Eric and Sookie – Why So Steamy? Writing Sexual Tension…

Sorry, no Firefly post today!* Instead I’m going to take an excerpt from True Blood to illustrate/discuss writing sexual tension and the stages of intimacy. Monday I featured Alexander Skarsgård as the Monday Hunk Who Reads, and I’ve had today’s post in mind for a while now, so I thought I would round off the week with True Blood to stick with the Skarsgård theme.

One of the greatest tools I found for anyone writing romance, either as the main plot or as a subplot in a non-romance book, is the 12 Stages to Physical Intimacy developed by Linda Howard from Desmond Morris’ book Intimate Behavior: A Zoologist’s Classic Study of Human Intimacy. I first heard about this in an online class this past summer, “From Slow Burn to Fast Sizzle: Making Sexual Tension Work For You,” from the Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal Chapter of RWA given by romance writers Kira Sinclair and Lynn Raye Harris (thank you!)

In a nutshell, in order to make the sexual tension between two people believable, a writer should show the characters progressing through these 12 steps:

  1. Eye to body
  2. Eye to eye
  3. Voice to voice
  4. Hand to hand (or arm)
  5. Arm to shoulder
  6. Arm to waist, or back
  7. Mouth to mouth
  8. Hand to head
  9. Hand to body
  10. Mouth to breast
  11. Hand to genitals
  12. Genitals to genitals

To learn more details about these steps, and how to use them and switch them up, see Jenny Hansen’s post Using The 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy To Build Tension In Your Novel and Terry Odell’s 12 Steps to Intimacy.

Okay, studied up? Let’s see it in action! For non-fans of True Blood, this kiss scene between Viking vampire Eric Northman and Sookie Stackhouse had been a long time coming. They’d kissed before, but never initiated by Sookie and always through some kind of trick or manipulation by Eric. This is the first kiss initiated by Sookie. Up until now, there’d been a lot of stage 1 through 3, especially 1 & 2 by Eric. He can’t get enough of looking at Sookie and I wonder if that’s what makes him so sexy, is the way he looks at her?

Alexander’s Skarsgård’s character Eric has just basically told Anna Paquin’s character that he doesn’t dare be around her any more since all he does is cause trouble for her and he doesn’t dare risk hurting her or getting her killed. He’s walking away. So here, let’s see how many stages we see (don’t worry if you’re at work, it only goes up to 9):

Okay, confession time for me. When I first saw this I literally had chills running up and down my whole body. Yes, even to my toes! I kid you not! After I had this very physical response (I think I also said “Whoa” out loud), the writer in me had to ask WHY? Certainly I don’t have this reaction anytime I see people kiss on screen. Especially when Alexander Skarsgård’s character here is looking so dorky in gym clothes. (Though he IS certainly adorkable here!) I’ve seen some great actors give me chills and then other times, not a one (for the same actor). And it’s not because “they’re hot” as I’ve seen some dull kisses from actors that I find “hot.”

WHAT about this scene did this for me? I don’t really know the answer, but I wondered if it was because of these stages? Do you know why? I’ve always wondered about chemistry between actors and how and why that translates onto the screen… Watch it again (go ahead, you know you want to). Here’s what I observed on rewatching.

  1. Notice his eyes when he first hears her calling his name. They snap up and track around to stare at her. (Chills are already starting again. Or maybe I just need to get Central Heat?) Anyway, it’s dang sexy…
  2. Camera switches back to her and more eye to eye contact. Intense eye to eye contact. And then her confession.
  3. His slow walk back maintaining constant eye contact. I think the constant part of this is essential here.
  4. Her arms go out for some hand to arm and hand to shoulder action. Her arms outstretched also symbolize her acceptance of him
  5. Then, oh then, frames 1:30 to 1:35. One hand draws in her hair on the back of her head. The the other hand does the sexy back-of-the-fingers swipe to the nape of her neck. They’ve skipped a couple of stages with him touching her this way (step 8: hand to head). This is a very intimate move and they haven’t even kissed yet. Look closely at these frames and see the emotions play across his face as he does this move. He almost winces and I think even just being this close to her is more than he’d ever hoped for. Also, this is a very vulnerable position for her since he’s a vampire. She’s trusting him. Having his mouth near her neck like that is very intimate/sensual, even if he wasn’t a vampire. I think it’s implied that he’s drawing in her scent here too.
  6. Her eyes open and she brushes by his ear
  7. He holds back, letting her initiate
  8. She looks him in the eye and they maintain eye contact
  9. She kisses him, but frames his face first in her hands, while maintaining eye contact
  10. He responds (le sigh)
  11. And the kiss escalates from there with his hands moving in her hair, etc.

The musical score was perfect for this scene too, but we can’t rely on music in our novel writing…

I’ve been really trying to figure out what makes some scenes in books so intense and others not so much, and I’m becoming more and more convinced that eye contact is the key. Or maybe it’s that the flat ones skipped some steps and it felt forced? I’ll have to study some more (dang)…

All kidding aside, there are reasons why some scenes where all they do is look at each other

(or just touch hands)

are loaded with tons more tension than a full-on sex scene. And I think it’s the same reasons why one sex scene can be sexy as hell and another is a yawner. Stepping your reader through the stages will help, as well as making sure you’ve laid the emotional foundation.

What else did you notice from the clip? Are you a True Blood fan? What did you think when you first saw this scene? What are some elements that help make scenes in books or movies sizzle? Why do some things fall flat?

*Normally on Fridays I take a writing lesson and illustrate it with clips from the TV show Firefly. I think I’m going to only do this when I come up with a good example instead of religiously doing one every Friday. If you have an idea for a Firefly Friday and would like to guest post, let me know!

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11 Comments

  1. I agree – that was a great kissing scene. It seemed very real and passionate. :)

    Reply
  2. I agree with all of the above, even though I am boycotting this season of True Blood (that’s a rant for another time!). It was also done very, very well in the books…the buildup was very slow (three books!) and the culmination is something the reader is more than ready for when it occurs!

    Reply
  3. Julie

     /  December 2, 2011

    Wow…..but Angela, I’m your mother! Now dammit, I’ll have to see True Blood!

    Reply
  4. WOW…great kiss, Angela! Thanks for the linky love. You’re making me think I have to go watch True Blood too. :-)

    Reply
    • Now, word of caution. This scene is in no way indicative of the content of the show. It’s definitely an HBO-only show– lots of violence, blood and sick stuff going on (and sometimes that can all be combined in one sex scene), so it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. I’ve sometimes had to turn away but the characters are so compelling and the socio-political subtext keeps me watching…

      Reply
  5. I love True Blood, though I don’t get HBO. I wait for it come out on DVD, so I haven’t seen this kiss yet. I had to watch it, and WOW! Maybe part of the reason it’s so sexy is because Eric has held a flame for Sookie since forever. All the touching helps, too!

    Reply
    • I know, I don’t have HBO either so I only just finished watching this last season a couple of weeks ago… I agree too, it’s the buildup; the emotional foundation had been laid. I think his intensity about her is what’s so sexy too. I used to be on Team Bill but Eric wooed me (mainly the TV version; I was still sorta Team Bill in the books) I was trying to figure out why and I think it’s because Bill’s love is kind of selfish. He loves her intently and passionately, yes, but it’s all about how she makes him feel and that he can’t live without her, etc., but he neglects paying attention to what SHE wants and needs. I think this was clearer in the books, but it’s there in the TV version too. Whereas Eric doesn’t try to change her and pays attention to what she says and needs and does it for her/is there for her. Both would die for her, but their love is different. I think this makes it so interesting…

      Reply
  6. Hi Angela,

    You just noted that I reposted your essay on my blog. First, we are both ASkars fans. I love your Hunks Who Read … gotta respect a guy who reads! Second, I don’t know if you do reviews on this blog, but if you do I would like to offer my new book California Girl Chronicles, which I think you would enjoy as an ASkars fan. The love interest Kale was written for him. I am actually in talks with several producers who are connected to HBO to turn this into a TV series a la Sex in the City meets Entourage. Would you like to see the book? Kale doesn’t come into book one until the second half, but he does dominate book two as the central plot line revolves around him and my heroine Brea. Let me know and send me your shipping address to: michelle@3LPublishing.com.

    Reply
  7. I don’t write romance (and I don’t watch True Blood) but I do have a romantic subplot in my WIP. Your post will help me so much in building the tension between my characters in a believable way, so this one is bookmarked! I also like your comment about the build up. That’s an important part, I think. Great post!

    Reply
  8. Lovely analysis. Missed seeing the past season since the kiddies refused to go to sleep early. Fabu word “adorkable.” Thanks for the long drink of Eric.

    Reply

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