Romance. We all love it, even those of us that suggest otherwise. Sex. Ditto there, folks. But is there any deeper quagmire that a writer can sink in? I’m talking about experienced authors as well as first time writers. It’s a morass. How do you write about sex and romance, either together or separately, without coming off like something from Penthouse magazine or worse just plan repetitive, dull, or clichéd? The topic is so sticky with cliché and innuendo that often people don’t even recognize when something is clichéd. They’re programmed to either go ‘ahhhhhh’ or blush, or sneer, or mock, or even giggle inanely.
For a writer, if we are writing some pure romance, or want to create a great sex scene that warms the… heart then we certainly don’t want to cause our readers to put the scene down with a humph, a yawn, or a ridiculing laugh. If that scene is part of a greater whole than we sure don’t want our readers to rush through uncomfortably, knowing that they won’t miss anything of great import. Sex, like any other human activity, needs a reason to be in the story. If you’re writing a romantic novel where boy meets girl, or girl meets girl, the sex is part and parcel of the narrative. No need to agonize whether or not to include it. The only question that needs to be in your mind is “how spicy, how explicit”. In this case that judgment call is more about your audience. Some readers like their sex soft, romantic, vanilla, and veiled in pretty words, and that’s just fine for that kind of novel. This blog isn’t about that kind of writing.
Sex, just like romance, can be rude, quirky, dirty, sloppy, hurried, insane, intense, funny, and clumsy – and it happens for a reason. In our fiction writing it happens to reveal something about the character, or lead the characters where they need to go. These are all elements that once included make the reader associate more intensely with your characters and not reject the sex as gratuitous fluff. When it comes to awkward moments we’ve all been there and done that – and good sex is like good wine: it can combine flavors that seem madly disparate like blackberries and charcoal. The trick is knowing what is sexy and what is not out of those elements. If you’re looking to turn up the heat you can be inventive and silly, but you have to know when any particular element is gross or makes your hero look like an unattractive ass. My trick is to imagine the scene completely: would I be turned on or off if a particular thing happened during sex?
Falling off the bed during the intensity of love-making can either be funny, tragic, or sexy. It will depend on the telling. Accidentally farting will always end the heat, even if the laughter kicks in (in real life you might get over it, but I can practically guarantee your reader won’t). It’s like overflowing trash in your kitchen when you’re cooking. It spoils the appetite. It’s important to keep it real, and yet, for the heat, you have to keep it from getting too real. It’s always got to be a little bit of the best sex you ever had, and not necessarily just the best sex you ever imagined.
Truly great love affairs are never easy. They’re not about candy, Hallmark greeting cards, soft focus, or soft love-making from incredibly virile men with a sardonic smirk and a searing kiss, who knows when the heroine (who is unbelievably lovely, spunky but submissive in bed) says “no, no” she means “yes, yes”. Truly great sex is often memorable for the details. Where you were, what you were doing before hand, how you felt at the time, and that warm laugh you shared when you broke your coffee mug as you swept it off your desk in the heat of passion. It’s that wonderful little bit in When Harry Met Sally when she fakes an orgasm in the deli, or Bridget Jones’s Diary where Hugh Grant strips off the cute little cocktail dress only to find granny panties. Or it’s that bit that makes you want to crawl out of your skin in The Age of Innocence where the passion of the main characters, so repressed by the societal mores of their day, is entirely expressed by Newland Archer removing the glove from Ellen Olenska’s hand during a carriage ride and pressing her fingers to his lips.
So let’s talk language for a second. I’m a fan of no beating around the proverbial bush. I find words like ‘member’, ‘tool’, and other such euphemisms amusing so they spoil the moment for me. Those that don’t like their sex written so explicitly will, violently on occasion, disagree with me. If you have to use euphemisms be cautious with them, and choose the words with great care so that you’re not accidentally inspiring laughter instead of sympathetic passion. You might be sparing your less sensitive readers much blushing but instead causing your more bold readers to laughter or worse, to feel boredom. Telling a sexy story need very rarely ever go right to the finish either. This is not porn we’re talking about. The ‘money shot’ is seldom really called for in any scene. An orgasm is only an orgasm in real life. In fiction it’s the lead up that counts. Make me squirm and shudder. Take me to the brink and I’ll fall over the edge all by myself with the aid of my own imaginative juices.