Roundtable #8: Unresolved Sexual Tension (UST)

Note: This post is done in a roundtable style where members of Writer’s Block Party discuss a topic together.

Moderator/Editor: Christine Lynn Herman

7.pngKat: DAYS OF BLOOD & STARLIGHT and DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS with Karou and Akiva. I can’t give spoilers but it’s a “torn apart by war” kind of situation, so while it’s really UST-y it’s not annoying or frustrating because it all just makes sense in the story. Also, THE 100 with Clarke and Bellamy even though Clarke doesn’t deserve him.

Ashley: There are SO many! UST is one of my favorite tropes overall, so this is hard. Kaz and Inej from SIX OF CROWS, Zuko and Katara from ATLA, Scully and Mulder from THE X-FILES, and of course, Darcy and Lizzie from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.


Meg: Obviously no one is going to be surprised that one of my favorite UST couples is Elias and Laia from AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir. I love their burning attraction dynamic. Another favorite UST example is Ravi and Peyton from iZombie—it’s one of those “Will they? No, but WILL THEY FINALLY!?” and I adore it, even if I’m shouting at my TV screen.

Foody: Blair and Chuck in GOSSIP GIRL, Agnieska and the Dragon in UPROOTED, Nina and Matthias in Six of Crows, Simon and Baz in CARRY ON, Clarke and Bellamy in the 100, Blue and Gansey in THE RAVEN CYCLE, Han and Raisa in THE SEVEN REALMS series, Anne and Gilbert in ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, Day and June in LEGEND, Yelena and Valek in POISON STUDY.


Kat: Ahahahahaha {laughs forever until it turns to frustrated sobs}

Okay, real answer. I think the most important thing for me as a reader is to know that each character has depth outside of their relationship with the other. What are they missing, what can the other character give them to help them become more whole? Does the other character make them better? Also, I think that there’s something to be said for just animal lust being a part of the equation. How do they react when the other character is in the room? I like those moments where they’re not even touching or talking, but they FEEL each other. Shivers.

Foody: I personally think there are several key ingredients to good UST. The first being a strong dynamic between the characters. Your two characters need to rile each other in some way–every time they interact, they need to be leaving that conversation feeling dramatically different than when they entered it, whether they be calmer or fuming. We need to see that the characters are making each other feel, and we need to see each character changing their status quo behavior in relation to the other.

Meg: Good UST dynamics, and relationship dynamics in general, need a good foundation. The foundation can be a literal history/backstory between two characters (I LOVE when characters have a chip on their shoulders about each other), but even if your characters have never met before the beginning of the novel, you still need to set up their dynamic. We need to know who they are, whether someone moves fast in relationships or not. Establish the types of people they are and how they’re going to interact with one another. Lust at first sight is a real thing, but how are you going to develop that into a functioning, on the page relationship/friendship/enemyship? (Enemyship isn’t a word, but alliteration is.)

Ashley: I think it’s always good to stick to the old adage show don’t tell. It’s sexual tension, so it’s probably physical on some level, and I think for that, subtlety is best. When I had a crush on someone in middle school or high school, I was so AWARE of them at any given time, every movement. Without even trying to sometimes. But I think there has to be an emotional element too, beyond the physical. Like if characters know exactly how to get on each others nerves, know just what to say to make them angry or hurt, that shows something about their relationship, that they know each other that well and that the other person would let their words get in like that. A heated conversation is one of the best ways to show UST in my opinion–think the rain scene from Pride and Prejudice when Darcy proposes to Lizzie.

Meg: Yes Ashley! Heated conversations are the best.

Kat: YES! I agree with Ashley. An argument or any moment where emotions are high are great times to explore tension! I love the moments where something personal slips and both have to deal with the fallout of it. Also, it gives a chance for witty dialogue!

Foody: Another key ingredient is conflict. There needs to reasons preventing the characters from becoming a couple. The best ones are two fold: an external reason and an internal reason. Whether it is forbidden romance (Legend) or rivalry (Gossip Girl) or a literal prophecy of death (The Raven Cycle), there should be some real obstacle in their way. Two, the romantic relationship needs to represent something in the characters’ development. Kissing someone isn’t just about kissing them! What has the character had to change about themselves to get to this point?

Kat: FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS (retelling of PERSUASION) is a great example of characters with a past and that UST kills me the whole book!

Ashley: Yes! PERSUASION itself is so good for that relationship with a broken history thing.

Kat: Ashley, it’s almost tragic isn’t it? Because how do we know if it’s fixable? Do they even belong together if they’ve hurt each other before? But still…we can’t help rooting for them and they can’t help coming back to each other.

Meg: One of my favorite couples with a history is definitely Veronica and Logan from VERONICA MARS. You come into the show and there is all this baggage that unfolds on screen!

Ashley: How could I forget Veronica and Logan? That might be my all-time fave UST relationship.

Foody: Lastly, make the reader wait as long as possible for the relationship to play out. Yes, the ancient, sacred technique of blue balling. It does wonders.

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Kat: Well we already all talked about the fight scenes. The moments of misunderstanding that force our characters to delve deeper into why their emotions are so high. I also like the moments where you’re just unable to pop that tension bubble. So any time people are in public and something BIG happens but they can’t react. Or when something is revealed but they’re on a life or death mission so they can’t follow through about it.

Ashley: Obviously, an intense argument is one for me. Also anything that forces people close together like dances and bad weather and hiding from the bad guys. But one of my favorites is when one character is tending to another’s injuries–it forces contact and likely bare skin, and it’s the best.

Meg: There are so many tropes that I LOVE to get characters together, but I tend to use quest/journeys the most. A common goal forces the characters to be together and they have to stay together until they accomplish the task that is usually rooted in the plot of the book (if I’m doing my job correctly anyway.)

Kat: I also am a sucker for those times where high adrenaline moments bring us closer together. Like “We survived death and now we share that connection.” Also any time they share a secret and must work together to keep it. That’s always fun, also gives lots of room for hijinks!

Ashley: Yes, Kat, I also love fight scenes when the adrenaline is super high. And when two characters fight WELL together it’s like this physical harmony that hints at other things…

Meg: I have definitely used tending injuries! It makes the tone of everything so tender while they secretly are seething that they want anyone but this person to be treating them–but SURPRISE! They actually don’t want anyone else to be helping them.

Kat: Oh! I like using tending the injury as metaphor hahaha. like “you hurt me before and now I’m physically hurt and you’re the only one that can bandage the wound.”

Meg: Another favorite of mine is fake dating. I love when characters have to fake being into each other (but they actually are, of course) for some plot reason, or something that ties into it.

Kat: Fake dating is the best! And they’re like bickering under their breath “I hate you!” and then they do that ONE dance or that ONE fake party and they’re like “Woah, you’re kind of attractive.”

Foody: For me, I try my hardest to ensure the characters are sharing a lot of meaningful page time. The more the better! I love unlikely teams–Sorina and Luca, and Enne and Levi both fall into this category. I love a good strange or terrible first impression. I love it when the characters come to depend on each other emotionally. I love messy drunk confessions. I love characters awkwardly having to share a bed. Fake dating. All that jazz.


Foody: I struggle with this a lot, but I think it has to do with more that is happening outside the relationship rather than inside it. As a writer or a reader, we’re shouting “now kiss!” at the page, but if enough stuff is happening (i.e. danger and such), it wouldn’t be appropriate in that moment.

Kat: I think it’s all about giving them depth outside the relationship. We have to love them on their own as much as we love them together. We have to want them to get what their ultimate goal is (and usually if it’s genre fic that’s not romance). So give us all the lust and tension and kisses, but also give us character depth and internal and external motivations and goals. Give us things that the characters fight together for outside of their romance. (heists, battles, dance battles)

Meg: I hate it when a romantic couple loses tension. This example is definitely my opinion, but I thought (SPOILERS!) when Damon and Elena finally kissed on The Vampire Diaries, their entire dynamic fell flat. The build up to it was amazing, but—for me—it fell apart afterwards. I think the best course of action is to let characters give in to each other briefly and then basically start from zero. In my book, I have two characters kiss and then I have to step back and go, “Okay, what am I going to do to continue to make this interesting for the reader?” I need to keep the stakes up and not lose the character’s dynamic entirely simply because they’ve kissed—the plot is still a factor, which impacts them and affects how they interact, so it’s going to affect how they feel about kissing.

Kat: I’m currently reading a YA contemporary, WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI. And it’s obviously very romance based. But I am just as invested in where Rishi and Dimple end up in their own personal growth. And those are issues they had long before they met each other. They are each supporting each other in their personal battles, and that’s what made them grow closer up to this point, but I am very interested in seeing how their personal goals play out and how that will help or get in the way of their romance. (As I haven’t finished yet!)

Meg: I agree Kat, the characters NEED to be their own characters. The moment they stop or forget about the plot is when it gets boring.

Ashley: This is hard, and honestly, it’s a case by case basis. It depends on what kind of story you’re writing–like if it’s dystopian and the world is ending, then probably the UST will simmer for awhile because OTHER THINGS should be at the forefront. But also, it depends on what is keeping the two apart. Is it that they simply don’t like each other, and are too stubborn to feel anything but blind hatred? Is it some broken past between them that’s getting in the way? Is it outside circumstances that keep them apart? I think it has to be organic, which is to say it has to feel like it’s a natural product of each character’s arc or growth. If the two character’s UST is built on the fact that they are supposed to be enemies, then who would a character have to be, how would they have to grow, in order to trust the other character enough to be with them?

Kat, I think what you said about WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI is a good point. There are times when UST can stay unresolved because it’s about more than the characters getting together. When it’s more about who they make each other, and what loving another person, without expecting or thinking they deserve something in return, does to their growth.

Kat: I honestly believe that not all love needs to end up with HEA (Happily Ever After) romance. Though it’s hard to accept as a reader and lover of romance. I also know that especially at the age of YA, sometimes love is only there to help us find ourselves.

Meg: Absolutely, Kat. Not everything needs to be perfect in the end–it’s not always realistic.

Ashley: Yes, I agree about HEAs. Most romantic relationships in your life don’t end with a HEA, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t good and important.


Ashley: I’ll be honest, I’m not so great at writing the resolved part. So many movies, and books too I guess, end with the resolve and you don’t really get to see the after, so it’s hard to know how to do it right!

Kat: For me the break needs to meet the expectations of the lead up. If you’re keeping two fated lovers apart and then they just peck and go “oh there you are.” Then I will hate you forever and we’re not friends anymore. But if it’s like two people who are late for a date and they’re like “Finally! My love!” I’ll just laugh until I die.

I think a GREAT moment was season 2 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (SPOILERS!) So much lead up to that moment. Buffy loved Angel, lost Angel, Angel tried to kill Buffy and the whole world. And finally, when she accepted the end of her love, he came back to her. But still. She had to sacrifice him for the greater good. And that episode destroyed me. Like TO THIS DAY, that episode is a turning point in my adolescence.

Meg: Don’t let the characters lose themselves. So they’ve decided to be in a relationship, but that doesn’t mean they’re completely new characters. A character who has been more quiet, less visibly emotional isn’t suddenly going to be sobbing happily and pouring out their heart—if they do do this, you need to back it up. It might be a big deal for this character to say, “I like you” and that’s it. Also, a lot of times a kiss or a declaration of feelings doesn’t mean ANYTHING is actually resolved. Take, for example, my best friend Sabaa Tahir’s EMBER: Elias and Laia kiss, and it’s more of this burst of attraction rather than actually solving how they feel.

Foody: If I’m spending all this time emotionally changing and building up the characters to romance, I don’t want to cheapen it all by throwing in too much conflict in their relationship, unless it is important to the major plot.

Ashley: Yeah, the resolution has to be equal to the build up, for sure. And sometimes, like the UST itself, the actual resolution can be a slow burn. That’s tricky, and a lot of TV shows have fallen into the “now they are together, there must be endless drama to keep things interesting” pit. Two characters can kiss, one can admit his/her feelings, but they still aren’t together, for whatever reason. One UST pair Kat mentioned earlier is Karou and Akiva, and that’s a great example, because they love each other a little past the mid-point I think, and they know they love each other, but things are complicated. You can have two characters in love and not together. Actually bringing them together should probably tie in to the larger plot, I think, because if something has been keeping them apart, then there has to be a shift of some kind to change that.

Foody: I really love the dynamics of a lot of the relationships in Pretty Little Liars; once they’re together, they become a team! I like partners in crime. The characters still need to change on their own, which can lead to its own conflicts in the relationship, but I don’t like jerking around the romance all the time once it’s there.  

Ashley: Another great relationship that began as UST and then continued as a healthy relationship is Ben and Leslie from Parks and Rec. Because the show did such a good job developing them as characters first and romantic partners second, we, as the viewers, just enjoyed watching them be together.

Kat: TBH a lot of my answers are K-drama characters, but no one will get those. So I will say that K-dramas do a thing where characters can totally get together in the BEGINNING or middle, but get torn apart. It’s a bit more meandering for the relationship, but the reason I like it is that it builds up what Meg was talking  about before: history. And the viewer feels like they were there for that history, so it gets them just as involved in the path to redemption for these characters. I love those stories and might have tried to include a shortened version of it in one of my MS’s, haha.

Meg: Yeah Kat, K-dramas do a really good job at establishing tension because of something that happened in the past. Like on the show SASSY GO GO, also known as CHEER UP, there are two different clubs who have been at odds with each other even before the show actually started and we get to see that on screen. It gets you invested because you want to know what happened before, but also what will happen now because of the main plot. 

Ashley: Kdramas excel at both UST and tearing my heart out of my chest and stomping all over it.

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Kat: I think that no matter the story or the relationship, we have to love the characters as much as we love the pairing. I genuinely adore Karou as a strong and resourceful girl who loves her people. I also love Akiva as a boy who wishes to survive and protect those  he loves, but fails time again and pays the price. And both dream for peace, a dream they share. So that’s why I love that relationship. NOT because Akiva is a hottie with golden eyes and Karou is a badass blue-haired survivor. Well….not ONLY because of that.

Meg: UST doesn’t need to be only sexual, it can definitely be romantic. An asexual spectrum character can still have romantic tension with another character and authors still have to put work into it to make it dynamic and interesting.

Kat: OMG Meg, yes! Like Amanda Foody’s DAUGHTER OF THE BURNING CITY! It has a spectrum character who I just adore and who I want to wrap in a blanket and protect from the world! And his relationship with the MC is so dynamic and real!

Ashley: I agree with everyone! Like all relationships, romantic or otherwise, we have to care about the characters individually in order to care about who *they* care about. If the reader wants the characters to be happy, then any romance that comes of out that will feel right.
Meg: We need to believe the dynamic as it happens on the page. You have one chance to set-up the relationship between two characters and to make sure we stay interested the entire book. Adhere to the characterization you have created for your characters and don’t rush them if they are not the type to do that, and vice versa. At the end of the day, romance is all about the characters individually and how two separate, full characters might come together and interact.

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