Thursday, February 20, 2014

The 12 Steps to Intimacy, Part 1

To continue February’s romance/sex theme here at The Blood Red Pencil, I was asked to discuss the 12 Steps to Intimacy. Although in romance circles, Linda Howard is known for her presentation on the topic, in fact, she gives appropriate credit to Desmond Morris for presenting them in Intimate Behaviour: A Zoologist's Classic Study of Human Intimacy by Desmond Morris (originally published in 1971).

Bottom line: human beings are hard-wired to establish relationships, because without them, child-rearing probably wouldn’t happen. Unlike most other animals that can fend for themselves early on, human infants require a lot of time, effort, and teaching before they can survive on their own. There had to be a strong mechanism in place to bond a man and a woman so that they’d stick around to raise their offspring. For those of you who'd like to know more about how the survival of our species revolves around sex, you can find more in a post I wrote for my own blog.

Studies have shown that relationships that don't follow these steps tend to be shorter-lived than those that progress naturally through them. In a broad generalization, women prefer to move through the steps, whether it be consciously or not. Just like a building requires a strong foundation, so does a relationship.

When writing (or reading) a romance, it’s important to consider these steps. They don’t have to happen in order (in erotica, they normally start way down the line), but they will create a bond between hero and heroine, and if steps are missing and not filled in, it’s likely there won’t be a believable relationship. Also, when writing romance, it's as much about the sexual tension as the sex. That means you're going to be pushing your characters together, then pulling them apart. Before there’s sex, there needs to be sexual tension, and knowing these steps will help you build it.

I’ll go through the first six steps with this post, and when it’s my turn again, I’ll post the last six. The steps are given from a male to female standpoint, so we're looking at the male as instigator, although these steps will work both ways

1. Eye to body –
This is the sizing up of a potential mate. The woman walks into the room. The man looks at her and decides if she's someone who appears to meet his criteria. Hard wiring suggests he's looking for a mate who appears healthy and able to bear his offspring, but we've all met guys where merely having two X chromosomes is enough. However, if the female doesn't measure up, he moves away.

2. Eye to eye –
Assuming the woman passed muster in step 1, the man will attempt to make eye contact. If the woman averts her eyes, that's a "pull away." The man has the choice of moving on, or perhaps accepting the challenge and trying again. Be aware that a fixed gaze can also be viewed as threat behavior, so there's more fodder for the push-pull.

3. Voice to voice –
If she's accepted his gaze (and, by the way, the woman is doing the same kind of sizing up at the same time), the next step is to strike up a conversation. You want to pull them apart, perhaps your hero uses the pickup line from hell, tells a bad joke, or is a "me me me" conversationalist.

4. Hand to hand (or arm) –
The very first step in physical contact. This is the step where intimacy begins. Allowing someone to touch is a measure of trust. The woman is accepting some vulnerability here. Touching signals to others that there's a 'couple' forming.

5. Arm to shoulder—
Putting an arm around the woman's shoulder (what teenager in a movie theater hasn't tried that move?) Holding hands still allows keeping some distance, but an arm around the shoulder draws the couple closer on a physical level. Trust continues to build. Again, if the woman pulls away, you've created some tension. She may not be ready for this step yet.

6. Arm to waist, or back—
Here, if the woman is put off by the man, she'll move away, often unconsciously. If he puts a hand at the small of her back, she may increase her pace to move out of reach. Arms around the waist show a growing familiarity and comfort in the relationship.

These first six steps are basic, and seem almost intuitive. Nothing here is out of the scope of the public arena. In a sweet romance, there might not be a whole lot more than this on the page. In an erotic romance, these first steps might take place on page one. As the author, you have to decide how to show the progression, and what kind of devices you'll use to keep them from forging ahead. One of the challenges of erotica, where you want the hero and heroine to have their happily ever after, is going back and filling in the missing steps.

As a writer, how do you show these first six steps? Does your heroine retreat behind dark sunglasses? Does she get a thrill when his hand brushes her arm? You can develop any of these with dialog, internal monologue, or plot. Add a second male to the mix and watch the territorial dogs go at it, each moving through the steps to 'claim' the woman as his. At the approach of another man, does your hero take your heroine's hand? Put his on her shoulder? Does he glare at the intruder, keeping steady eye contact? Have you noticed a closer connection to characters when the author develops the relationship using these steps?

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She's the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

20 comments :

  1. I never considered these 6 steps in quite this way, but the logical progression makes sense and opens the door to a number of powerful scenes. I like the approach where the woman pulls away from the aggressor's advances, but her receptiveness would lead them down a very different path — although her goal might differ somewhat from his and lead to a significant revelation about character for the reader. The introduction of another man into the scene enhances opportunities for some sort of showdown, be it subtle or overt, and a sharp verbal exchange between the woman and one or both of the men — or a hasty exit while they are "fighting" over her. On the other hand, instant physical attraction on the part of both parties brings its own set of possibilities, as does a confrontation brought on by alcohol or other substance abuse. What a wealth of potentials this12-step toolbox contains! (I'm fairly certain the next 6 will be just as inspiring.) Great post, Terry. I'm eagerly awaiting "the rest of the story," as Paul Harvey would have said.

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    1. Thanks, Linda. Using the "push-pull" possibilities in each step creates countless options. Deep down, we're hard-wired, but we're also individuals with our own past experiences.

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  2. Hi, Terry,

    This presentation is very useful to those of who write romance.

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    1. I think it holds across genres if there are relationships in the books. There might not be as much on the page, but people are people. There are a lot of series mysteries where the characters develop relationships across the broader scale of many books.

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  3. Every culture has different expectations in terms of touch and personal space. The same is true of personality types. Not everyone likes being touched by strangers or touched in the same way. It's something to consider when creating unique characters in genres other than romances.

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    1. Very true, Diana. The deeper we can delve into all facets of our characters, the stronger our stories will be.

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  4. This push/pull between characters is so perfect for building the sexual tension in romance, but it is also an integral part of drama in any story. The push/pull between what the central character wants or needs and his or her ability to achieve that.

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  5. This list makes a lot of sense, though I'd never thought about intimacy in this series of steps before. Fascinating. Thanks for posting.

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  6. "...human infants require a lot of time, effort, and teaching before they can survive on their own ..." My wife would attest to that ... she had to take over for my parents and is anxiously looking forward to the day that I can be released into the wild.

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    1. For her sake, I hope it's soon, Chris.

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    2. Hahaha. You're just a big baby, Christopher!

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  7. Marvelous - I have all the steps in the early stages of my romance - I think I might make the gestures a tiny bit more pointed. Terrific stuff, Terry. Can't wait for the other six. I might beg you to send them since I'll be in revision before your next post!

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    1. I think one of the 'advantages' of having these steps hard-wired into our beings is that readers recognize them on a visceral level so, although you do have to make them clear, you don't need to be 'in your face' with them.

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  8. I hadn't thought of them in terms of "steps," but I guess I've been aware enough when I write...to a point. I don't get into erotica!

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    1. These steps don't really have anything to do with erotica -- as Maryann pointed out, they're basic to humans in general.

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  9. Nice to see a little science entering the realm of romance.

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  10. Or romance entering the realm of science. :-)

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  11. These are great, Terry. I think many romance or romantic suspense writers do this without thinking, as they seem like logical steps in a developing a relationship. 'Course there's always lust, which jumps over everything.

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    1. LOL, Polly. Yes, there are always shortcuts--but then you have to back up and fill in the blanks. :-)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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