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

Several days back, I did a post on Sexting and questioned whether all this “virtual intimacy” between couples would change the “Levels of Intimacy” chart I use in my writing. I had several writers ask me about it in the comments section so I’m bringing it to you on this fine Techie Tuesday.

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 readers of 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? Enquiring minds always want to know here at More Cowbell!


About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm ( Write on!
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64 Responses to Using The 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy To Build Tension In Your Novel

  1. I use this chart from Linda Howard too. I took an online class on the steps several years ago from my friend Mary Buckham. Following the list really ups the intensity between your hero and heroine. I love good sexual tension in a book. I’m not sure if Mary still gives the class ( she used to give a workshop for chapters too) but she can be found over at Writer University.


  2. Okay, now that you’ve posted this, I have heard it before, just not from Linda Howard. My tarot friend, Jenna Reynolds, did a great post using the Hero’s Journey for sex scenes (and she does mention the 12 stages at the end):

    Great post Jenny, adding it to my collection of craft posts 🙂


  3. K.B. Owen says:

    Jenny, this is SO cool! I’d never heard of this before, but I’m not a romance writer/reader. I’ve read some, such as “The Flame and the Flower” and some Regency Christmas romances. Pretty neat stuff. In my cozy 19th century mysteries, there’s only so far I can go with sexy scenes, both because of the genre and time period constraints, but there’s a lot of eye, voice, and carefully-plotted touches, “brushing” type of things going on. Even a couple of stolen kisses. Glad to know I’m doing some of this right!

    Good luck on you sexy scenes!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. hawleywood40 says:

    This is new to me too, and soooo useful! I’m not a romance writer, but my works do include romantic scenes and sexual tension between characters, and I always struggle building those moments. I crack up because my writer’s struggle is usually being too wordy, but when my characters get naked I’m always so quick to race through the scene. Like you, I think about someone – like my grandmom or my neighbor or my boss, reading it and get flustered : ).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Pam, the how-to guide opened things up for me to make the sexy moments about the character, rather than about sex. This is WHY Nora Roberts sex scenes are satisfying to her readers. It’s never about the sex, even when they’re having it.

      For some reason, it made it a little bit easier. I still go to Sharla Rae for the final run – she writes WAY hotter than I do.


  5. Great post! I took an RWA chapter workshop with Kira Sinclair and Lynn Raye Harris on the stages and it really helped! So, how does sexting fit in now?


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Nice, Angela! Sexting is kind of hard to pinpoint because it messes with several stages. Virtually, people are getting to Step 11 before they’ve even gotten to a kiss. It’s very weird to me, and would feel invasive if it wasn’t someone I’d already been to bed with.


  6. Laura Drake says:

    Isn’t it funny how someone’s outward persona is so different from their inward one? Who’d have thought that JENNY of all people would balk at sex, when she’s showing photos of ‘thunderwear,’ much less the “trunk cozies” of the other day!

    And little old grandma me, cranks them out, PAST number 12!

    Love Linda Howard, such a sweet, easy to talk to lady. But I still haven’t gotten over the fact that she writes ONE draft. That’s it.

    It’s a goal….


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s a goal for me to not have to have Sharla add in “the rest” of every sex scene I write. But yes, Linda Howard rocks.


    • Linda Howard is one of my favorite authors. I think I’ve read everything she’s got from the Silhouette stuff to her recent release, Prey.

      Seriously? She just writes one draft? That’s amazing. She’s an awesome writer. I wonder if she does note cards or outlines? Does anyone know?


  7. Great stuff, Jenny. I don’t write romance, but books in any genre without a love interest are less intriguing, so we can all profit by using this material.


  8. Fabulous stuff Jenny and I’ve filed this away for when I get to the writing part. Love how each step builds – I could have sooo much fun with this!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Natalie, I wished so hard that I’d had this before I started writing! You’re a lucky girl to get so many great tool in advance. It’s a lot of fun to plan out your characters’ seduction, especially when you tie it in with internal conflict. Yum-yum-yummy!


  9. Terry Odell says:

    I was at Linda’s last talk, and although I’ve heard other speak of it (and actually read Desmond Morris’s book when it came out, although I wasn’t reading or writing romance at the time, but it fit my college bio/anthro classes), Linda did the best job of any other speakers. (She did admit to over 20 years of giving it!). And Son of the Morning was the first romance I ever read.

    Thanks for the shout out for my blog recap of her workshop.
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Terry, you’re an OCC girl? What a small world!! Son of the Morning is a book that defies description – time travel, mystery, romance, women’s fiction, suspense…it’s got it all, really. Thanks for popping over – I loved your post!


  10. Whooohoooo! I’ve got most of these (totally forgot about the hand on the small of the back, oooh, that is so totally sexy!). I write fantasy, so it doesn’t just have to be for romance. Even though I hit most of them, I’m still bookmarking this page for future Big Sexy’s! Thanks Jenny.


  11. I made my own chart from Morris’ work years ago, but I found that your blog gave this valuable information a bright humorous tone that encourages us to use the content more readily. Guy-writers, this is what you need to expand the reader-market for your books!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Now I wish I was writing for adults – I could whip up a pretty juicy scene or two. I write YA so certain rules apply — my characters can’t do more than just kissing and caressing, but even with that I make my scenes pretty darn hot, ha,ha 🙂

    Awesome post, Jen, as always!


  13. Dang! I haven’t mastered Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief yet, and here you give me twelve steps to learn. Thanks, Jenny. I copied them into a Word file for future reference.


  14. Marcia says:

    This is great, Jenny! I’m writing a short story on one of the characters in my novel and it has scenes of sex with her father who’s been sexually abusing her for years. Now, of course I know all the levels of intimacy like we all do but, this chart helps me look at it in a new way and i can figure out exactly how I want the sexual abuse scenes to go…also the sex scene in the full-length novel. I haven’t heard of Linda Howard tl now. I’ll check out the post you linked. Thanks!


  15. I always operate on the “sex, violence and swearing are unnecessary except when they’re essential” principle.

    I have never yet had to write a sex scene but I am writing a web series at the moment which will have one … in a ditch. (Ditch sex, it’s the only way to go.) And I do need the complete build up so this is very interesting, and handy.

    As an aside I think the main problem with the actual sexual act is that it removes the tension – “Moonlighting” was never the same after Maddie and David committed the act. You have to have somewhere else to go.

    As an aside on that aside, I have a novel with same-sex different-specie (both humanoid though) sexual tension. Mostly because neither character has ever had any meaningful relationship with anybody until this point, and they’re really rather confused by it all. I don’t think I resolved it very well in the end – they end up parting company – I shall have to look at it again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Steve, thanks for the snort of laughter you just gave me. Ditch sex??! Dude, as a girl I have to tell you all I’m picturing is rocks digging into the back and some sewer sludge so you’d better make it pretty dang good to make up for all that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I promise. To be more accurate it’s a hole made by a bomb blast (zeppelins dropping bombs on Manchester UK, 1911 – alternate history, steampunk) – it was the Director who called it “ditch sex” 🙂

        There’s a lot more going on, breaks my heart just thinking about what I have to write. (The poor author, suffering for his art.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jenny Hansen says:

          OK, so no sewer sludge, but still plenty of rocks. Can we at least have a blanket, a plaid, a cloak…something for the naked parts of your sexing couple? I’m just sayin…it would make a cozier scene in my head. 🙂


        • Um, they have sex during a war? Dressed in those Victorian gowns with goggles? You better at least let her have a blanket!


    • Completely intrigued, here, about same-sex/different-specie!

      If the resolution is problematic, you might consider the imprinting factor. A child who was never held lacks empathy, etc. So maybe at an early stage one of your characters was loved unconditionally if briefly, so at least they know what it’s supposed to feel like, can long for it ever after, and can mentor the other till the heart is awakened. They might not know how to put all the pieces together, they’ll create tension from mistakes, but they’ll try till it works cuz it just feels so good.


      • 🙂 Thanks for the interest. I was glib (for simplicity), both have had some love, just not a lot. Both are way out of their comfort zones and forced to depend on one another. I hadn’t intended there to be anything between them, but characters will insist on doing things you don’t expect, especially women*. Plus it was supposed to be YA.

        Anyway, back to the ditch sex.

        *joke, just being deliberately provocative.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Love this part about kissing: “keeps your readers fanning themselves and turning your pages to see when your characters are going to do it again.” So true.

    I have got to #4 with my hero and heroine. Good to know where to go next. 🙂


  17. What a fabulous tool for writers of all kinds. I’m so glad I found this link over at R.K. MacPherson’s Blog. I will treasure it.


  18. Before I read your post I had decided I didn’t want to write explicit sex scenes. Linda Howard is one I actually planned to use as a model for how I wanted to write the relationship between my characters. The twelve steps are a map to reach that goal. Thanks!


  19. I attended a great workshop presented by Diana Gabaldon at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference last month, and her main message about writing sex scenes, is that combined with the tension in the steps toward intimacy described so well above (which is about emotion) the sex itself is not about sex, but emotion. I am going to re-read her Outlander Series novels and see how she does it. And she writes about nearly every event in human lives.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      WOW, Marion! That’s a rare chance…Gabaldon doesn’t give a ton of workshops. It sounds like an amazing time at the Surrey Conference – you’ll have blogs for weeks out of that! The Outlander series is truly groundbreaking. She invented a genre with that one.


  20. Scott Morgan says:

    Absolutely excellent post, Jenny. So much writing advice brushes over the details, so I love to find something that spells things out and helps people with their craft. I’m telling EVERYbody I can to read this.


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  22. Katrina says:

    Great post, and some fantastic links to follow up on! It reminds me of a chart we got during sex ed (which wasn’t called sex ed at my Christian school, but “Marriage, family and commitment”) that plotted this out, along with the physical reactions boys and girls go through. My main memory is of the point along the graph – very early along the graph – where it said: Male genital arousal. DANGER ZONE!

    I’ll have to start following you. Really interesting blog you have here. 🙂


  23. Jenny! How did you know this is exactly what I’ve needed to find??? You may have been feeling sick but your precognition is fired up! I’m at a point in my WIP for novel #2 where guidance is seriously required to kick up the “hot” factor a few notches and I suffer from the same four issues you mentioned. I’ll be printing this out immediately. I’m a tad late in getting to this and SO glad I didn’t miss it. I’ve got a serious case of “blog backlog” … surely there must be a portmanteau for that!


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  25. Jane Sadek says:

    Hey – this is good advice for reality, too! Going through all the stages slowly could make for a very exciting evening and provide some good material for your book!

    Liked by 1 person

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  28. hutch1957 says:

    Thanks for the tips. I see a rewrite in my future.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. What a great idea, Jenny! I’ll keep these stages in mind when things get down and dirty in my next novel. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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