by J’nell Ciesielski

The most erotic image ever captured in cinema history is when Paul Henreid places two cigarettes in his mouth, lights them, and hands one to Bette Davis as they stare dreamy-eyed at one another beneath a bright moon in Now, Voyager. (Some may say it’s Mr. Darcy diving into a grass-infested pond, but to each their own.)

Back to Paul and Bette. Why is this black-and-white image so sexy? Here is a very stylishly (hello, 1940s!) and fully dressed man and woman, both carrying heartbreaking emotional baggage and exchanging precious little dialogue. Yet it is a scene charged with passion. How did they do it—and why are we as viewers on the edge of our seats with hearts racing?

It’s all about going just far enough. The tantalization. The tease. The titillating torment. We can’t get enough, and neither can readers. There’s a time and place to jump straight to the action, but the payoff is more rewarding when readers feel as if they’ve earned it after the long, beguiling road.

So how can we as writers ensure our readers’ hearts will race as they journey with our characters down this primrose path of flirtation? There are as many matchless ways to bring two souls together as there are stars in the heavens, but for the sake of simplicity let’s narrow it down to three.

Body Language

Their hands touched and sparks alighted. How many of you have read a sentence like this before? *Raises hand.

They stared at one another with the hope of eternity brimming in their love-soaked eyes. How many of you have written something along these lines? ‘ *Raises hand again.

Okay, those aren’t direct quotes, but the point is that body language plays an enormous role in how lovers connect. There are two main categories of body language, both with advantages on the page.

Physical Touch: Human beings crave touch from others because it gives us comfort, allows us to feel seen and heard, and just plain feels nice. Especially when it comes from the object of our desire. If you want to turn up the heat between your characters, they need to have physical reactions to one another. Perhaps starting off slowly or shyly when they meet by a brush of the hand, a tucking back of an errant curl, or even a playful shove on the shoulder. These touches will gain importance with a desire to linger as the relationship progresses. Hand holding, hugs, and even a few stolen kisses. Physical touch is a barometer for how well the relationship is progressing.

Non-Physical: I love to write these connections more than the physical ones. As a writer you are forced to work harder to make them truly count, which makes these kinds of interactions more special for your characters. Secret smiles, soft sighs, longing gazes, and shifting posture to stand closer together are easy but clever ways to show how much your characters like, love, and desire each other. And is there anything more desirable than something right in front of you but just out of reach?

Verbal Banter

My favorite of all the ways to flirt: A rapid-fire exchange of insults, disagreements, or innuendo is a sure way to spark the heat between your characters. While your lovers desperately attempt to out tease or argue one another, it’s the perfect scenario for their true feelings to slip out. Feelings perhaps they’ve been bottling up for far too long.

Here’s an example from my upcoming novel, The Winged Tiara, where our lovers are discussing the lingering effects of the late war in France:

“Love is rare, except in France where it perfumes the air.”

Esme tapped her lacquered nail against the table. “Here I thought it was still smoking from trying to put out the fires after war.”

“Would require a rather large fire for it to still be smoking after four years.” Jasper’s gaze pinned her to the current zinging between them. “Can’t imagine the heat it put off when it first caught blaze.”

Her nail tapped faster. “Perhaps it’s wise to remember that those who play with fire often get burned.”

Of course, they’re not actually talking about the war. The hidden layer of their sparring is the state of their relationship, or rather what was their relationship and the feelings still sparking from it.

Emotional Stakes

While we may be drawn to the physical side of romance, it’s love we crave. That deep and meaningful level of emotional intensity between two people is best satisfied when the defenses come crumbling down and we can be our most authentic selves.

How do we break down those walls? Communicate! Your characters need to share their hopes, dreams, and even fears. They must become vulnerable—otherwise, there are no stakes and there is no growth, not only as individuals but as a couple. The more emotions shared will create a deeper bond and, therefore, a more fulfilling payoff as they ride off into the sunset.

Genre Conventions

There are so many extraordinary ways, settings, and time periods in which to create a romance, but always keep in mind your genre when implementing intimacy. A flirty wink and playful bump of the shoulder might be enough to get the attention of the cute girl in biology class, but a Regency gentleman is more likely to be hot and bothered by a flashed ankle or coquettish fan flutter. These romantic overtures and actions must be true to your characters, who and where they are, and the baggage they bring with them.

Once you’ve concocted all these elements into the perfect love potion for your novel, your characters will be ready to give Paul and Bette a run for their dreamy-eyed money.


Bestselling author J’nell Ciesielski has a passion for heart-stopping adventure and sweeping love stories while weaving fresh takes into romances of times gone by. When not creating dashing heroes and daring heroines, she can be found dreaming of Scotland, indulging in chocolate of any kind, or watching old black and white movies. She is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers and lives in Virginia with her husband, daughter, and lazy beagle.