In romance writing, sex is often used to show intimacy or commitment. But what if you want your characters to be together while it doesn’t make sense for them to dive into bed (yet)? Or what if you don’t want to write sex at all? Thankfully, there are ways to show intimacy without sex!
Sex scenes – or at least good sex scenes – aren’t about sex. As I also emphasize in my blog about writing sex scenes, the emotional developments and the inner conflict are much more important than where all body parts are going at any moment.
And sex scenes can be very effective ways to show closeness and intimacy in a relationship. After all, there are few things more intimate and vulnerable than sex! But of course not everybody likes to write explicit scenes. And even if you do, sometimes you’ll characters will probably be developing a certain degree of intimacy before they get to the dirty deed itself. I therefore decided it was high time for a blog about intimacy without sex!
Intimacy without sex: 10 ideas
1. Intimate conversations
Some of the most intimate moments in my life have been conversations – those talks late at night when the rest of the world has already gone quiet and it’s just you and your partner or your friends exchanging your deepest thoughts… Show how your characters get together to comfort each other, support each other and talk about their hopes, fears and desires. Or perhaps they will discuss their future together? Bonus points for intimacy if they can still have a laugh together even when talking about heavy stuff!
2. Vulnerability / sharing secrets
In the end, I think intimacy – with or without sex – is all about vulnerability. To show how close your characters are, let them share secrets of which they know they could hurt them, secrets they aren’t sharing with anyone else in the world.
This also is a quick way to bring characters together even if they don’t know each other that well yet! In The Spinster & The Thief, Zovinar and Garreth end up talking about her insecurities and his deep resentment towards the world during their very first conversation. From that starting point, it makes sense an immediate emotional bond is forged – more than if they had just been talking about the weather or their hobbies.
3. Knowing each other too well
Characters who’ve known each other for some time will know what to expect from each other. They’ll anticipate particular reactions, share inside jokes and – just as important – know when something is amiss.
Few things make me smile like characters who know just a little too much about each other’s way of thinking. Have them laugh at some shared joke or exchange meaningful glances about something, and I’ll be laughing with them. And if they realize it when the other is upset, and know how to deal with that problem in the right way, I’m on their side for the rest of the story.
4. Facial expressions
I love playing with expressions and what they tell us about the way my characters feel. In Velvet, Viviette has been frustrated for years about Jaghar’s cold, unemotional behaviour. So when he shows his feelings around her for the first time, that is a major event – and a first step in the chain of events that will change their mutual opinions of each other entirely.
Only after ten long seconds of silence –
His smile transformed his face, revealing an entirely different man below the heartless façade she knew so well. There was a bitter edge to that smile, something awkward from disuse, something strained and painful – but it was accompanied by a twinkle in his dark eyes that looked nearly mischievous, as if his amusement was a closely guarded secret that only she, his fellow conspirator, was allowed to know. Perhaps it was? Viviette couldn’t help feeling as if she had passed some test neither of them had known existed.
Many people hold up some kind of mask in public. Think about the difference between your character in public and in private. How can you show them getting more and more comfortable around their love interest purely through expressions or body language?
5. Looking into eyes
Do you know that theory which says you can fall in love with nearly anyone if you stare into their eyes for long enough? (Okay, I’ll admit I don’t really buy it, but it makes my point…)
Eye contact is a very intimate thing, and the longer it lasts, the more vulnerable it will make your characters. One word of caution, though: don’t spend five paragraphs just describing your love interest’s eyes if you want to use this strategy. I’m not swooning just because someone has purple eyes, sorry! A quick sentence on description is fine, of course, but don’t overdo it.
Instead, tell me how that shared look makes your POV character feel – do they feel seen and understood for the first time, do they feel nervous, do they feel warm inside? What thoughts are emerging in their mind? What thoughts and feelings do they think they detect in the other’s eyes?
6. Innocent touches
Okay, we’re writing about intimacy without sex, but that doesn’t mean we must do intimacy without any touch. Many “innocent” touches can be just as intimate as the steamiest scene. Kissing and hugging are obvious options, but consider less standard alternatives such as:
- Holding or touching hands (bonus points if it’s in public)
- Brushing through each other’s hair
- Laying a hand in the small of the other’s back
- Playful tickling
- Resting a head against the other’s chest
… You probably get the point. Think about what works for you – what makes you feel happy and loved? I personally get fuzzy feelings in my stomach whenever someone touches my back, but I suppose this is different for everybody.
Do I need to explain this one? Dancing can be an incredibly intimate experience even without any closer body contact. I’m going to give another example here, just because it’s one of my all-time favourite moments from The Spinster & The Thief:
Then his arms were around her, swaying her off her feet and drawing her along into the rhythm of a melody only he could hear. Her body adjusted in an instance, found his balance, read his steps as if they had been written onto her heart itself – and then they were dancing, whirling and twisting through the small hostel room, the floor creaking under their feet, their breath coming out in ragged heaves of laughter. He held her close, far closer than the eyes at court would ever have allowed him to, pressing her against his muscular body as if she belonged to him. Faster and faster their feet came down on the creaking wood, their shared heartbeat accelerating as they swept and swirled and swooshed through the near-darkness – until finally their feet collided in their dizzying speed and Zovinar stumbled, breaking through the rhythm of their steps with a breathless cry. He caught her with a lightning-quick reflex, and pulled her back into his arms as he spun to a standstill. Now he was laughing, a full, unrestrained laugh that shook through his body as he pressed her against him – ‘Zovinar…’
Admittedly, the scene later escalates into some steamier stuff – but none of that could have happened without this dance first.
8. Sharing a hobby
I once became instant friends with another girl just because we both liked baking. (It was a win-win – we could exchange recipes and cake.) Icing cookies together turned out to be a great way to get close, even if we really knew very little about each other in the beginning.
Give your characters a shared passion, something they can do together for hours, and they’ll never have a single boring moment together. It also gives them a great way to share their enthusiasm with each other, which, in my opinion, is another essential ingredient for true intimacy.
9. Doing nothing together
Doing things with people is relatively easy (see the baking example above). You know you’ve hit another and much deeper layer of intimacy when you can also do nothing together.
What happens if your characters hang out in the same room for a day, in sweatpants, with nothing on their mind and no conversation to keep going? Are they comfortable with each other’s presence even when there’s nothing else going on? Do they deal with the silence easily? If so – you’ve found another great way to show intimacy without sex!
10. Doing things for each other
I’ve already said something similar above, but I adore characters who truly help and support each other and who really go out of their way to make the other feel better. It shows a very sweet kind of mutual affection when characters do things to help each other out every now and then. So have him cook her a meal on a busy day, or have her joining him at his dance classes even though she doesn’t like dancing, just because she knows it will make him happy. Show how they are willing to put the other’s comfort above their own every now and then.
(Of course, you shouldn’t overdo this – especially women are often shown as an extension of their love interest, and few things are as annoying as a cool female character who loses all her individual identity as soon as there’s a man involved. But a little bit of effort in both ways is great!)
So, those were my ten ways to show intimacy without sex in romance writing. Do you have any additional suggestions? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!