Monday, July 2, 2007

The Twelve Steps of Intimacy

Maven Erica RidleyQuick Reminder: Still one book left to win in the Carrie Ryan comment contest!

Relationships & Intimacy

I'm going to start with the credits. Desmond Morris, a behavioral scientist studying why couples divorce or stay together, first described the twelve steps of intimacy as a way to explain the progression from "Who the hell are you?" to "I can't live without you." (My words, not his.)

I believe Linda Howard was the first to present his research to the romance writing community.

According to Morris, the steps do NOT have to be taken in order, but stronger relationships are likelier when they are, and when couples give themselves time to bond before progressing to the next level.

Morris's research shows that women, specifically, resent being rushed (ie, having a man grope his way into the "grabby boob" phase before the hand holding phase.)

Time to bond can take anywhere between five minutes and five years, depending on the circumstances and depending on the couple.

Interestingly, the couples in his study who repeatedly revisited all twelve steps in order, reinforcing the progression, tended to enjoy longer relationships.

The 12 Steps and Writers

Pretty obvious what this means to you in terms of real life, but how do the twelve steps of intimacy affect you as a writer? As with any craft advice you hear anywhere, remember these two things:

* Know the "rules" before you break them
* There are no true rules, only suggestions

DO NOT marry yourself to the twelve steps in such a way as to confine your characters to some preordained, artificial progression. Instead of two people swept up in the dance of love, they'll look like two robots dipped in water.

Always, always, always keep your characters in character. If your hero is the grabby-boob type, so be it. And if your heroine responds with a swift kick to the---well, he'll learn his lesson.

PLEASE DO let the twelve steps remind you of the the small things that happen on the way to the big things. Even if your hero and heroine hit the sack in Scene One, chances are good (especially if they just met) that they don't just shuck clothes and slide Tab A into Slot B.

Chances are exceptional that they'll follow most of the steps instinctively and naturally on their own. Your job is to show the reader.

The first nine steps can be done in public or in the bedroom, but the latter three are most often done in private. As mentioned earlier, these can be done quickly, just a few moments each, or they can span years. It's up to your characters.

Step 1: Eye to Body

Hero sits in the corner, nursing a Cuba Libre, when across the smoky room, empty beer bottles clang to the floor as a group of women climb from their stools to the bar and begin to dance. Two of them are wearing barely there come-get-me clothes, but the third--the one in jeans and sneakers--has a body that undulates to pulsing beat with a rhythm that matches his own.

Sometimes it's just a glance. Sometimes the glance turns to a stare. Sometimes the gaze starts at the top/toes and takes its time roaming the length of the body. Sometimes the first look leads to an exchange of phone numbers, and other times it leads to a dismissal until next they meet in different circumstances.

If this were a Harlequin Desire, for instance, in the example above, the hero might be CEO of a Fortune 100 company and the sexy thang in running shoes might be the secretary who thought he was out of town.

The two things to remember are: Show the reader whether or not attraction occurs, and why. Why=details. He notices her sex, age, size, shape, personality, how she carries herself, how she moves. Maybe the selling point is she's got that shake-yo-booty thing down cold. Or maybe she takes one look at him and decides against, because the size of his muscles indicate he'll spend more time in the gym than in with her.

Also remember this moment can be just as powerful if the POV character is on the receiving end of the prolonged once-over or the casual dismissal. How does this affect him/her? Is he uncomfortable? Angry? Aroused?

Step 2: Eye to Eye

Let's say they don't run each other off, or at least not yet. They've seen each other and, like it or not, they're intrigued.

Suddenly--oh my God!--they're caught looking. No matter how many people are in the room, for a second it's just the two of them, locked together by the magic of eye contact. Eye contact can be heady flirting, in and of itself.

I asked a friend of mine how she met her husband. She said the first thing they noticed about each other were their looks (this isn't shallow--it's life) and found the other attractive. By chance, they kept showing up at the same social events over the course of weeks. Rather than approach each other, they kept making eye contact across crowded rooms. She'd be caught staring. Or she'd catch him staring. Each time, the one who was caught would look quickly away... then just as quickly back, only to find the other person still looking. And so on. By the time he introduced himself, a whirlwind romance was a foregone conclusion.

How does this relate to our hero and heroine? Show the reader what is happening and how the POV character reacts. And remember not to cross the creepy line! If some burly stranger fixes her with an expressionless stare like a woodsman on the hunt for deer, ew. Heroine wants to be the focus of sweep-me-off-my-feet interest, not fear-for-my-life aggression.

Assuming he doesn't come off as scary or rude, how does she respond? Does she hold his gaze? Look away? Flutter her lashes? Wink? Smile?

Step 3: Voice to Voice

Heroine catches hero staring, and responds with a half-smile and a lick of her lips. Hero plunks down his Cuba Libre and prowls over to where heroine undulates on the bar. One of them says, "Hey, sexy."

Is the hero speaking? Does his voice come out a low rumble, like thunder before a storm? Or is his voice high-pitched and uncertain, crackling over the words like a teenage boy in puberty?

Or is the heroine speaking? Is her voice smoky and smooth, like a '30s jazz singer? Or does she have a thick, nasal accent and a loud, wet lisp, spraying the word "sexy" all over the front of his shirt?

Assuming neither person's voice chases the other away, where does the conversation go from there? Highspeed banter with carnal subtext? Blatant sexual overtones? Strained, keep-it-casual comments on the weather? Low, intimate murmuring? Awkward/charged lapses in conversation?

For strangers, the first conversation is often a get-to-know-you phase, touching on topics ranging from names, careers, likes and dislikes, to hobbies, habits, opinions pastimes, etc. Don't forget to show the reader what the characters do and don't admit, and how their responses--or lack thereof--affect the POV character.

Step 4: Hand to Hand

The music fades. Heroine stops gyrating. Hero lifts his hand, palm up, a silent offer to help her down from the bar.

Do her fingertips smooth across his skin in a soft caress? Do her nails scrape across the sensitive skin of his palm, much the way he imagines them skating down his naked back? Do her fingers lock around his wrist rather than his hand, as she leaps down like a boy scout out hiking? Does she bat his hand away, muttering she can do it herself, and slide off the bar with a disgruntled expression?

Either way, hand to hand is their first taste of physical contact, and their first act of trust (or mistrust, if she refuses him). Up until this point, either person could change their mind and walk away without causing confusion or hurt feelings in the other. Once the body contact line has been crossed, however, bonding has begun, if only at a small level.

Hand to hand contact can blossom into hand holding, an indication of a deepening relationship.

Regardless of the intent or level of the body contact, don't forget to show the reader the POV Character's physical and emotional reaction.

If the heroine places her hand in hero's and squeezes, how does he react? Does he squeeze back, tossing her a flirty wink? Does he touch her hand to his mouth, savoring the feel of her skin against his lips? Does he drop her hand in horror, thinking hand-squeezing is a sure sign of neediness and a harbinger of shrewdom to come?

Step 5: Arm/Hand to Shoulder

Hero escorts heroine away from the bar. Drunken, leering patrons try to pull her from him, and he slings an arm across her shoulders, protecting her from their advances and wordlessly staking his claim.

Arm/hand to shoulder can be anything from a friendly hug to ballroom dancing. Although either sort of embrace can be noncommittal, depending on the cues given and received through body language and physical contact, disengagement at this point can cause hurt feelings.

Hand holding allows space between bodies, but hugs or arms around shoulders require closeness. The closer two people are, the more intimate the contact can feel.

Picture two people hugging. Are they belly-to-belly, feet interlocking like puzzle pieces? Or are they hunched over, backs curved in an A-frame, clapping palms to backs as they carefully ensure no further contact can occur, even accidentally?

Hand/arm to shoulder is non-casual physical contact. Hero didn't sling his arm over her shoulder on accident--he meant to do it. She didn't lose herself in a bear hug on accident--she meant to do it. Don't forget to show the reader whether the body contact works out as planned and how the POV Character reacts to it.

Step 6: Arm/Hand to Waist

As hero sweeps heroine from the smoky bar to the twilit street, his hand coasts down from her shoulder, tracing the curve of her back. His palm glides from the base of her spine to her waist. His fingers splay across her hip, nestling her closer against the warmth of his body.

Physical contact has now become a sexual embrace. (Hero would probably not have pulled this manoever with, say, the garbage truck guy.) He is physically drawing her closer. With this kind of proximity, they can enjoy softer words, each other's scents, intimate dialogue, the feel of body against body.

This stage indicates growing familiarity, increased comfort, and escalating emotional response. Show your reader all of this through body language, conversation, physical response, and internal dialogue.

Step 7: Mouth to Mouth AKA Face to Face

They reach an intersection. The walk light flashes green. Heroine takes a step toward the street, but hero spins her to face him. She looks up in surprise and suddenly her eyes are right there, drinking him in. Her breath is right there, feathering against the stubble of his jaw. Her tongue is right there, wetting her parted lips. Her mouth is right there, asking to be kissed.

What now? Does he claim her mouth in a searing kiss, gazes locked, mating his tongue with hers in blatant imitation of a carnal act, desire lighting his skin afire? Does he rest his forehead against hers and close his eyes, murmuring an apology for being unable to continue because she reminds him too much of his dead wife? Does he lean in and rub the tip of her nose with his before sucking her lower lip into his mouth and nibbling playfully?

Often, this step combines many previous steps into one. He's noticing her body, gazing into her eyes, murmuring love words (or bedroom talk). His hands are locked on her hips, grinding her body to his, while her hands twine around his neck, fingernails scraping the skin below his shoulders.

Whether this is the first kiss or the hundred and first, fireworks are going off all over the place and it's your job as the writer to show the explosion to the reader in such a way as to make the reader feel the emotion right along with the POV character.

Step 8: Hand to Head

Heroine fingers, once splayed against Hero's back, now slide up the hot skin of his neck and into the clipped softness of his hair, toying with the wind-whipped locks. Hero, for his part, locks onto Heroine's long ponytail, wrapping his hand with the fall of blonde hair, and forcing her mouth even tighter to his.

This, even more than kissing, is an act of physical intimacy and a symbol of deepening trust. Protecting the head is instinctual. Allowing another free reign is indicative of submission to desire.

Although it can make both acts more powerful, this step does not have to precede sex nor take place during kissing. Perhaps she strokes his hair while dancing, or he slides his hand down her hair fanned across his pillow when she wakes up next to him in the morning.

Step 9: Hand to Body

Whether this step is exemplified as hand to breast or a foot massage, a high level of trust is required.

This is often the moment Hero and Heroine cross the line between kissing and pre-sexual foreplay. Typically, the body part(s) being touched is one not exposed in public, indicating a great deal of intimacy.

Step 10: Mouth to Breast

Undeniably sexual in nature, the act of licking, nibbling and/or suckling indicates sexual desire, deepened trust, and a high level of emotion.

This step typically includes partial to full nudity, as well as some combination of the previous steps.

As a writer, don't forget to show the reader what the POV character is seeing, thinking, and feeling. Is he dying to knock boots with this wild-haired vixen? Is he straining like hell to keep his starving eyes and aching hands away from his best friend's fiancee?

Step 11: Hand to Genitals

Indicative of high levels of trust, this step is a huge act of bonding.

How do your characters react? Is this a culmination of their dreams or further proof they're the kind of person their mama always said they were? Do they stop before either reaches satisfaction? Do one or both experience an orgasm? Or do they move on to:

Step 12: Sexual Intercourse

This stage represents the highest level of bonding and the pinnacle of trust. Both parties expect to gain and give pleasure. Intense physical sensation flood the senses and bonding is at an all-time high.

As always, show the reader! What is the POV character thinking, feeling, saying, doing? How does the other person look, smell, taste, feel, sound? And most importantly... what happens afterward?

YOUR TURN: Have you seen this or a similar progression used/abused in writing (or, I suppose, IRL)? When reading, what makes a couple's path to physical intimacy more/less believable to you? Are there any steps you feel are dwelled on overmuch? Are there any steps you feel are often missed? Do tell!


Darcy Burke said...

Another great, thought-provoking post, E. I don't pay attention to these steps, but yes, my h/h tend to follow these (over varying amounts of time). It's a very natural progression!

Diana Peterfreund said...

No offense to Linda, but the list always makes me roll my eyes. Mouth to breast/hand to genitals/sexual intercourse? Come on. It's like kids playing "baseball." (Ahem. Also, where is mouth to genitals? ;-) )

And the rest of it seems so artificial to me. Like if you can't figure out that your characters should be talking before they jump in the sack, you've got bigger problems.

And I think it fully overlooks what is implied by particulars. Hand to shoulder is pretty passive. It can even happen without consent. hand to hand usually implies a LOT more trust, as well as a mutual attempt at touching. Also, hand to shoulder is condescending and implies a power relationship, while hand to hand is more equal footing.

In other words: no, I never put much stock in this.

feywriter said...

Very helpful post. My WIP isn't a romance, but it does have a very important romance subplot. Will keep these in mind as I progress their relationship. =)

Darcy Burke said...

Diana said:
Ahem. Also, where is mouth to genitals? ;-)

This made me laugh. Good point!

lacey kaye said...

I'm going to cheat and post a comment before I read the blog. Diana, I'm with you. While the concept is sound, I feel like if it's not coming naturally, what's the point?

Anonymous said...

Actually, one of the best articles I've ever read on this appeared in National Geographic. The Chemistry of Sex.

Leave it to NG to break sex down to the bare building blocks of the universe.

I never follow the whole twelve steps. It really depends on the mood of the characters and the anxiety of the mood.

Bill Clark said...

Thanks for doing this post, Erica! When I raised my hand and waved last week, I had no idea what to expect. The historical background you gave was interesting, and your hilarious mini-storyline helped to tie the steps together.

OK, so maybe Morris missed a few steps, as Diana so helpfully points out. (LOL, Diana!) And maybe *any* attempt to structure something as elusive as human intimacy is predestined to sound "artificial". But for those of us who hadn't ever thought twice about it (which, of course, never stopped us from "doing it", as it were), this dissection of how human beings wind up at the breakfast table together for the first time was of considerable interest.

I hereby vote that we promote Miss Erica to Dr. Erica, and send her all our intimacy queries henceforth! ;-)

Erica Ridley said...

Darcy says:
I don't pay attention to these steps, but yes, my h/h tend to follow these (over varying amounts of time). It's a very natural progression!

Same here!The primary thing I get out of the list is not to forget the small stuff. Eye contact, hand holding, etc. =)

Diana says:
If you can't figure out that your characters should be talking before they jump in the sack, you've got bigger problems.

I agree completely! That's why I said at the very beginning, (yes, about to quote myself, *g): "DO NOT marry yourself to the twelve steps in such a way as to confine your characters to some preordained, artificial progression. Instead of two people swept up in the dance of love, they'll look like two robots dipped in water." I definitely don't want to imply that these are paint-by-number instructions on how to get the characters nekkid. *g

Bill says:
Those of us who hadn't ever thought twice about it (which, of course, never stopped us from "doing it", as it were)

LOL. I agree, the whole thing comes about pretty naturally. I think I forgot to mention that the 12 Steps came about as a result of a study of actual couples--it's not a prescription of what TO do, but a description of what tends to happen. (Er, including Diana's missing steps... *g)

Vicki said...

Great post Erica. I agree with both you Diana and yet at the same time I think that there are many writers who need to have at least a roadmap of sorts to get them going.

I realize that none of us here have trouble with the pre-sex, sex, sex again, and - post sex scenes but there are those few who do need an idea of how to get it started.

Isabel said...

Very interesting, although I wont' follow this progression (at least not conciously) as I write my book, I'll look for (the steps) when I revise.

Maybe it'll come out naturally? Hmmm, something for me to think about.

Michelle said...

I don't believe as I was writing my WIP that I have ever followed these steps.
Then again I really don't ever remember seeing them anywhere. Now that I have seen them I can't say that I will follow them and as Erica said I will not marry myself to them.
They can be used as a good outline.

*Diana...where is mouth to genitals...LOL! But I agree with you. And I also agree that hand holding implies a lot more trust!*

lacey kaye said...

So I finally had a chance to read this blog and...Whew! Someone get me a fire hose! This is fantastic. I still agree that looking at the 12 steps in a list is really awkward and stupid-feeling, but the way you broke it down...Man. You had like 40 new story ideas in just this post, and you've inspired me to want to write all of them!

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