Write Byte

The Art of Subtle Sexuality
(June 14, 1988)

I recently read Laura DeVries' new western romance, Promise Me. There were, I think, a grand total of three kisses in this romance, and yet DeVries maintained a constant level of sexual tension without teasing. I generally prefer a stronger level of sensuality, and often find myself frustrated when there is a lack of "pay-off", but I did not find this to be the case in Promise Me. I did not review this romance for AAR, but rate it a B, for those who are interested.

How did author Laura DeVries aka Laura Gordon accomplish this tight-rope walk? I recently asked her, and here is what she had to say:

One of the most gratifying fan letter I’ve ever received was from a reader who favorably compared one of my books to the movie An Affair to Remember. She sited the scene from the movie when Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr were standing on the deck of the ship in the moonlight. As they embraced and started up the stairs for his cabin, the camera panned out over the ocean. “No one had to tell you they were in love,” the reader wrote, “you just knew!” To me that’s the perfect explanation of subtle sensuality. The reader was resonding to the sexual tension between hero and heroine and noted the lack of explicit detail. The subtle sensuality pleased her, both in the movie and, happily, in my book.

I’ve often heard romance readers say they skim sex scenes or they wish writers would just close the bedroom door. If I’m interpreting those comments correctly, I believe our readers might be trying to tell us that as romance writers our job is to set the scene, create sexual tension, and then step back and allow the reader’s imagination to take over. Once again, it’s the subtle art of creating sexual tension that keeps readers turning pages.

The foundation of sexual tension is the escalating awareness and increasing curiosity between hero and heroine. The wondering. The waiting. The anticipation. Your heroine wonders, “What would it be like to be loved by this man?” Likewise, your hero’s fascination builds as he wonders, “What would it feel like to make love to this woman?” At that point the magic is in the unknown. Once sex has occurred the mystic that held hero and heroine in breathless anticipation has been largely dispelled (of course, there’s always the expectation of the next sexual encounter, but that’s a subject for another article on another day).

So how do we create sexual tension with subtle sensuality? The answer lies in the word itself. According to Webster, sensual means “of the body and the senses, as distinguished from the intellect. Perception stemming from the senses.” In other words, your heroine knows (intellectually) that the hero is all wrong for her. He is a rake and a rogue, the kind of man seemingly incapable of cleaving himself only unto her. But her senses, that part of her at war with her intellect, respond to him regardless. The touch of his hand does funny things to her heart, the sound of his voice makes her lose track of his words, his scent makes her mouth water, the sight of him quickens her pulse, and the taste of his lips whets her appetite for more!

As writers seeking to create sensual stories, we need to remember to utilize the basic tools at our disposal. Our own sensory perceptions. The five senses. Too often we rely solely on sight. We see the scene in our mind’s eye and create a visual description. Lovely to look at, but not all that satisfying for the reader. The trick is to break out of that one-dimensional picture. How many times have we been told show don’t tell? In this sense, I believe show means reveal. We must reveal how our characters feel, what they’re experiencing, how their senses are provoked and stimulated. We accomplish this by the use of sensory perceptions. All five of them.

I heard a best-selling author admit she doesn’t consider a scene complete until she’s included at least a mention of all five senses. She has gone so far as to write the words see, touch, hear, taste and smell above her computer screen. I know another writer who found herself stuck on a particular scene until she decided to try to write it with her eyes closed. The technique worked. By closing off the most over-used and familiar sense - sight - she had opened her imagination to the other four. What she learned was that by restricting herself to the visual representation, she had been missing the other sensual aspects important to that scene. The richness those other sensations added to her writing astonished and delighted her.

It isn’t easy to describe how rain sounds on the roof, or how the air smells after a storm, what a horse’s muzzle feels like or how orange marmalade tastes. It takes practice, concentration and a bit of imagination to weave these powerful sensory threads into your story. It also takes an awareness of your own sensory perceptions. Close your eyes when your hero cups the heroine’s chin or strokes her jawline with his thumb. Concentrate on what your heroine is feeling. What does that sensation do to your heart rate? Is his touch tender or irritating? Is his hand rough or smooth? What’s going on in the pit of your stomach? Is he fresh from the shower? How does he smell? If he murmurs in her ear, forget what he’s and concentrate on the sound of his voice. Is it husky, tentative, demanding, low, breathless, angry?

In romance, sensuality begins and ends with an acute awareness between hero and heroine. There is nothing more exciting or sensual than the subtle perceptions of a woman and a man on the threshold of love. As their awareness of each other increases, get in touch with every sensation. Concentrate on what they see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Sexual tension is the lynch-pin of every romance and it all stems from the senses. Capture the subtle sensory perceptions inside your hero and heroine and, in the end, you won’t have to tell your readers your characters are in love. They’ll just know!

Laura DeVries

Laura writes as Laura DeVries for Dell and Laura Gordon for Harlequin

Laura's Recent Releases:
Promise Me (Dell, Available now!)
Gambler's Daughter (Dell)
Spencer's Shadow (Harlequin Intrigue)
Spencer's Bride (Harlequin Intrigue)

Laura's Upcoming Titles:
Spencer's Secret (Harlequin Intrigue 11/98)
Cowboy's Honor (Harlequin Intrigue 2/99)
Twice Blessed (Dell 4/99)

E-mail Laura
Readers Rant About Sexuality Part III