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.
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!)