What makes a story sensual – as opposed to just “hot”?

When sex is more than just hot décor

Sarah Dahl blog

Just cute … or with depth and grit?

We have tons of stories, in book and on screen, which use sex to infuse excitement. Few manage to make the sex a meaningful plot point in itself. But think of the “Outlander” series and how amazingly well done the intimate scenes are. The entire plot needs this intimacy, because it does something to the characters. It changes them and therefore the plot arc. Sex is a necessary part of the story, not just arousing décor.

What is sensual?

By definition, sensual means enjoyable, pleasing, fulfilling to the senses (mostly with a sexual onnotation). And hey, we’re talking about steamy romance some might describe as erotica, BUT I strongly disagree: My writing colleague and a master of the genre, J.D. Lexx, described my craft as “intricate plots that just happen to be sensual”. The erotic undertones or actions aren’t just a means to an end. They are embedded in plots with depth and character development, authentic setting- and period-descriptions. The sexual tension unfolds slowly. There is real longing, a deep yearning for the other person, I show the multi-layered emotions and conflicts the protagonists have to go through. I don’t follow the usual rules of neither romance nor erotica.

Vulnerable warriors – depth makes sexy

Maybe that’s because I’m German. My definition of sensual includes: vulnerability. A letting down of defences. My protagonists let their love- (and sex-) interest “in”, they open up and reveal their weaknesses. Which is particularly attractive when a Viking does it; the typical image of a strong, invincible warrior, who suddenly faces the vulnerability that comes with deep longing for “the one”. I make use of that contradiction, this tension, in my stories. All the Tales of Freya feature a strong warrior (or shield maiden!) who through their deep desire and love for someone become vulnerable and vincible. But in the course of my tales, they also become even stronger through their emotions and the will to risk something for their fulfilment. Because their life receives an – unforeseen – direction, a meaning, and a clear destination. Their lives change from a simple fighting life (like in “The Current”, the first Tale), or no fighting life and meaninglessness (like in “The Awakening”) to something more. Warriors who are fearless in the shieldwall suddenly learn what real fear is – for their world view, or for someone they love (I explore this in the upcoming “Bonds”, which ties into the first story “Current”). Their desire reveals their true depths, the new meaning they want in their lives, and what they have to overcome (especially prominent in this latest story “Monk”. Here the sexual act transforms our protagonist in several ways and makes him question his entire choice of life). Sarah Dahl Monk

The people behind the armour: sex is risky

This is very emotional and requires that I do my protagonists justice. I don’t want just to use the pretty warrior bodies for the readers’ pleasure. I reveal the people behind the armour. I want to drag readers into their world and minds. They aren’t cardboard warriors, they are characters with flaws and dreams – and fear. I want readers to feel for them, root for them, enjoy with them when their dream comes true and changes their life. So my writing has to be exceptionally intimate, not just hot. It has to be “sensual” in the German sense. The sensuality and sexual tension has to have a deep meaning and stakes to be high, to unfold in an emotionally impactful way. Which then hopefully impacts the reader more, too. “My sex” isn’t just a carnal act. It’s about fulfilment, about real emotions, and questioning your chosen path. My people risk something to gain something they really truly desire for the longer term. They become stronger through it. They change. “Hotness” alone, or what we’d call “just sex” doesn’t change the protagonists. Real emotions do. When something inside them shifts and something grows that takes over, that alters their goals and dreams. This is what happens in my historical fiction which just happens to be sexy: real stakes, real change.

Intimacy as a means to dive deep into the characters, fast

So in my Tales of Freya, the sexual tension and desire I introduce are a means to dive deep into the character’s cores, and fast. I have to make their emotions unfold in record time – unlike in a novel, my story and character arcs are much, much shorter. But I want to achieve a lot in that short space: character development, rising stakes, risk, and a life-changing outcome: In “Monk – Captured by Temptation” the sensual act shatters the world views of both my monk and his Viking captors, and after their daring encounter they come out as changed people with new outlooks on life. I hope you enjoy watching the drama – and sexiness 😉 – unfold!

Which are your favourite examples for intimacy as necessary plot points? Why are they more impactful than “mere sex” would have been? Tell us in the comments, I can’t wait to hear more examples! 😉

HAPPY READING & WRITING! 

 

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