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Ten Essentials for Writing Love Scenes
by Anne Marble
In a chat on a romance reader group, several readers admitted that they skim the love scenes in most romances. This set off a firestorm of controversy, but I could see where they were coming from. While many love scenes are like icing on the cake (and some are like the candles!), some are more like the plastic flowers -- pretty to look at but of little use. In the best romances, however, the love scene is more like the flour inside the cake -- as crucial as the characters and plot.
Have you ever read love scenes that should have been hot but don't set off any fires? While the hero and heroine may be fulfilled, that sort of scene can be frustrating to the reader. Next time you come across that type of scene, ask yourself what those love scenes were missing. It can be any number of crucial elements.
When I first tried to write a romance novel, I couldn't wait to get to writing the love scene. Yet when I read it years later, I thought it was dull. The love scene showed nothing of the characters except for what they looked like naked, it seemed to have been dropped into the plot, and the writing was horrid. They had a great time, but that was about it. As I became a better writer, the love scenes I created became better and better because they became about more than just sex.
The Ten Essentials
1. Know your characters.
If your characters wouldn't jump in bed at this time, then why are you forcing them into it? Keep their personalities in mind. A well-bred Regency miss is unlikely to jump into bed with a rake in Chapter Two, and if she does, you must make it believable for the reader. Is she rebellious? Is he forcing her to become his mistress in order to save her family? The heroine in Christina Dodd's "A Well Pleasured Lady" has been living in disguise for years and is holding a part of herself back from the world. Dodd knew that this heroine would not easily give herself to a rake. How Dodd handled this scene was controversial, but the powerful forced seduction worked for many readers.
Also, use your love scenes as a way to illuminate characters. Even the little things can show something about your character. A rakish hero who has finally fallen in love might demonstrate his love by giving the heroine a bath or making her breakfast after the love scene -- something he has never done for any of his other loves. An inexperienced heroine who has been abused in the past might be afraid to take off her top.
In literary fiction, characters often have sex and then end up depressed or worse because of their bad sexual choices. In romance, characters are uplifted because they have found their soul mate. That's a powerful difference, and it's a part of the reason romances are so popular. However, this doesn't mean your romance novel characters have to be perfect in bed. It's nice if they are, but it's not a given -- as long as they eventually learn how to make love together. In Johanna Lindsey's Defy Not the Heart, the hero is a big warrior who is used to having sex with experienced women. Then he is forced to marry the tiny heroine. When he first makes love to her, he is extremely awkward, and he even hurts her with his clumsiness. He is afraid of hurting her. But as he begins to fall in love with her, he actually goes out of his way to find out how to pleasure his wife properly -- he has never had to do this before! This novel has many moments that are funny and yet tender. The first love scene in Theresa Weir's Bad Karma is also a great example of a love scene that went horribly, horribly wrong because the hero's distrust of the heroine clashed with his desire, and he ended up using her rather than making good love to her.
2. Keep the plot in mind.
If you read romance novels in public, you've probably been snickered at. People who don't know romance novels often think they're just one sex scene strung after another. We know better. In some of the best romances, sexuality is actually a part of the plot. For example, many romances are about a sexually abused heroine (or hero) learning how to love and trust again.
While romances emphasize love scenes more than most other genres, that doesn't mean those scenes have to be gratuitous. Before writing a love scene, ask yourself if it's crucial to the plot. Romance is a special genre because you can still include love scenes that don't propel the plot, but they should still contain other elements. Even so, avoid having your characters making love too often as it really does get tedious.
An example of a love scene that propelled the plot was the controversial first love scene in Patricia Gaffney's To Have and To Hold. It is essentially an acquaintance rape because Sebastian, the hero, forces himself on the heroine. She can't avoid this because he is the only person who would hire her, and thus the only person keeping her out of prison. Yet it is more than a rape. It's a catalyst in both the plot and their lives. Later, when he truly realizes what he has done to her, this self-discovery helps change him from amoral lord to human being. Another example of a hero who walked on the dark side during a love scene is Marcus of Traci Cozzen's Only in Your Arms. He is an Elizabethan actor, and he knows he's very very wrong for her. So at one point, he incorporates "exotic" sexual practices into their lovemaking in an attempt to make her hate him. This scene is hot and yet emotionally intense at the same time.
3. Remember that you're writing love scenes, not sex scenes.
Unless you're writing an erotic romance, try to keep the emphasis on the relationship and the characters rather than just the physical act. Yes, the characters are attracted to each other, but they are also falling in love. Your characters should go into the love scene with their feelings bared to each other -- even if it means risking emotional hurt. They aren't just there to have sex, although they might not realize this at the time. Throw their lives and doubts and hopes into the love scenes. Have them think about the lovemaking, talk about it, worry if they're doing the right thing. Show how they feel without just relying on the obvious physical signs, because it's not just their bodies that are involved. At the same time, know when to put the brakes on the thinking and talking and worrying and just throw them into bed (or bath) together.
Even if you are writing an erotic romance, don't be afraid to include the romantic element. Striking a balance between the physical and the emotional will make your story stand head and shoulders above many other erotic romances. For example, many people love the erotic romances of Robin Schone (such as The Lady's Tutor and The Lover) because she brings an emotional angle to all her stories. Even readers who find the stories of Thea Devine or Bertrice Small too sexual and not romantic are often fans of Robin Schone. Sexuality plays an important part in the novels of Robin Schone, but it's more than sex.
Whatever you do, don't forget the foreplay. Some romance writers dive right into intercourse without much thought for kissing, caressing, and stroking. Once in a while, plunging right in is the only way a specific love scene will work, particularly if your characters are eager and under stress. But there are times when love scenes should be preceded by foreplay. Handholding, conversation, and romantic walks aren't bad preludes to love scenes, either.
4. Avoid purple prose.
The phrase "purple prose" is used to refer to florid writing in general, including euphemisms some writers use to avoid referring to the sex organs. However, what is only overly descriptive prose in the rest of the novel seems to blossom into flowery writing in love scenes. Maybe this is because love scenes are so emotional, and seeing terms like "manroot" or "velvet sheath" makes us giggle. Unfortunately, clinical terms are, well, clinical. Also, most publishers of romance avoid slang terms for body parts.
Yet there are alternatives. If you're afraid to use clinical terms, don't use them. You can write a love scene without writing about body parts. Sometimes, suggesting what the characters are doing is more potent than dumping a bucket of clinical terms and silly euphemisms into the mix. One of the dirtiest things I ever read was a piece of erotic Highlander fan fiction that was done entirely in dialogue without a single mention of body parts or sexual acts. Successful romance writer Nora Roberts often writes love scenes that are warm without resorting to descriptions of clinical acts, and it certainly hasn't affected her popularity.
Be descriptive in your love scenes, but don't let the story get bogged down by loving (or lurid) descriptions. Love scenes should involve about lots of action and dialogue, not about a camera slowly panning up and down the hero's body. Even if you do think he's hot. Oh, and please don't have your naked hero say something "cockily" in the middle of a love scene. I'm not making this one up. I read it in a romance a couple of years ago, and it still makes me chuckle.
5. Throw in lots of sexual tension.
One of the most important parts of the successful love scene is everything that comes before it. This is also one of the most difficult parts to incorporate. In most romances, from the moment your characters first meet, they will be attracted to each other. How do your characters react to each other when they are in the room together but they are not making love? Romances without sexual tension are like romantic movies without chemistry between the leads. Masterful writers can forge sexual tension between fully clothed characters. Some have even combined the two and created love scenes between fully clothed characters.
The scenes after the love scene can be important parts of the sexual tension. A lot of pent-up emotion has been released. Your job, as a writer, is to make sure it doesn't all fade away. It's going to be a challenge, but an exciting one. How do the characters react the moment after, the morning after, the next day? They must still be thinking of each other, even if they are still unable to admit it to each other.
Also, I can't say this strongly enough: Sexual tension is crucial even if your novel has no love scenes. As an example, many Regency romances do not have love scenes. If they have no sexual tension, then they fall flat as romances. As a great example of how to avoid that trap, read Lord St. Claire's Angel by Donna Simpson. It had no love scenes, yet the attraction between the hero and heroine was obvious and memorable.
6. Know your audience.
If you are writing a Regency romance, that hot bondage scene is out of the question, OK? The bondage scene would be acceptable in an erotic romance line, such as the anthologies put out by Kensington. Between these extremes, there is lots of variety. The amount of sexuality allowed in Harlequin category lines varies from series to series. For example, the Silhouette Romance and Harlequin Romance lines showcase the sweetest romances, while the Silhouette Desire and Harlequin Temptation lines (and the new Harlequin Blaze line) have some of the hottest love scenes. Read the guidelines to know what publishers are looking for, but most important of all, read the books. Also, get on line to get some idea of what fans think about the lines you are interested in writing for.
In most romances, the hero and heroine wouldn't touch practices like bondage with a ten-foot whip, and even more importantly, they are almost always monogamous once the story starts. However, villains can have a more imaginative sex life. Some writers (such as Stella Cameron) create "villain sex" scenes that include more erotic sexual acts such as bondage.
Also, the days when the hero grabbed the heroine, threw her on the bed, and had his way with her despite her protests are pretty much a thing of the past. The "rape fests" that were popular in historical romances in the 1980s are rare today. If a hero does force himself on the heroine, such as the hero in Gaffney's To Have and To Hold, today's readers expect him to face the consequences later.
7. Don't forget the setting.
Even if the lights are off, your hero and heroine are making love somewhere. Are they on a ship? Incorporate the feeling of making love while on water and the sounds of the waves. Are they in a castle? This is a great time to incorporate all that research you did about Medieval beddings! In Some Kind of Magic, Theresa Weir wrote a romance that took place in Idaho during the winter, and she actually made saunas and snow banks into something erotic. The hero of that novel started to see the heroine's layers of clothing as sexy because of the way they hid her body from his view. Now that's a romantic hero.
If you're writing a humorous romance, don't be afraid to include humor in the love scenes. Sex is often very funny, especially when we don't want it to be. In funny romances, people can end up making love after the bottle of champagne explodes, drenching them both. Or scramble to find that dropped condom and then bump into each other when they look for it in the dark.
8. Avoid clichés like the plague.
Jaded romance readers will roll their eyes if they come across certain trite scenes one more time. The virginal heroine who goes from naive to sex kitten in one night? Been there, done that. The heroine who has blissful sex and then suddenly runs off because of a silly misunderstanding? Oh, no, not her again. The wounded hero who has hot sex despite the bullet wound, knife wound, and broken wrist? Oh, sure, that makes sense. The jaded rake who has gone through a string of lovers and practiced several fetishes but later tells the heroine that he did all those things because he was bored, but they weren't really fun? Yeah, right. Don't worry, other readers don't believe him, either.
If you really want to have some fun, take one of the familiar clichés, but then turn it around somehow. Readers will thank you. The hero says something stupid, the heroine seems to flounce off, and he thinks he has upset her, then but suddenly, she turns around and throws a pillow at him. A pillow fight could lead to a silly, yet romantic, morning after love scene. And why can't the jaded rake admit for once that he had fun when his previous mistress tied him to the bedposts? This could lead to all sorts of interesting scenes. Perhaps an erotic -- or humorous -- scene where the heroine responds to this revelation by tying him up. Or a dramatic moment where the two lovers discuss why the element of control is so important to him or where he realizes that he enjoyed sexual experimentation because it was the only way to rebel against his cold, straightlaced father.
9. Make sure the theme is expressed.
What is your story really about? It's not about lots of sex scenes getting strung together. And it's not just about two people who fall in love. There should be something besides that, a theme that binds everything together. Whatever that theme is, find a way to expressed it in the love scene.
Mary Jo Putney's Shattered Rainbows is famous among romance readers because of the way the crucial love scene expresses her theme. Because of her experiences during her marriage, the heroine, Catherine, believes that she cannot experience sexual intimacy. It takes a long time before she and the hero, Michael, consummate their relationship, but when they do, it is a powerful scene because he teaches her that she, indeed, can be intimate with a man. Slowly, through the course of Mary Balogh's powerful "The Precious Jewel," a hero who had been sexually abused during his youth learned to make love to a woman rather than have sex with someone passive.
10. Incorporate the background into the love scenes.
This is challenging, but it is also rewarding because it pushes your love scenes to the next level of writing. Is your novel about a heroine who designs elaborate beadwork? Then make sure she experiences the scene as a beader would -- she would notice lights, colors, and textures. But besides that, see if you can find a romantic or sexy way to use the terms she might use in her beading. Be subtle, of course. No one wants to read a scene where the beader heroine keeps telling the hero, "I'm just stringing you along."
In Nora Robert's Sweet Revenge, the hero and heroine were both jewel thieves. Their love scenes became memorable because they incorporated jewelry terminology. This novel was first published several years ago, but that scene is still remembered by readers.
Love scenes are often the most difficult to write. Most writers are embarrassed to write them at first. "Will my mother find out I wrote this? Will my minister find out?" Put the naysayers out of your mind when you write love scenes, and don't forget to have fun. Try several versions of a scene until you find something that flows. You might end up enjoying yourself almost as much as the characters.
And remember, rules were made to be broken.
- Sizzling, Sensuous and Steamy: How to Write Love Scenes, by Carolyn Campbell
- Twenty Steps to Writing Great Love Scenes, by Karen Wiesner
Copyright © 2002 Anne Marble
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Anne M. Marble (amarble "at" sff.net) has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
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