The Ten stages of Intimacy…creating sexual/emotional tension

Often writers get rejections that say in essence not enough emotional tension.

So what is strange creature “Emotional Tension”  It is the No 1 essential ingredient. It’s what hooks your readers…and keeps them turning the page.  In romance…it equates to sexual tension.
So how do you create it?
The first thing a writer should do, and this applies to most books, is familiarise yourself with  the ten stages of intimacy.  There are many definitions with varying degrees of emphasis as to the physical implications. Here is a simplified version I use as a rough guide…according to the plot of my book.

  1. Eye contact –the first meeting where strangers look at each other
  2. Deeper eye contact—the soulful looks poets talk about
  3. Hand touches hand—contact usually light but lingering
  4. Hand to shoulder — This is within socially acceptable boundaries. Up until this point either side can withdraw without loss of face.
  5. Arm circles waist —this signifies a greater degree of intimacy, both given and accepted. Once it is accepted things progress at a rapid pace.
  6. Mouth touches mouth —Once a kiss is exchanged, chemical information is passed from partner to partner. Kissing adds more senses to the intimacy mix. Smell, Taste and body temperature.
  7. Hand caresses head. Women tend to reach for the head before men. Hand caressing head indicates increasing trust…heads are vulnerable. And touching is something we share only with people we feel comfortable being around.
  8. Hand to body. Either through clothes or exploring under them. Often happens with eyes closed so participants can concentrate more on heat and smell. Maintaining eyes contact is even more powerful.
  9. Mouth to body—when this stage is reached both parties have demonstrated trust in each other and sexual intercourse is a likely outcome—given the right circumstances.
  10. Hand to genitals and genital to genital. This is the final and most potent stage of intimacy. And when it is reached each party should, in an ideal world, completely trust each other.

A writer should never labour these points but if you have them in the back of your mind you can up the emotional tension in your book by incorporating these stages. Your readers may not know them, but they will very quickly sense something is off between your characters if you skip them.

When a critique partner pointed out that it was too soon for my hero to touch my heroine…I went back to this list and sure enough, I had skipped several vital stages.

One last comment, Sexual or Emotional tension is not about a guy or a gal, having sexual thoughts…it’s about building the tension between your characters by developing a growing sense of intimacy. This grows out of increased intimacy…not racy thoughts.

If you harbour doubts about the veracity of this, sit in a cafe  and watch customers interact. Watch how they look at each other, holding hands, a man with his hand on a woman’s back…those stages are all there.

Conversely watch two people quarrelling…their body language is very revealing. 

And skipping steps can add a huge friction  between your characters. By having a good understanding of these steps a writer can utilise them to her advantage to up the tempo in both good and bad ways between her characters.  We’ve all seen the peeved heroine in a movie turns her head aside to prevent the hero kissing her…she’s exercising her displeasure a his expectation of intimacy.

Published on Monday, November 28th, 2011, under Latest News

8 Responses to “The Ten stages of Intimacy…creating sexual/emotional tension”

  1. Great post, Shirley, I'm going to keep a copy of the list next to my WIP. Thank you!

  2. Shirley Wine says:

    Thanks Charlotte

    I have a copy printed out as well and now I never miss a step in the process.

    With one book that starts with the hero, in a dangerous situation, silencing the heroine's scream with a kiss I went back and ensured they went back through the stages to give the story the tenderness it needed.
    There are expanded versions of this list that marriage guidance counsellors use to sort out problems.

  3. Jo Fereday says:

    Great post, Shirley. This is all new to me so I'm going to put it on my wall to ensure I'm following the stages. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Shirley Wine says:

    Thanks Jo

    The idea is to loosely follow them…often you'll find you can encompass two or three steps in one scene according to your plot.

    This is why some books where the hero and heroine are strangers and jump into bed on meeting have a hollow phoney ring to them.

  5. Thank you for pointing me in the direction of this post, Shirley. I do struggle with sexual tension between my characters, probably because I'm very unromantic! The points you make here are extremely helpful and I've bookmarked your blog in order for me keep referring back. I know I have a lot of rewriting to do once I start in January because I do feel my two main characters have bonded too early on in the book. I notice other commenters have printed it off so I do hope you will be okay for me to do the same.

    Kathryn x

  6. Wow! Really clear and helpful advice! Maybe I will write a romance…

  7. Shirley Wine says:


    It's quite okay to copy them out. There are as i pointed out many versions on the net with varying degrees of information about the ramifications of each of these steps.

  8. Shirley Wine says:

    Dr Niamh Clune

    Writing romance is so rewarding. You can take all your personal tragedies and turn them into triumphs…and what other genre gives you free reign to rewrite history and give sad times a happy ending.

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