How To Write Unresolved Sexual Tension

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On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in UK“, JJ Barnes writes about how to write unresolved sexual tension in your story, and references examples from Firefly, Bones, New Girl, and Battlestar Galactica.

Written by JJ Barnes

Using unresolved sexual tension well can keep your audience hooked on your story. For an episodic story it’s important that you have a hook to keep your audience wanting something. Something that will keep them coming back. I’ll talk through how to use unresolved sexual tension as that hook.

What Is Unresolved Sexual Tension?

When you have two characters with tons of sexual chemistry, but unable to act on it, you have Unresolved Sexual Tension. They could be prevented from acting on it for a number of reasons. They could have internal conflict, or there could be external forces influencing them.

In Bones, Brennan and Booth have Unresolved Sexual Tension but don’t act on it. This is because of a combination of needing to maintain a working relationship, and fear of being hurt. Starbuck and Apollo in Battlestar Galactica don’t act on their Unresolved Sexual Tension. Starbuck was previously involved with Apollo’s brother and they feel it’s inappropriate.

In both these cases the audience “ships” the couple, they desire seeing them getting together and hope for it. And in both these cases, the story maintains a tease of maybe… maybe… nope.

Time and time again these characters are thrust into intimate moments, they depend on one another, they work well together and have sparks between them. Time and time again, one or both pulls away.

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Why Does Unresolved Sexual Tension Work?

In an episodic story, you will have a conflict engine that provides a new story each time you return. In Firefly, they get new jobs and have to fly off to another planet. That conflict is the new story for each week, and it keeps it exciting.

But episodic story telling can become stale. It can feel dull and repetitive. The formula for each episode means they’ll have a new mission, and at the end of the story it’ll be completed. Even a show as brilliant as Firefly needs an extra hook. Something that fuels the desire to return for more, on top of the episodic excitement.

Unresolved Sexual Tension, The Table Read Magazine
Unresolved Sexual Tension in Firefly

In Firefly there are several extra hooks, but the Unresolved Sexual Tension between Mal Reynolds and Inara Serra is a dominant one. It is ever present in every interaction between them. Sometimes, it’s in the background. Other times it surges in importance, such as in the episode Our Mrs Reynolds when Inara is suspicious of Saffron.

Every time their Unresolved Sexual Tension is pushed to the forefront, there’s the chance they will act on it. Every time they are sparking off one another, casting sad and hopeful gazes in each other’s direction, there’s the chance one of them will make the move. The chance one of them will make a step forward. There’s hope, excitement. The audience might FINALLY get what they want.

It’s the hope that is the hook. It will keep your audience returning for more because they want that hope satisfied.

How To Write Unresolved Sexual Tension

The key to Unresolved Sexual Tension is to keep it unresolved. Because once it has been resolved, that hope has been satisifed.

If in Season 1 of Bones, Booth and Brennan had recognised and acted upon their mutual attraction, that conflict would have been over. The show would have either lost one of it’s avenues of interest and entertainment, or had to break them up.

Unresolved Sexual Tension, The Table Read Magazine
Unresolved Sexual Tension in Bones

In Friends, the Unresolved Sexual Tension between Ross and Rachel was resolved fairly quickly. To keep the entertainment going they had to break them up repeatedly.

When and audience ships a couple, they want to see them get together. Or at least, they think they do. What they actually enjoy is the tension between them, the times they ALMOST kiss. The air between two people who may or may not kiss for the first time crackles with electricity. The more times they almost kiss the more tension and passionate build up there is.

The moment they kiss, that tension is sapped. Even if the kiss and romance is passionate and beautiful to watch, you lose tension because that conflict has been resolved.

Can They Ever Get Together?

The problem with maintaining Unresolved Sexual Tension forever is that eventually it will transition from exciting to irritating. And that is a very tiny needle to thread.

If Brennan and Booth in Bones had NEVER got together, it would start to be unbelievable. The blocks in their way become smaller and smaller the longer they’re together. In Chuck, Sarah and Chuck have clear reasons they can’t be together but again, the longer they’re together the less important they become. Eventually you have to let those characters accept and act on their impulses and resolve that tension.

How Do You Keep That Relationship Interesting?

Unresolved Sexual Tension, The Table Read Magazine
Unresolved Sexual Tension in Friends

So how do you keep the tension alive? In Friends, Ross and Rachel have a perpetually on and off again relationship. Nick and Jess in New Girl break up and slowly build up the tension again until it’s finally resolved at the end. In Bones, they make Brennan and Booth work together and fight to maintain their relationship under increasingly challenging circumstances.

It’s harder to keep an audience invested in a happy relationship because there’s no conflict. So once your couple have finally got together, you need to throw challenges in their way that still need to be overcome. Whether it’s a break up or just challenges they work through, make sure it isn’t smooth sailing.

Keep that relationship passionate and full of conflict and it can work to keep the heart of your episodic story beating.

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

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2 thought on “How To Write Unresolved Sexual Tension”
  1. Had a friend tell me that having a character be asexual in any novel would just grind the romance subplot to a halt, is that true?

    1. I suppose it would depend. If they’re asexual and also not interested in affection and romance then yes. If they like affection and romance, just don’t want a sexual relationship, then no. It would depend if the romantic partner needed a sexual relationship to be satisfied or not. But that’s something you could explore. If both parties are interested in and happy with just romance but no sex, then you can still pursue a romantic storyline with them.

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