Using The 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy To Build Tension In Your Fiction

by Jenny Hansen

I first learned about the 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy from Linda Howard, who used to give a very popular talk on the subject based on the work of Desmond Morris, Intimate Behavior: A Zoologist’s Classic Study of Human Intimacy.

On the downside, Linda gave her last edition of this talk to our RWA chapter in 2010. On the upside, Linda has spoken to enough writers that I was able to Google and find a great post on the topic by one of my online pals, Terry O’Dell.

I’ll give the stages and my thoughts here but if you want a more detailed description of how to use the 12 Stages in writing romance, skip on over to Terry’s blog and read her wonderful post called the 12 Steps To Intimacy. :-)

Believe it or not, I’ve always found it terribly hard to write sex scenes. I don’t mind talking about sex, as most of my readers over at More Cowbell have noticed. BUT, when it comes to my characters, I’ve been stymied by “The Big Sexy,” as we call in at my house.

WHY couldn’t I write a sex scene?

  1. I felt like a voyeur. Like I was intruding on a personal moment between my characters.
  2. Evidently I’m more prudish than I thought and it was embarrassing.
  3. What if my friends and family read this?!
  4. I found all of the “A” goes into “B” details boring to write.

The last one was the real key. I’m pretty well-practiced at overcoming fear. But boring is not a word I want associated with me and my writing. Plus, it’s a pretty good guarantee that if you’re bored with your sex scenes, your reader will be too. So…I was back to Square One where I wanted to tattoo, “I HATE SEX SCENES” on my forehead.

Enter Linda Howard.

Not only is she a warm, amazing lady but I LOVE the way she writes sex scenes. She is the very best at using sex as a plot device and her books are fast-paced and hot. My favorite of hers is Son of the Morning, but you pretty much can’t find a bad read with her.

When Linda came to our OCC/RWA meeting and gave her wonderful talk, lightbulbs went off for me. I began to understand why I found Janet Evanovich’s books so sexy, even though most of the sex happened off-screen. I started to understand why Nora Robert’s sex scenes are so hot, even though she rarely discusses how “A” goes into “B.”

My “a-ha” moment opened the door to how to get intimacy onto the page, and how to escalate the intimacy logically throughout a novel so the readers are satisfied. Below are the steps – use them wisely!

The 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy

1. Eye to body – this is the first “summing up” glance where one character notices the height, weight, dress code of another and registers an “overall impression.” A man will never approach a woman without this step and it’s important to get that first glimpse onto the page.

This step is why “the heroine studying herself in the mirror” is considered such a rookie writing mistake. We want to be in one character’s head when they see their fellow main character. Even if the glance is between two friends or business associates, this is the first step in building the emotional intimacy between them.

2. Eye to eye – the first step of active interaction between characters. There is a lot of tension to be found in eye contact and writers need to take a moment to get it on the page. Whether it’s a menacing stare or a long glance, you need to bring it to your reader. Remember, the point of view character needs to always be the person in the scene with the most to lose. When you bring up eye contact, make sure you’re in that vulnerable character’s head.

3. Voice to voice – once the two characters have met, they must speak. Who speaks first is important, as is what they say. What if one character touches the other before they speak? Whoa! Serious tension. It’s your story, so I’ll let you figure this out but think about how to get the most mileage from your scenes as you move through this chart.

4. Hand to hand (or arm)“Mom, he’s touching me!” Don’t you remember how invasive you found the slightest look or touch from your siblings during a fight? My brother standing at the door of my room staring, or putting a fingertip over “the line” and touching me were a big deal when we were at war. It wasn’t about the touch, it was about crossing my boundary. Remember this when you write and be purposeful in your touching. Push boundaries when it helps your story.

5. Arm to shoulder – Ah…it’s the old yawn and drop the arm around the girl move. Why is this a Classic? It’s because this is serious intimacy. Up close and able to kiss or smell. This is a gateway move to more intimacy.

I HATE it when someone I don’t know well puts their arm around me. Why? Because it’s intimate and invasive. But if I know them or feel close to them, it’s loving and welcome. It’s all about boundaries. How wide are your character’s boundaries? Why? How quickly does your character relax those boundaries? Again, why? These are important questions for you to answer.

6. Arm to waist, or backOooh…the hand on the small of the back to guide a woman through the room. *sigh* It melts me every time my guy does this.

Why is this so romantic? Because a warm hand against the small of the back sends the message to the woman and the rest of the room that this man is allowed to touch her, right above her bottom. There is physical comfort between these two people and they are engaging in non-verbal behavior that’s nearly always sexual. Yummy.

7. Mouth to mouth – Have you ever wondered why a kiss is so intimate? You’ve skipped though half the intimacy chart with this one move. Depending on how the kiss progresses, several more intimacy levels may be skipped. WOOT!

Why do so many romance authors spend time and tension on the kiss, breaking it off or prolonging it? Because it works! Seriously, kissing creates tension in the pages of your novel, if you do it right, and keeps your readers fanning themselves and turning your pages to see when your characters are going to do it again.

8. Hand to head – Perhaps your first kiss back at Step 7 was a lip-lock, possibly including some stroking of the back. Sexy and intimate, but not a “skip-a-level” moment. What about when a man holds a woman’s face or vice-versa? What about when the yanking of hair ensues? It’s hot, hot, HOT because it’s extraordinarily intimate to touch a person’s head or face.

Use this in your books. The back of a fingertip along someone’s cheek and down their neck…is it good, as in hero and heroine? Or evil, as in villain, heroine? You are the creator of your world, be it loving or creepy.

9. Hand to body – As Terry says in her post, this step moves the couple into the beginnings of foreplay. This is a key place to break your couple apart, have deep emotional issues surface or just to collide your internal and external conflict. You haven’t reached the “point of no return” yet, so break the intimacy up a bit. Throw your characters up a tree and shoot at them…it’s a nice gift for your readers.

10. Mouth to breast – My baby sister is going to laugh when she reads this. I always told her, “No matter what, keep your shirt on until you’re really sure you want to sleep with a guy.”

A woman can still turn back at this point, as can a man, but there’s likely to be some stomped feelings on both sides if she does. That’s not why I told her to stay clothed. Most women excrete the bonding hormone oxytocin, the “love hormone,” when they have skin to skin contact. Why bond with some schmuck if it could have been avoided by just keeping your shirt on?

11. Hand to genitals – OK, we’re pretty much at the point of no return at this stage. If somebody changes their mind, labels like “tease” are likely to be assigned and major conflict will ensue. I love the idea of having the external conflict be the coitus interruptus. There’s some major mileage to be gained from messing with your characters in these final stages.

12. Genitals to genitalsHe shoots, he scores! You’re at the sex act and your characters will commit violence if you interrupt now.

It’s nice to decide in advance what you want from The Big Sexy. You’ve made your readers pant for this step throughout the journey, dragging them through ALL the other stages to get here. It is up to you whether this is the payoff, as it is in many romance novels, or if it’s just a step to something else in your story.

The entire point to this chart is to get the most from your characters’ intimacy. Being deliberate in your steps will pay off big in your stories.

Have you heard Linda Howard give this talk? Were you familiar with this Intimacy Chart? How do you see this changing your writing process? What is your favorite step in terms of breaking down barriers between your characters?

Jenny

About Jenny Hansen

Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after her toddler Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing.

When she’s not at her blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at jhansenwrites and here at Writers In The Storm. Every Saturday, she writes the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.

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61 Responses to Using The 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy To Build Tension In Your Fiction

  1. I was NOT familiar with the 12 steps to intimacy chart, Jenny.

    Thank you!

    For some perverse reason (Perverted? Say it isn’t so!), I enjoy writing the sex scenes.

    In her book HOW I WRITE, Janet Evanovich admits she didn’t enjoy writing them. So, she created the wildly successful (for good reason) Stephanie Plum series, wherein she closes the bedroom door in my face. Doesn’t matter. I have a wildly successful imagination.

    But, I’m going to put the “test scene” I wrote before deciding to pursue the romance genre up against these twelve steps. Am I correct that the early steps might enter-exit-enter-and-add-one over many chapters as the characters move toward The Big Sexy?

    Off to take my pal, Pay, to visit Linda Howard and SON OF THE MORNING.

    Great, informative post.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Glad it’s going to be put to good use, Gloria! You will LOVE Son of the Morning. Such a great book – she said it was her favorite to write as well.

      You are in charge of the enter/exit timing and strategy of your steps. Susan Elizabeth Phillips often has her characters go straight to The Big Sexy (as in Nobody’s Baby But Mine) and then backpedals them to start all over again. You will do this as your characters’ need you to, but at least you’ll know what the proper order is before you start deviating. :-)

  2. K.B. Owen says:

    Thanks for the refresher on this, Jenny! Even writers of other genres can benefit from this. Now I understand why I’ve been putting in so much eye contact in my stories!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thassss right! Especially in those historical novels, eye contact is sexy. *fans self*

      I think there’s a lot to be done with touching, on the sinister side, in mystery novels as well.

  3. I heard Linda Howard give this talk at a Birmingham RWA conference. It was my first time to see her, meet her and I was totally awed by her presence and not only by the talk. I remember her mentioning SON OF THE MORNING as she spoke but, so far, and this was years back, I haven’t read the book. It looks like I, like someone else who posted, am going to have to get that book to read.

    Thanks for this post.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Evelyn,

      I’ve seen her speak twice and all of them impacted me emotionally. She has offered so much to other writers! You’ll love the book – it’s got it all. :-)

  4. Thank you – what an awesome post, one that I’m keeping and will refer to it frequently

  5. Woot woot. I plan to put this chart to goooood use!!! :-) Thanks so much for sharing…

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Since I know you’ll be sharing it with Hubby first, I LMAO over this comment. Can’t wait to see you apply it to some fiction! You go, girl!

  6. Shared link to your post on She Writes

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks so much, Heather! I’m a member over there and I just haven’t had time to do a whole lot with it – I hear great things about the community though.

  7. Love this post! Bookmarking it, for sure. I’m still a total klutz when writing the Big Sexy…and a couple of my beta’s will KILL me if I don’t spice up the steamy scenes. Finding the right balance with upperYA/crossover is tricky, too. Steam is good, but it needs to be PG-13. :)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      To keep it PG-13, you might just stop at stage 8 or 9. Still plenty hot, but not enough to get even a PG movie rating. I can’t wait to hear how it goes, Myndi!

  8. susielindau says:

    It is funny how the universe works in such mysterious ways. I am at that point in my novel and have gotten some advice from two other authors that just popped into my blogosphere. This was a different breakdown on writing about sex and I really appreciate it!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You are very welcome, Susie. Trust me, I needed it broken down for me this way. I STILL don’t love writing sex scenes, but at least I know how to do it better now. Plus, I have Sharla Rae as my secret women – that lady knows how to write The Big Sexy!

  9. Piper Bayard says:

    Thank you for this. Sex scenes are why I don’t write sex scenes. I know I need to get past that one at some point, but until then, I’ll stick with the violence I enjoy so well. :)

  10. Laura Drake says:

    Thanks for the reminder, Jenny. We were SO lucky to have her give us this speech at our meeting before she retired it forever. She is such a ‘girl next door,’ unintimidating, easy to get to know lady, I’m very grateful to her.

    Now, if I just didn’t have to hate her because she writes one clean draft, and is done. Yes. You heard me. One.

    Sigh.

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  13. tomwisk says:

    Always avoided sex in stories. Found out from a Writing teacher that if you’re embarassed take it off stage. Right now I’m listening to The Maltese Falcon. It’s not the book version which was editted by Knopf and Hammett. This was published in Black Mask magazine and has Spade and Wonderly meeting with Joel Cairo and when the scene was resolved the action goes to Spade waking up next to Wonderly. She said she was a bad girl so the reader is left to determine how nasty it got. Considering the readership it must have been smokin’.

  14. Jenny , you hit on three of my favs, Linda HOward to be sure, Janet for the pure fun of waiting to see which one she ends this book with, and Nora, OMG, I love Nora! So, my way of handling it is more of Janet’s … I get them to the point of no return and then I slam the door. I remember something my dad told me about the men who watch the X-rated stuff. He said that most of it was boring and that a partially clad woman was sexier to him, to let his mind do the undressing and to let him savor the moment. Yeah, my dad told me that :)

    Love, love this post and I do want to read the link. But for me sex is no problem, I just tease the hell out of the reader and when they are about ready to explode, I let their imaginations run wild :)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      OMG, I’ll bet you were so horribly embarrassed when your dad said that to you! Still, it’s good advice. The whole point of this chart is to take it to whatever level you want, but to do it with knowledge! Go forth and enjoy your teasing, behind-the-door SEXY.

  15. Thanks for these tips Jenny. I like to keep things PG-13. But I’ve always felt that it makes for more tension prior to THE act. I love the art of the tease. A sexy scent, a gentle touch, a tender look, the flush of skin, lips hovering, breathe clenching, hearts hammering, an electrifying pulse. Well, you get my point. I think it works so much better than throwing two people into the thick of things. I like to lead someone to where their minds will finish the scene. Let the reader use their imagination. :)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      It sounds lik eyou’re on the right path, Karen (all those things made ME hot)! Even in a PG-13, you’ll get to stage 9, so have yourself a wonderful time with it. :-)

  16. Thanks, Jenny – I will be sure to consult this list when writing my new (adult) novel. :-)

  17. Love this and laughed!!! It’s dead-on, and perfect.

  18. THANK YOU…now if I only had that man in my novel come by……

    mE

  19. Jenny,
    I’ve heard of this before, but I’ve never seen it described better. Wonderful post.

  20. I always say I am not going to put a sex scene in my WIP, but then I wind up putting them in. And boy are they raunchy!! LOL.
    I agree with Ella… you did a phenomenal job of laying it out for us.. :D

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      LOL, Darlene. Lucky you that you can get those raunchy sex scenes on the page without having to slap your hands over your eyes! That’s one of my issues. Can’t type and hide at the same time!! LOL.

  21. Yvette says:

    Hey Jenny! Great awesome post. Well done. I write for children so probably am not ever going to need this. On the other hand…..I have saved it anyway, you never know when I might dip into some other genre. And also, some of the first few stages will come in useful for puppy love :-)
    Yvette Carol

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Oh, Yvette, I’ll bet you use these first few stages more than you think. Kids and puppy love go so completely together. It’s so special. :-)

  22. Terry Odell says:

    Thanks for the shout out, Jenny. And Son of the Morning was the very first romance I ever read. And those 12 steps are very much hard wired into us…which is why erotica writers have to work so hard because they’ll often start way up the ladder and then have to backtrack if they’re going to create a long-lasting relationship. Your examples here are excellent. I actually read Desmond Morris long before I read romance, and Long Long Long before I started writing it. In my books, I’ve found it usually take about 190 pages for my h/h to reach step 12.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Terry! As you know, I send people to your post all the time! It’s tremendous. I haven’t read the Desmond Morris book in it’s entirety, but as a psychology major, I’ve been privy to parts of it.

      Fantastic to know that it takes you about 190 pages!! Thank you for telling me that. :-)

  23. Jess Witkins says:

    What I want to know, Miss Jenny, is where you found all these steamy photos? Were you writing in your leopard pants again? ;)

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  25. Okay… this is making me wanna write fiction ;) Thanks for the tips Jenny!!

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  30. Fabio Bueno says:

    This is invaluable, Jenny! I will definitely use the 12 steps (on my next WIP, I mean).
    The current WIP is an YA; the intimacy is just suggested. Maybe even more romance in the next one?
    Bookmarking it!

  31. Nicole Alexander says:

    Jenny, this post is amazing! I’m going to bookmark it in as many ways as I can think of! I’m normally a “pan to the fireplace” kind of writer with sex scenes because I’ve never been comfortable with them, but I think with this chart I might just be able to spice them up a bit.

  32. I haven’t been a subscriber for long though in the last fortnight or so I’ve learnt more from the few articles I’ve received in my inbox than from other blogs I’ve been subscribing to for years. Thanks for another informative post.

    Also, after a long day with the kids I really needed a laugh and I got it when I read ‘My brother standing at the door of my room staring, or putting a fingertip over “the line” and touching me were a big deal when we were at war.’ I remember those days with my sister, thanks for the laugh! :)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Hi Jade! Welcome to WITS. :-) No one hates with the passion of a cranky sibling, eh?

      I’m glad we’re helping you along your writing joyrney (since that’s our goal) and all the smiles just help it along.

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  34. I’ve seen these before, and I have a copy tucked away among my writing tools just in case. After all, relationships exist in all genres.

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