From the Editor’s Desk: Writing Effective Romantic and Sexual Tension


Here at Carina, we’re always looking for new authors to sign, publish and build. But we recognize that putting your manuscript out on submission can be an intimidating process. How do you make your manuscript stand out, from the query letter to the last page? We’re here to demystify the submissions process by giving you some insight into what a Carina Press editor looks for when she opens up a submission for review.

Today’s post comes from Rhonda Stapleton. Rhonda is a freelance acquisitions/developmental editor at Carina Press, and she’s here today to talk about how to write effective romantic and sexual tension in your romance.

I’m gonna move first through crafting strong romantic tension, and then I’m going to discuss building delicious sexual tension.

To craft strong romantic tension, think about it in steps, so to speak (just to help you visualizethere are no official “steps” to writing a romance, because everyone falls in love differently). Each step will build on the one before.

Step 1: introduction

The characters each have story goals and unique motivations for those goals. And then…they meet a person who throws a wrench into their plans. Who distracts them from what they thought they wanted, makes them uncomfortable. Someone who worms under their skin from the start. Sparks fly, either good or bad. Your characters might have insta-lust. Or insta-hate. Or something in between. Whatever it is, the characters aren’t emotionally ready for each other yet. But their lives start to intersect here.

Step 2: increased familiarity

Not only is the character’s personal impression of the love interest starting to evolve, but he or she also starts to see how others view the love interest, and thus forms a more well-rounded, informed opinion on the character. They spend some time together. Not 100% vulnerable to each other yet, but revealing flashes of deeper character.

Step 3: evolution of intimacy

Your characters want to know more about each other. They’re dropping their guards, letting the other person in. Revealing secrets, flaws, vulnerabilities, past experiences. All those things that show someone how important he/she is becoming to our protagonist. They’re probably starting to date exclusively, exploring the possibilities of thinking long-term. Conflicts of a deeper nature crop up because they’re hashing out major issues before making a big commitment. Ultimately, they’re falling in love with each other. This step leads to the romantic black moment/climax, the time where your characters have to decide what they’re going to sacrifice, what they need to do to make love work.

Step 4: commitment

After the black moment/climax, the characters have decided to push aside their fears and take the leap into a HEA (happily ever after) or a HFN (happy for now) ending.

Sexual tension:

Layered in with all of the romantic stuff above is also sexual tension, which might result in a sexual relationship as well. However, sex and love don’t move at the same rate. Some characters don’t have sex at all. Others have sex on the first night and might take a while to fall in love. That said, these two arcs impact each other.

Even if characters don’t have sex, you should layer in lots of good sexual tension, that hyperawareness of the other person that makes us feel an exquisite rush, makes us feel alive and homed in on every little detail about the love interest. So think about how sexual tension manifests itself in the body and ramp that up as the story progresses (I’ll get into it more below, with some tips/tricks).

Sex with a stranger is different than sex with someone you’re in love with. So if your characters have sex early on, use subsequent sex scenes to also reflect their evolving romantic arc. As time goes on, they won’t just want each other physically, but emotionally. Those sex scenes can be great to reveal vulnerabilities. After all, during sex we’re usually physically and emotionally naked.

Physical intimacy typically develops in 12 steps, which can occur in chunks of combinations, depending on your characters and the nature of your story (you might even have characters skipping some steps; they don’t all HAVE to be in your story). Read this article for more details on the steps: Note, this is NOT a blueprint on how you must write your scenes. Just a guideline to help you see how it can evolve physical intimacy.

But sexual tension isn’t just about body parts touching, right? It’s also about descriptions, raw emotions. Here are a few tips to make the most out of physical intimacy and ensure strong sexual tension:

use all 5 senses and be vivid/specific/concrete. Sensory details plunge us deep in the POV (point of view) of your character. If your heroine is leaning in close, how does her love interest smell? What small details does she notice about the person? Instead of telling us that a man is handsome, describe him—WHAT specifically makes him handsome to your character?

however, don’t just describe the POV character’s external sensory experiences. Also describe what’s happening in his/her body (internal sensory experiences). Show arousal and how it manifests in the body. Be as vivid and striking, or subdued and nuanced, as you see fit—erotic stories are going to use erotic terminology, obviously. How does arousal unfold in the body? Not just in the genitals, but in your pulse, lungs, hands, lips, etc?

layered in to the descriptions and experience are emotions. How do those emotions manifest in the body, in the pulse, lungs, hands, lips, eyes, ears, etc? If you only layer in sexual elements but don’t show how we feel when falling in love, your story may not be romantic enough.

Each scene in the romantic arc shows the characters connecting—emotionally, intellectually, sexually. They become more and more intrinsically tied together until they can’t imagine being without each other. The best way to make romance resonate for readers is to keep us plunged deeply in your POV character’s sensory and emotional experiences.

Show the person falling in love. Show all of those emotions that come along with the process. Show the arousal that comes with sexual tension. You’ll have us turning the pages as fast as we can.

Thank you for reading—we hope these tips have you excited to submit your manuscript to Carina Press! Here are some quick references to help you through the submissions process:

  • We’re always open to submissions!
  • We respond to all submissions within 12 weeks.
  • Have a question and can’t find the answer on our guidelines page? Email us at and we’re happy to help.
  • Looking to target your submission to a specific editor? Find out more about editor submission calls here.


Looking for more information on our submissions process? We’ll have more posts coming in this series, and in the meantime, you can read about our acquisitions process here, and find out more about what an editor does here.

Ready to submit? Click here to start your publishing journey with Carina Press!

2 thoughts on “From the Editor’s Desk: Writing Effective Romantic and Sexual Tension”

  1. Julie Moffett says:

    Great post, Rhonda!! :)

  2. Jeanette Collins says:

    Well said, Ms. Helms.

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