s momentum, which is why we had to wait until the bitter end for Josh and Donna to kiss. It’s also why we’re still waiting for Castle and Beckett to admit their feelings for each other, and for Booth and Brennen to just admit that David Boreanaz was hotter as Angel. (Wait, what? I got sidetracked… anyway!)

The only real answer to the Will They/Won’t They question I care about is whether the characters will fall in love. Flirting, kissing, sex… those all have their place and are important, but falling in love takes a much greater risk. Likewise, the risk is just as great for the writer who chooses not to make their characters fall in love. (Note: This does not apply to YA in the same way. The kiss or the sex likely is the defining moment, as it should be, so the characters are free to flirt their way to “the big moment” all they want.)

Even after characters “get together” (in whatever way the writer wants it to mean), I’d still keep watching/reading in anticipation of something more to happen between the two characters. Where else are they going to take this relationship, and what conflicts will ensue while they wrestle with their feelings, and not just their hormones? Characters are allowed to still be interesting after they kiss. And personally, I prefer living in a world – both real and imagined – where a greater emphasis is placed on love rather than sex. (Except for Sookie and Eric, which, uh… well, read the books!)

This is one of my blog posts that have no real conclusion. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about. What do you all think? Do you write sexual tension in your fiction? What do you think its role is in terms of creating a strong romance? Is it necessary?

I know I focused more on TV here, but let me know if there are any other good examples in literature I should check out. (Not Elizabeth and Darcy, please!)

12 thoughts on “Will They/Won’t They

  1. Unfortunately, it does seem as though many television shows lose their momentum once the two will-they-or-won't-they characters get together. Meredith and Derek were more interesting before they committed to each other. So were Niles and Daphne. It's a shame, because what happens after they admit their love should be just as interesting, if not more so.

    Additionally, so many films wait until the VERY end to have the characters get together/kiss/etc. I always think “Sleepless in Seattle” would be interesting if you got to see how the two characters deal with this new relationship that they've both idealized in their heads. I like films that explore relationships – “Annie Hall” is a favorite.

    I think novels generally do a better job of going through the ups and downs of relationships. I absolutely love “The Thorn Birds”; Meggie and Ralph have a push-pull throughout most of the novel, get together when they “shouldn't”, separate, reconnect… etc.


  2. Lorie! I was going to say Outlander by Diana Gabaldon too! The sexual tension in that novel is amazing, the sex itself is amazingly written, and yet, we have no idea what will happen between those characters throughout the novel (and the next novel, and the next novel!). Loved, loved, LOVED every minute of that series (and she's working on book eight right now)! ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. Great Post, and I definitely like your point about the fear that the resolution of the Sexual Tension will mean the end. It's a delicate balance that I think is more difficult in TV since Shows tend to run longer than a lot of book series (obvious exceptions like “True Blood” and “Dresden Files” aside triologies are still the format I'm most used to/drawn to). For instance on one hand when Jim and Pam finally got together on The Office I cheered and I was relieved because any longer apart would have damaged that relationship and the credible realism of the show. But also I would be lying if I said I was as completely invested in the Office after they got together as I was when their love was unresolved, and NBC has since tried to substitue other couples in their place, but, in my opinion, no one can top their original couple. However, the thing that drives me crazy is when they have to break up a couple and put them back together eighty thousand times to try to preserve some sexual tension (I'm looking at you Glee).

    In fiction my favourite kind of sexual tension is when they get together after a reasonable amount of time, but some other type of external conflict keeps them apart. To pick an example out of YA, Rachel Hawkins' “Hex Hall” series, much of the tension of book one is resolved in a very steamy cellar scene which resolves into the charactes being seperated because it turns out they belong on opposing sides in a war. Or in Deanna Raybourn's “Silent in the Grave” series, the widowed Victorian Lady and the sexy half gypsy detective are kept apart by the (perceived) constraints of Victorian Society. I like when once “Will they/won't they” resolves, the stakes for the couple being together get bigger and more life/death.


  4. For me, if an author can express that sexual tension between two characters to the point that I'm flying through the pages just to find out if they end up together (which is 'in love' for me too, Sarah) then I'm a happy reader. OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon comes to mind–even after Claire and Jamie are married and have sex you still can't wait to find out if they're going to learn to trust each other and fall in love. That's not to say I don't need a strong external plot as well. The balance of the internal/relationship conflict and the external conflict (the aliens or Red Coats or whatever may get to us before we can get our emotional act together) is the magic formula to a great novel. Just my opinion of course. ๐Ÿ™‚


  5. Like any kind of tension, sexual tension is necessary on the literary scale dependant upon its resolution. Sarah, you and many of your commenters complained about the resolution of the tension in many of the television shows mentioned. The reason the resolution in those shows didn't work is because we didn't see how the sex developed the characters . . .for good or bad. Some television believes the tension is how they hook their audience, which is why Clark and Lana, or Clark and Lois on Smallville flip-flop so much. Or even maybe Penny and Leonard on the Big Bang Theory. Those writers don't realize the audience would much rather the characters develop into something else rather than go back to the sexual tension (which isn't quite the same).
    Anyway, sexual tension is fun, but the good authors use it to develop a character, not as you put it–a cheap gimmick.


  6. Ugh, this post brought up a lot of angst I have over some of my favorite characters from television. First of all, I admit I don't write sexual tension well, but I do enjoy watching it. X-Files and West Wing happen to be two of my top five favorite shows, and the Mulder/Scully and Donna/Josh fiascos made my heart hurt, the both of them. Having Mulder and Scully just happen to be living together and sleeping together years later in IWTB was such a cop out, and I about threw something at the TV when seeing Josh and Donna in bed, because yes, after SEVEN SEASONS it just wasn't enough – especially since we knew it was coming. Ugh. I don't have a point to this comment really, other than to say I agree with you.


  7. Aw, I love Booth and Brennan! They're driving me crazy, but they're awesome. Also, if you watch Doctor Who, the Doctor and basically… everyone. ๐Ÿ˜› Mostly Rose and River, though.

    In terms of books… hmm… Gemma and Kartik, perhaps?


  8. Nice post!

    When I was younger, I was an anti-shipper. I did not want Mulder and Scully together. But rewatching it as an adult, I can see how emotionally manipulative that was–and felt palpably relieved when I saw the latest movie and it wasn't even a question.

    That, and other shows like Fringe which still manage to build plenty of drama into their shows even when The Big Question is answered, have illustrated to me that it's not necessary to string audiences via gimmicks like that.


  9. Excellent post. The so-called “Moonlighting Effect” makes me so mad because it's such a cop out. Too many TV writers use “well look what happened with Moonlighting or Cheers” as an excuse to avoid having to keep the characters true to form while navigating a romantic relationship. Like you said, what happens after is just as (and sometimes even more) intriguing as the build up. And the relationship is absolutely more important than the sex.

    I think sexual tension is important in developing a romantic relationship in any work of fiction because it's almost like an ideal to strive for. Sexual tension means that there's a significant amount of passion bubbling just below the surface, and who doesn't want more passion?

    As for literary sexual tension, I love Thursday and Landen in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series (starts with “The Eyre Affair”), which is a must-read for anyone who loves books. It's classified as sci-fi/fantasy (at Powell's, anyway), but you don't have to be a sci-fi nerd to love it. On the classic side, I'd go with Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in “Persuasion.”


  10. This is such a great post.

    Personally, I tend not to focus too much on sexual tension. I mean I do. But not in the way I think is considered “normal” for romance type fiction. In fact, in my current wip the LI's have sex in the very first chapter. But as you said, from there, it's the falling in love part that keeps it going. To me, falling in love — *allowing* yourself to fall in love, and trust someone to hold your heart — is much more scary than anything you can do physically. (Scary meaning it makes you feel vulnerable, not I-think-I'm-gonna-die type scary. haha.)

    In my experience as a reader and writer, when stories focus more on the relationship part of it, the will they/won't they fall in love rather than the will they/won't they kiss/have sex/etc, then the “why?” becomes more important. And when you have a solid reasoning to back up the character actions and motivations, those tend to be the stories that stick with me longer.

    And that goes back to the love triangle point, too. That the person stuck with a tough decision between two LI's has to have a real reason for wanting to be with both of them. They “why?” is so so important in giving these relationships, especially, the necessary impact.

    Wow, sorry. I went on a bit more than I intended. But I just love this topic! ๐Ÿ˜€


  11. Great post, but I just have to disagree on one point: David Boreanaz is way, way, way hotter as Booth than he was as Angel. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I have to agree with eveything else you said, though. I think sexual tension is an integral part of any story that includes any kind of adrenalin-pumping, potentially-deadly action. Or, in fact, just about any story, although there are exceptions. (I'm not sure that I would have wanted to see sexual tension betweem Tom Hanks and 'Wilson' in Cast Away, for example.)

    I definitely think the more interesting question is: will they/won't they fall in love. Sex itself is often an anticlimax, and something that's almost immediately written off by both the characters and the audience/readers.

    For an interesting and different type of sexual tension in a genre novel, I'd recommend the Nightrunner series by Lynne Flewelling. Seregil is a bisexual thief, spy and noble, who recues a young hunter named Alec, and then takes him on as a protege. Alec of Kerry was raised in the wilderness by his hunter father, and has a more “Stiff-necked” attitude to just about everything. As they go through a series of life-threatening adventures together, it's not so much “sexual tension” as “love tension” that builds. They both have to come to terms with their own feelings towards each other, and towards relationships in general, and it takes 2 books for their relationship to reach the final will they/won't they point.


  12. This is a tricky one! The best example of sexual tension I can think of comes from Elizabeth Peters. Vicky Bliss and Sir John Smythe have an on again/off again relationship where the tension comes not from the “will they have sex?” question. They do. Lots of it. The real tension comes from the fact that they're on opposite sides of the fence, legally. She's a professor of art history and he's a thief. The sparks fly and their chemistry is awesome. But for each of them, a relationship means giving up some part of who they are. The struggle with that issue is far more meaningful to me than whether they hop into bed….and more enjoyable to read.

    In terms of my own writing, I'm at the same point. I'm far less concerned with the actual sex than with what it means. What are the characters giving up to be with each other? Can they afford to give that up?


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