Saturday, April 19, 2008

Description and sexual tension

On a discussion board that I frequent, I read a post from another writer saying that she wrote a paragraph of description about a hero to build sexual tension.

I’m wary of paragraphs of description, because they too often bring the forward motion of the plot to a halt while the author paints the scene or colors in the characters. I like such paragraphs in George R. R. Martin’s books, because they’re written vividly and well, or in Tanith Lee’s books, because her style is so lyrical. But this was the first time I’d thought of such paragraphs with sexual tension in mind.

A paragraph devoted to the description of a character is routine in many romance novels. Such descriptions are intended more to put the characters into the readers’ minds than to build sexual tension, though. Static descriptions of handsome men and beautiful women can be read without feeling anything. Watching characters snap and spark off each other like flint and steel will often leave readers fanning themselves as they bask in the reflected glow of the flames.

So what are better ways to build up sexual tension than detailed descriptions of the characters’ looks?

1. Sexual tension depends on character attitude.

Jeff had glossy hair, tanned skin and vivid blue eyes. His shoulders were broad, his arms muscular and his stomach flat. He was fit and neat and dressed extremely well.

Jeff’s hot, right? Guaranteed to turn anyone on? Well, he turned me off. Since this is nothing but a laundry list of details, it doesn’t make me interested in him as a character or in what happens to him. The details can be spiced up; for instance, I could write that he had eyes the color of lapis lazuli. But the laundry list would have the same problem. At best, poor Jeff comes off as a generic advertisement for men’s underwear; at worst, he’s a complete himbo.

Complete himbo, Kelly thought. Hair by Brylcreem, eyes by Bausch & Lomb. That vivid blue didn’t exist outside of a contact lens. A man couldn’t help having good looks, of course, but Jeff took it one step further by dressing like a male model. Maybe he was gay. Oh well, men like that didn’t notice women like her anyway. At least she could work with him on the Rivers account without such distractions.

Still, when he turned to reach across his desk for a folder, she found herself glancing down at the tight stretch of his pants. Evidently he went to the gym more often than she did. She crossed the room and turned the air conditioner up to maximum. Not only would that counteract the sudden warmth, it might make him put his jacket back on.

Now I’m much more interested. I still get the picture of Jeff as a hottie, but there’s attitude in this description, and the fact that Kelly’s trying not to be interested is a hook. It accomplishes everything the paragraph of detail doesn’t and can’t do.

And Jeff is a little more palatable because the viewpoint character doesn’t describe him in the flattering way that came across in the first paragraph. There’s a reason one of the best-known paragraphs of character description starts out with, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful.”

2. Sexual tension depends on reader sympathy.

Speaking of Gone with the Wind, it’s my favorite novel, and I love the film as well. The picture of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler isn’t what I’d consider attractive – his hair is slicked back and he has a mustache. But what stokes the sexual tension isn’t his appearance, it’s his unrequited love for Scarlett. He’s often cool and sarcastic to her, and yet he’s generous and protective when she needs him most.

No description can convey this – it has to be shown through the story. And it’s that which gets the readers involved, puts them on his side and gets them longing for Scarlett to recognize him for what he is. That’s sexual tension.

3. Sexual tension does depend in some part on a character’s looks.

Theoretically, it’s possible for a skilled author to make a very physically unappealing character attractive. Matthew Woodring Stover made me like a short, fat, stinking, perverted protagonist in his novel Jericho Moon, so anything’s possible.

On the other hand, it’s easier to work with characters who at least meet some standard of beauty. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire features an extremely unattractive woman, but other characters still comment that she has beautiful eyes. I like describing my heroes (from the heroines’ points of view) as plain and unattractive, because it’s fun to watch the heroines’ feelings slowly warming until the point where they realize they’re very much attracted to the men they originally wrote off.

To cut a long story short, I need more than a description of a good-looking man to be interested. If I know who he is, why he can't get the woman (or the man) he loves, and what he plans to do about that, then the handsomeness is the icing on the cake. But the icing can't stand without the cake.

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