The Structure of Romance and Sexual Tension in Fiction

First Impression

In this stage, the possible lovers make their first impression on one another. Here, the characters will focus on surface details such as looks, voice, clothing, and actions. These surface things will either spark immediate attraction or immediate disgust, depending on how you want your romance to roll.

By having your POV character zoom in on certain details, such as the way a voice drops to a husky whisper, or the fall of silken hair as it is tucked behind an ear with delicate fingers, this implies an interest in another character. Once those details are noticed, they can be backed up with the physical reaction of the POV character. Depending on what you are writing, this can be a range of reactions. It could be the desire to know what the other person’s skin feels like, the desire to know if they’re single, or a more intimate rise of sexual desires. Like I said, it all depends on your genre.

Now, the characters don’t have to fall in love immediately. This is something to be worked on through the course of the romantic subplot. You could very well open with these two characters despising one another or one fearing the other. Both tropes I absolutely adore!



In this stage, the tension is being turned up to 11. The attraction building in stage one will start to manifest here. Characters will be pushed together by you, the writer, and must deal with the circumstances. In the beginning of this stage, the characters might immediately repel from one another, still denying there is a romantic connection at all.

As this stage progresses, there will be moments of affection or moments of desire that manifest in dialogue or instances of touch. This could be a brush of the fingers, like tucking hair behind ears, helping someone up only to find themselves in close proximity, or a consented kiss goodnight. Tension is key in this stage, keeping the reader guessing as to how a situation might unfold. Don’t shy away from the dramatic, embrace it.

Now, when I say touch, writers need to avoid the toxic Alpha Male trope. No one wants a pushy love interest that takes what they want from the other person, no matter the gender. No forced touches in any situation. Peeps need to have some control over themselves. This show of control is a great technique to add tension, a want but can’t have kind of deal. The desire will grow and grow and grow until both parties consent, the figurative and, sometimes actual, climax.



This is where the cumulation of actions in the story so far spark an epiphany within the characters. One or both of them realize their initial attraction has grown into something more, affection, love, lust, etc.

This stage can feel sudden. An epiphany is much like a slap in the face, but, on the page, it isn’t that sudden. You should be working up to this point little by little. The character’s decisions in previous chapters should help solidify in the mind of the other that not only are they attracted to this person physically, but emotionally and mentally.

To do this, you could reveal a number of things. The love interest could have similar hobbies (gamers always want another gamer in their life), could show courage or mercy, or simply acted in a way that benefitted the POV character (such as defending them or saving their life).



Because life is complicated, it’s far too early for a happily ever after. Once the characters realize they feel for one another, conflict arises and immediately pushes them apart. This can happen in a number of ways, both mentally, emotionally, and physically.

In a mental sense, there could be outside forces that don’t approve of the relationship, therefore keeping the characters at a distance. An emotional conflict could be a sense of betrayal, especially if morals are in question. Either character, past or present, could have done something the other finds to be wrong and therefore the other pulls away. A physical conflict is simple, placing a physical barrier such a distance between the possible lovers.



This final stage of a romantic arc ties things up. No, not literally. Not unless you’re into that kind of thing. What I mean here is that we’ve reached the resolution phase. In this stage, the characters decide whether or not they want to give this budding relationship a chance.

This stage can go a number of ways. The simplest resolution is to say yes, and they both go on to a happily ever after. If you’re not about writing that kind of lovey-dovey schmuck, don’t worry. The characters don’t have to be perfect for one another, especially if you’re writing a series with one or more of the characters. One could want to crawl back to the other, but realize it isn’t a healthy relationship and try to move on to better. Both could realize that they were good for the moment, but it would never work long term.

These kinds of endings work well with series because you will have a longer span of time in which a protagonist can find true love. You can use the ever-popular love triangle trope, but you could also go with a theme that feels more like real life dating over the length of a series. Sarah J Maas does this well with her Throne of Glass series, even showcasing some of the bitter feelings left behind after a break-up.


Types of Romance

  1. Love at first sight

    1. Their eyes meet across the dancefloor and a magnetic pull draws them closer, their bodies instinctively darting around dancers. THis kind of romance is always fun to write because everyone wants to believe in love at first sight, but you can’t write a relationship that’s perfect from the beginning. In the case of Love at First Sight, you need to spark conflilcts between the lovers and keep the reader wondering if they’ll ever be together. The classic example of this love is and always will be Romeo and Juliet. No other romance has gone as horribly wrong, aside from perhaps Othello and Desdemona.
  2. Animosity turned Affection

    1. Ugh, I love this trope so much. The animosity exists because there is already chemistry between the characters. They could have worked together before, could work well together aside from a few moral differences, or have some history between them that is driving a wedge. Many times, this history is a moral ideal that one or more finds reprehensible. It is the writer’s job to slowly break down the history separating these characters until it is revealed that they aren’t on opposing sides, but maybe on two different paths toward the same goal. Once that barrier has been taken down, the characters can begin to gravitate toward one another.
    2. A great example of this is Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. While female friendship takes a front seat in this novel, there is also a budding relationship with a very rocky start.

    1. If you think you have to write this differently than anyone else, you might find that your way of thinking is wrong. The LGBTQ community is just as varied, emotionally and physically, as anyone else in the world. Writing m/m or f/f or any other romantic combination changes based on the person’s emotional needs and not their orientation.
  4. Asexual

    1. When writing an Asexual character, certain stages will feel labelled wrong. Their affection is less about the physical and more about the deeply emotional connection. Give and Asexual character a reason to want the other person in their life, dialing down the Touch factor and ramping up the emotional and mental actions and interactions.
  5. Young Adult

    1. The trend of more explicit and implicit sex in YA is growing. We, as writers, are aware that Young Adults are sexually active and I, personally, want to see more healthy relationships and sexual practices shown on the page. That said, I’m more of a fan of implicit sex when writing for a young adult audience. This choice is largely up to you and your editor as you work.

2 thoughts on “The Structure of Romance and Sexual Tension in Fiction”

  1. To add on to the asexual: Asexuality is a spectrum (and just a giant umbrella). You can be a romantic asexual and fall so hard for someone it’s not even funny, but sexual attraction isn’t a thing. You can also be aromantic (no romantic attraction) but be flooded with sexual attraction.

    Like I said, asexuality is an umbrella and a spectrum. Some days you may be more sexual than others. or maybe just rarely have sexual attraction (greysexual). You might only be sexually attracted to those you have a really strong emotional bond to (demisexual).

    Do your research regardless and don’t be afraid to create the rep you or a friend would like to see. Like everyone and everything, sexuality is fluid. What would work for one character may not work for another, just like any other person out there.

    1. Thanks for adding this! I know it’s not something a lot of people really understand, but it deserves to be far more normalized than it currently is.

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