Posted On September 23, 2011 by Print This Post

Writing Integrated Love Scenes, by Ask An Editor Theresa Stevens

Good morning and welcome to RU! Ask An Editor columnist Theresa Stevens provides four brilliant steps to writing integrated love scenes.

The class is yours, Theresa!

Physical intimacy is an important part of romance. In fact, you might say that it’s what distinguishes a romance from a friendship. In romance novels, the degree of physical intimacy ranges from the implied or subverted to the outright celebration of adventurous sex. If you include scenes of physical intimacy in your stories, here are some tips to make sure those scenes work well.

Consider the Internals First

Before you write the sex scene, decide which character will be the point-of-view character. If you’re uncertain which point of view to choose, consider which character will change the most during the scene. This means determining both characters’ emotional states at the start and end of the scene and being able to accurately appraise which change creates the stronger arc. This can require you to consider the totality of the story and how the scene will unfold. For example, changing from frustrated to satisfied might be stronger or weaker than changing from frightened to secure, depending on the depth of each emotion.

Regardless of the emotions involved, take a close look at the change arc. What can you do to sharpen it up? How can the beginning and end emotions be made deeper without veering into melodrama? Will the arc move smoothly through the scene, shifting from one emotion to the next in increments, or will it be a sharp, sudden change? Which type of arc will have more impact in this particular scene? A lot of this is specific to your particular scene and story, but often, if we think carefully in advance about the emotional arc, we can generate a better scene with fewer drafts.

Consider the Setting From an Emotional Position

Now that you’ve identified both the pov character and the dominant emotions at the start and end of the scene, the next step is to consider ways to use the external environment to highlight the internal emotions. Yes, I know, you want to start writing the fun parts, but the fun parts will be even more fun if you re-evaluate the setting first.

Think about your pov character’s opening emotion. What kind of setting would highlight that emotion? Will that setting also tie into the changed emotion at the end of the scene? If the starting emotion is fear of intimacy, and the ending emotion is newfound trust in the partner, then maybe a slightly unsettling environment will tap into that emotion. In other words, if the heroine is in her own cozy living room when the hero makes his move, her fear might not feel as pronounces as if they’re in a car and he stops dead in the middle of a one-lane bridge. Her safety might not be literally compromised on the bridge as it might be, say, on the railing of a high-rise balcony. But the sense of isolation and exposure and strangeness might be enough to show first, that she’s fearful, and second, that it’s safe to trust him after all.

Consider the Use of Props From an Emotional Position

Now that you know how your characters feel and where the scene takes place, the next step is to examine the environment for props that might help dramatize the emotions. Props are things that can be removed from the environment without resulting in a change in environment. Consider everything – clothing, small objects, big items. How might they be used?

In our one-lane bridge example, what would best tie into the emotional arc, a big van with a bench back seat or a tiny sports car with little room to maneuver? I’ll bet you can make an argument for either, but the point is to figure out which works better for your specific scenario. Should the heroine be in a skirt or trousers? Are there any objects in the car that might help or hinder the sex scene?

We tend to think of props in the erotic romance sense – bindings, blindfolds, toys, and the like – and these are certainly useful props for a particular kind of scene or story. But don’t overlook the surprise value in using an unexpected prop during these scenes. Which would be more memorable, a car scene in which the man ties the woman’s hands with his necktie, or one in which he uses the seat belt for the same purpose? Even if your sex scene will be traditional, you can use props to add layers of emotion. What if they have to race to finish against the oncoming headlights of a big, slow truck?Be inventive. This is a chance to play and flex your creative muscles.

Now, About That Sex

There is one important thing to keep in mind about sex scenes in romance novels: They’re meant to tap into feminine fantasies about good sex. This might seem obvious, but the implications of this core truth are wide-ranging. What are some of the hallmarks of these fantasies? There’s a strong emotional compenent, without question, which we discussed above. Also, the heroine always climaxes, no matter how unlikely or even impossible that might be in real life, unless there’s a compelling plot reason to keep her from finishing. Sometimes, she even crosses that finish line more than once. The focus is on what would feel good – in both the emotional and physical sense – for the woman. But that doesn’t mean the sex will be one-sided because women take pleasure in men’s bodies, too.

So think about your complaints and your girlfriends’ complaints about sex, and then eradicate them from your sex scenes. He finishes too fast? Romance heroes know how to make it last. He falls asleep the second he finishes? Not a chance – our hero likes a good cuddle, though he might revert to focusing on the external plot after sex. He can’t find her g-spot with a flashlight and a map? Come on. This is a hero we’re talking about. Not only does he find it, he teaches it new tricks. He’s not only good at sex in general, but he’s particularly good at it with the heroine because he’s so into her. He pays attention to her responses. He knows how to read her body. He makes her feel gorgeous.

And this is all true no matter what kind of romance novel you’re writing. Even in the sweetest stories, the implication is that he’s eager to get wild with her, and that when that day eventually comes, it will be gloriously fulfilling for her. Yes, for her. Whether implicit or explicit, the sexual content in romances is female-oriented, and that’s something to be cherished. Everywhere else in life, we might have to worry about other people’s needs. But in the pages of a romance novel, the woman gets to be the undisputed star at center stage of a beautiful fantasy. So, writers, have fun with it!

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RU Crew–What are your favorite tips for writing sex scenes? Have you ever read a scene with a really great, unusual prop or setting? 

On Monday, Donnell Bell shares her thoughts on why it’s important to have a good editor.

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Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.

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23 Responses to “Writing Integrated Love Scenes, by Ask An Editor Theresa Stevens”

  1. Hi Theresa,

    I wrote one scene where the phone keeps ringing. She forgot to turn on her answering machine. She’s positive it’s her mother. He tries to get her to relax and forget the phone. With that the doorbell rings. A few obstacles the first time makes the second time better.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | September 23, 2011, 5:59 am
    • Hi, Mary Jo,
      Interruptions can be useful in raising the frustration level, if frustration is a core emotion for your characters at this point. But just remember, readers will also feel some frustration — it’s the emotion you expect them to share with the characters, after all. So be careful how you handle it. Too much frustration can be, well, too frustrating! lol

      Theresa

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | September 23, 2011, 8:01 am
  2. GREAT post Theresa!

    I read once awhile back, when I was first starting to learn craft, that a sex scene can’t be there just cuz. It has to drive the plot forward same as any other scene. That was a revelation to me and I’m afraid I took it too much to heart. In reading your thoughts, I’m embarrassed to admit I FORGOT that it’s supposed to be about the experience! I’ve been focused on loading the scene with emotional pitfalls so it’s really clear what a disaster this escalation of the relationship has become.

    I’m in the middle of a new WIP and I just copied huge chunks of this post into my notes. 🙂 Thanks for the illumination, as always…

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | September 23, 2011, 7:13 am
    • Exactly, Kat! A sex scene moves the romance plot to a new place. (Or it should! Resist the urge to throw in a sex scene and then have them both pretend it never happened. You can get away with it because it’s become something of a trope, but it’s weak plotting.)

      Emotional pitfalls are good, but also keep in mind that the reason they’re having sex is that they’re into each other. 🙂 In a situation like the one you describe here, the sex scenes connotation is, “All these massive emotional pitfalls you see? Our passion is bigger than those.” So make the passion big, and you’ll be fine!

      Theresa

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | September 23, 2011, 8:14 am
  3. Morning Theresa!

    Great article! love the flashlight bit…lol….

    This comes at a great time as I’m coming to the midpoint in my ms. I do like Mary Jo does as well, a few interruptions before they get to the “nitty gritty” just to build tension higher.

    Is it overly cliched to have your h/h make love in the middle of a thunderstorm? =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 23, 2011, 7:22 am
    • Carrie, I think it all depends on how the thunderstorm is being used in the scene. Are they inside or outside? What effect does the thunderstorm have on the scene? I once read a scene where an innocent woman, terrified of thunder, would startle with every boom. And those clenching muscles would set off other, um, reactions in her body. So she learned something important about sex and about how to use her muscles to encourage her own response. That made for an interesting scene!

      Theresa

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | September 23, 2011, 8:17 am
  4. Theresa –

    Lovely lady, what a great topic for this fine Friday! (Sue me for alliteration…)

    How do you always do such a fabulous job of boiling writing topics down to their most fundamental and make it understandable? You deserve a gold star! Such a great reminder to tap into women’s fantasies. Perhaps that should go unsaid, but sometimes we need those upside the head reminders.

    Cherry Adair does something with one sex scene in each book (that I’ve been able to tell). She sets it in a very unusual setting or with an unusual prop. One is on a dogsled (seriously!) and another I remember involved a long strand of pearls. Those pearls were hot, hot, hot! Shoot, now I want to go back and read them all!

    Great stuff, T!
    Kels

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | September 23, 2011, 7:25 am
  5. That’s what I’m talking about, Kels! A cool setting or a fun prop can add all sorts of shazam to a sex scene. But we don’t want to just toss in hot tubs and blenders and fedoras and hope the scene is hot. Tying the setting, props, and emotions together will give all of it more impact.

    Theresa

    Posted by Theresa Stevens | September 23, 2011, 8:20 am
  6. Great topic. Certainly prompts writers to remember that good sex needs context 🙂

    In my upcoming novel, a knife metaphor runs all the way through. In the final scene, the “hero” (I wouldn’t call him that, mind) uses a knife as a prop–the heroine is blindfolded at the time. It’s about adrenaline, trust and fear, and it pretty much sums up the couple/the conflict the heroine has battled all the way through.

    Posted by Lucy V Morgan | September 23, 2011, 12:28 pm
  7. Great blog, Theresa! One of my all-time favorite hot scenes is the shed scene in Roxanne St. Claire’s HUNT HER DOWN. Just thinking about it makes me want to go back and read it again.

    I like the hot scenes, but as long as it fits the story, I don’t really care what the heat level is. I remember one book – HOT by Julia Harper (aka Elizabeth Hoyt) – where the hero and heroine don’t even meet in person until about page 100. Their telephone conversations leading up to that meeting sizzled!

    Again, depending on whether it fits the story, I sometimes like humor in the sex scenes. Jenny Crusie is the master of that, in my opinion. And for angst, emotion-packed sex scenes, it’s hard to beat J.R. Ward.

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | September 23, 2011, 12:29 pm
    • Excellent examples, Becke. And it’s a great point that the heat level has to fit the overall story. When we talk about “integrating” pieces into the whole, this is exactly what we mean. So integrating a sex scene means that the sex scene should fit neatly into the overall book in terms of emotion, heat level, theme, and so on. Look at Lucy’s comment about the knife for another example of how a motif can be used to push the emotional development in the romance story. It’s not always easy to pull it off, but hey, nobody said writing romance is easy! (Except maybe for those who have never tried it!)

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | September 23, 2011, 1:14 pm
  8. Hi Theresa!

    I like to inject a bit of humor in my love scenes, but it’s a fine balance because the humor, while fitting for the character, might be distracting as well.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 23, 2011, 1:29 pm
    • Hi, Jennifer,
      I think humor in a sex scene is a good thing, but both conceptually and thematically, it seems to work better in the early stages. When things heat up to a certain point, humor might be distracting, as you mention, but it might also come across like a defense mechanism. Humor deflects attention from other ideas and invites us to take them less seriously, and sometimes, we just would rather be a bit serious. 🙂

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | September 25, 2011, 8:40 am
  9. I love writing sex scenes. They are fun, expressive and allow me to get into the heart of my characters. I make my characters earn it – I think the old adage is, “You gotta get to get naked”

    The most unusual (and my favorite) sex scene was in the M/M romance “Cut and Run” by Urban and Roux. In the scene, the main characters have been apart and one of them has been with a local barmaid. They start to have sex and his phone rings and he answers it and they continue to have sex while she’s yelling at him through the cellphone and then the house answering machine when he hangs up on her. The use of the phone and the way it tries to let the outside world intrude in on them creates amazing sexual tension. It is a riveting scene.

    Robin

    Posted by Robin Covington | September 23, 2011, 1:30 pm
  10. Great post!

    One thing I think is important in sex scenes is high saturation – i.e. at least two reactions to every action. Don’t just tell me her skirt got entangled in the gear shift, tell me how that affected her– whether she was embarrassed, amused, frustrated, etc.–and how she reacted–blushing, laughing, tearing it in two.

    Posted by Tara Lynx | September 23, 2011, 1:34 pm
  11. Great post, Theresa!
    For me, sex scenes must have an emotional component, and a focus on the sensations, not just the mechanics. And very good point about tapping the female fantasy. I once wrote a scene where the hero achieved satisfaction then passed out before the woman found hers. The judges on the RWA contest circuit did not like that at all!!!

    Posted by Wendy S. Marcus | September 23, 2011, 2:42 pm

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