Keeping your audience hooked on your story is really important. To do that you keep them wanting something, hoping for something to happen, and teasing them that it might. For a series this is especially important, because they need to keep coming back time and time again.
There are various ways you can keep your audience invested in finding out what happens in your story, but here I’ll be talking about Unresolved Sexual Tension.
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, but something external to their relationship is blocking it from happening.
In Bones, Brennan and Booth have Unresolved Sexual Tension but don’t act on it because of a combination of maintaining a working relationship and fear of being hurt. In Battlestar Galactica, Starbuck and Apollo don’t act on their Unresolved Sexual Tension because 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.
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, because each episode you know 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.
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, and surges in importance at moments to add extra tension, 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.
In Friends, the Unresolved Sexual Tension between Ross and Rachel was resolved fairly quickly, but 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, and 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?
So how do you keep the tension alive? In Friends, Ross and Rachel have a perpetually on and off again relationship. In New Girl, Jess and Nick 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.
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