Monday, February 13, 2012

Writing Romance and Sex

I am not a romance writer, but several of the others in the writing group are. We have two romance writers, and one who writes literary erotica. All of them talk about the difficulty of writing sex scenes.

This used to confuse me, because, for the longest time, I had an easy time of it. I looked forward to it, in fact. It was the idea of other people reading my sex scenes that gave me pause.

I even wrote a NaNoWriMo novel that was an erotica. That was the year I hit 100,000 words in one month. I didn't realize how easy I was making it for myself, though. In my story, my main character encountered each partner only once, learned something about herself, and moved on.

That kind of sex is easy to write. What's less easy is the kind that most readers want to read. It's hot, it's sexy, but it also advances the plot or the relationship in some way. Much in the same way gun shootouts are the culmination of an action movie's buildup, sex scenes should be the culmination of tension and emotions between two characters. And that's harder to capture.

Even harder is when one has written a few dozen romance or erotica novels. The process doesn't change much from one sexual encounter to another, so writers have to find new ways of describing the action without sounding clinical about it. They have to avoid purple prose, or cliché terms and phrases. And they have to tie it into the relationship and plot in some way. Generally, the appeal of sex scenes in romance novels isn't that they're there, but that they're emotionally satisfying, to the characters as well as the reader.

It's a lot of work, and I discovered for myself just how much in my current project when it came time for two characters who'd been dancing around one another for a book and a half to voice their desires. It was a tough balance. I needed to make sure they were acting the way they'd act, not the way I wanted them to. (Just because I was sick of the will-they-won't-they didn't mean the time was right, necessarily.) I had to describe things in terms that were neither too purple nor too clinical. I had to portray enjoyment without falling back on tired language about swelling seas or earthquakes. And I needed to depict subtleties about their personalities and their relationship without interrupting the action. I've gone back to edit that section three times already, and I suspect I'll be picking at it through several more edits.

I haven't read a lot of bad sex, to my recollection, though anything overly flowery or metaphorical is unlikely to catch my attention. I've read sex scenes that have taken place over a paragraph, and others that have gone on for pages, and I can't say which I prefer. I think some aspects are better left to the imagination, but my romance writer friends may disagree.

I can say that, if the sex serves a narrative purpose, it should probably be written. If it adds nothing to the story, it should probably be implied through a fade-to-black. Beyond that, I wouldn't suggest any rules. It's not my area of expertise. All I know is, it's not as easy to write as you may think.


  1. LOL it depends on the line that you're writing for as well. There's an expectation these days for heat levels to be higher even in the more action based genre fiction. They want action between the sheets just as much as the explosions.

    But you're right--it can't be for sex's sake, it needs to make the character development clearer and sometimes to screw things up even more. As is the case of my current edits. Sex is a hurdle in itself, not just the pleasure of it, but the trust factors that it brings to a relationship.

    1. Yeah, it definitely varies from one publisher to the next, one subgenre to to the next. I figured that was more in the romance writers' purview to blog about. ;)

      In what I'm working on now, sex is smoothing over all sorts of issues between these two, but it's creating all kinds of other issues. And that's kinda fun.