Non-Sexual Tension

I was reading a message board the other day, and someone made the comment that sexual tension always improves a TV show. Several of us argued against that, but it got me thinking: that does seem to be what the people making TV believe. And why? Could it be that it’s the easiest, cheapest element mediocre writers can toss onto a mediocre show as a hook to keep the audience watching? I think so. Because it’s pretty obvious that well-written sexual tension that supports the story instead of distracting from it can be a good thing. But in a lot of cases, it slows down the plot, acts as filler, and detracts from the whole point of the show.

So I thought I would take it upon myself to introduce filmmakers to an astounding concept, as if more than two of them are reading this site and care: hey, guys, there are other types of tension out there! Right there in the world with you every day. Hell, some of them are going on right in Your Next Story Meeting! So grab your pacemaker and hold on.

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that well-written tension of any sort is good for drama., and aexual tension is probably the weakest form because it’s so common and predictable. But the good news is: all forms of tension give the audience a little buzz of adrenaline that is just as exciting as sexual tension. Moreso in some cases. Just look at the language of tension, and you’ll see that it’s all sexy to the brain, whether it’s sex-based or not.

Look at every movie/show where the hero and villain are equally matched and want to nail each other to the wall so bad they can taste it. In recent years, critics have followed a trend of redefining that sort of tension as homoerotic, but that just proves critics are stupid. The conflict between the hero and villain is not based in frustrated sexual desire for each other: it’s that some of the elements of a courtship come into play in any battle of wills. The attempt to seduce, to conquer, to possess. The audience response can be as hormonally charged as with any sexual encounter. Moreso, I would argue.

Or am I the only person who got a serious high off watching that amazing lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Maul at the end of The Phantom Menace? Two equally matched opponents, both passionately involved in the fight, struggling to reach the climax of the battle? I mean, come on. Do I need to comment on the shape of a lightsaber here?

There’s also the one-step-ahead tension, where opposing forces are constantly trying to outwit each other. The first season of Alias pitted Sydney Bristow against Arvin Sloane in a very well-written example of this kind of tension. They each had their own agendas, in which they tried to stay a step ahead of each other, but they were also trying to derail each other’s agendas, and that’s where both stayed a step behind. Far from creating sexual tension, Sydney conveyed a desire to vomit everytime the man responsible for her fiance’s death smiled at her or touched her. But the tension was thrilling all the same. Equally matched opponents, wrestling to see who came out on top. There again with the language.

Noticing a pattern here? “Equally matched opponents”. It’s what makes tension of any sort great, because you really don’t know who’s going to win the match, or if there will even be anything left to win by the time they’re done. How fascinating would a cop drama be if all the criminals left neat little clues everywhere and practically turned themselves in?

And yet, that’s what TV and film people keep writing between couples, and they have the nerve to call it sexual tension. Newsflash: that’s just porn with the clothes on. It’s a peep show, not a story.

The latest trend in alleged sexual tension has been women falling for their off-limits bosses, who are usually married. I’ve lost count how many TV shows have this as a throughline right now, but here’s something to think about. That’s kind of a classic porn theme, folks: sexy secretary really wants to service boss studman! Gee, what a challenge for him. What tension. We will be so impressed by his prowess if he actually manages to nail this hot subordinate who is begging him for some hot love. (Gag.)

When you’re writing stories, folks, remember that any kind of tension – sexual or otherwise – has to involve some kind of friction and frustration that the audience can’t see twelve different ways to resolve without even trying.


  1. says

    This is ridiculous. I don’t think I can speak for TV shows but I know that in movies an incredible amount of tension can be created thats continents away from sexual tension. One director who did it very well was Hitchcock and though I haven’t intensely studied his movies, the films were more about the people.

    In Vertigo, there is a relationship there but I didn’t feel any sexual tension between James Stewart and Kim Novak. It was more about discovering who she really was. There was definitely tension between them but it seemed more like a desperate want to know than to rip each other’s clothes off.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Great observation! And considering all the directors who mimic Hitchcock’s camera work and art design, you’d think more of them would have picked up on how he makes characters part of the plot by making them the mystery.

  3. SunlessNick says

    Alias provides another example in the form of Sydney and Dixon: two characters with a relationship requiring absolute trust. Yet one subverted by Syd betraying him on a regular basis, throwing them into an adversarial condition of which he was unaware – initially, though he was intelligent enough to become suspicious in time – and which she utterly detested. When she eventually came clean, it led to a bitter rift that while nominal forgiveness came quickly, took a long time to completely heal. And no hint of a sexual element.
    To say nothing of the tension that existed between Syd and her father!

    Another recent series is Surface. The two leads in that were a female divorcee and a man whose relationship with his wife was falling apart over his obsession with an underwater encounter. They were thrown together into a difficult and dangerous situation – forced to rely on each other, despite the fact that in their normal lives they would have had little reason to like or respect one another – and become close allies, each owing the other their life by series end.
    Had it not been cancelled, would it have gone a sexual route? Maybe, maybe not. But in the season that aired, there was no sex in either the tension or closeness between them – and that was hardly a loss.

  4. scarlett says

    Alias is a really interesting example because of all the men she plays against, the ones she has the best tension with – her father, Sloane and Dixon – there’s no hint of a sexual relationship, and the one where she’s quite obviously in a sexual relationship with – Vaughn – there’s no tension.

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