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Writing the Love Scene
by Patricia Kay


In this article I'm going to talk about WRITING THE LOVE SCENE and/or SEXUAL TENSION IN A ROMANCE. This particular aspect of the book is probably the scariest part of writing a romance for MANY romance writers, whether they're brand new to the genre or whether they've written fifteen or twenty or even forty romance novels. I know that in most of my books these scenes are the hardest scenes for me to write not because I'm afraid to write them and not because I have any hangups about writing them, but simply because they are so difficult. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking a love scene is graphic images of body parts--with the emphasis on physical reaction rather than emotional reaction.

There's an enormous difference between titillation for titillation's sake and a slow seduction of the senses, both emotional and physical. As writers, we should strive to make our love scenes tender as well as passionate--scenes that show the developing love between two people who genuinely care about one another and want to make one another happy.

Have you ever read a love scene and found yourself scanning to get through it? Worse, have you skipped it entirely? Worse yet, have you yawned and decided this is a good place to quit reading for the night? What a disappointment!

How can we, as writers, avoid this pitfall? Well, in the very best love scenes, the ones that have held me captivated and evoked all those memories of falling in love and being wildly attracted to someone, the scenes that made me laugh and cry and FEEL, the tension built very, very slowly. The writer milked the prelude to lovemaking for all it was worth, devoting pages and pages to emotional and physical foreplay. She kept increasing the tension until just the right moment when the characters could no longer deny their attraction to one another.

RULE #1: LOVE SCENES SHOULD HAVE A SLOW BUILDUP OF SEXUAL TENSION.
They should tease the reader and make her anticipate what is coming. They should seduce her JUST AS THE HERO OR HEROINE SEDUCES the other. This slow buildup, this ANTICIPATION is fundamental, even, I would say, crucial.

RULE #2 - THE KEY INGREDIENT TO A GOOD LOVE SCENE IS EMOTION.
The author has a chance to reveal not just the characters' bodies, but their deepest, most intimate feelings. The best books, just like the best movies, have one thing in common. They do not rely on titillating the reader with explicit and graphic sex. Instead, whether the stories are "hot" or "sweet", have explicit sex or don't, take us into the bedroom or not, they involve the reader emotionally. No matter what is happening to the people in the story, the reader is feeling everything the characters are feeling.

As an audience, whether we're watching a movie or reading a book, we want to care about these people. We want to be inside their skins, actually living the experience with them.

As a writer, you must put yourself inside the character: see what she sees, hear what she hears, smell what she smells, feel what she feels. And then you must convey all these thoughts and feelings and impressions to the reader with your word choices. You must let the reader feel the anguish of your heroine when the hero accidentally brushes her hand, then jerks away from her as if he can't stand the sight of her. You must make your reader feel every accelerated heartbeat, every nervous flutter, and every agonizing moment of uncertainty.

RULE #3: LOVE SCENES SHOULD NOT BE INTERCHANGEABLE.

Cheryl St. John, in an article she wrote called "Individualizing Your Love Scenes" says that to make your love scene unique, it shouldn't be transferable. In other words, you shouldn't be able to cut and paste this scene from one book to another. Yes, there are only so many ways two people can make love--the PHYSICAL act of love--but there are thousands of different ways two people can make emotional love.

There should be enough dialogue and/or interaction between the two people involved, enough feeling and internal narrative to make it absolutely clear that this exchange couldn't possibly take place between any other two people. Every pair of lovers should have their own chemistry.

RULE #4 - A LOVE SCENE SHOULD CONTAIN CONFLICT.

I'll never forget when I first learned this. It was during the rewrite of CINDERELLA GIRL, my first book with Silhouette. Mary Clare Kersten, my editor, told me that there wasn't much of an emotional payoff in the first, big love scene in the book, and that I really needed to work on it.

During a telephone conversation with a writer friend from Dallas, I mentioned what Mary Clare had said. I told my friend that I didn't know exactly what to do to increase the emotional intensity and give the reader a payoff.

My friend said it sounded to her as if I had no conflict in the scene.

"Conflict?" I squeaked. "A love scene should have conflict?"

"Absolutely," she said. She went on to tell me that it was vitally important to remember that a love scene was like any other scene. It should have a beginning, a middle, and an end and it should have conflict. It should move the story forward.

"But conflict? You mean, like whips and chains?"

She laughed. "Of course not." She explained that conflict can be subtle or overpowering, but in a love scene it must be a conflict of emotion, and most likely a different type of conflict in each love scene as the relationship between the hero and heroine progressed and built toward the crisis. She gave an example: the hero, out of desperation and self-preservation, refuses to let himself even consider touching the heroine, despite the emptiness and loneliness he knows he will endure without her. The heroine, equally desperate and self-preserving, needs his caring touch like sun-parched earth needs rain, and in a wild, reckless moment, pushes their relationship over the brin and into bed. On one level, neither may WANT the other one. They may have a thousand reasons why a physical relationship would be disastrous. But on that deeper, more intense level, they can't turn away from the emotions that drive them. Such emotions provide conflict, and a riveting love scene that the reader (and editor) can't put down.

Her words were like the proverbial light bulb going off in my head. Suddenly I knew exactly what I had to do to fix that love scene of mine. Since the theme of CINDERELLA GIRL was control (remember how I told you about learning what my theme was?) didn't it make perfect sense that during the act of making love, which is definitely a time when one or both partners lose control, Victoria, my heroine, would be afraid to let herself go? Couldn't I use this fear of losing control to enhance the emotional intensity and tension of the love scene? And didn't it also make perfect sense that Dusty, the hero, would be doing everything in his power to MAKE Victoria lose control, WITHOUT LOSING CONTROL HIMSELF? Here they would be: two people with opposing objectives--Victoria to keep from losing control, Dusty to make her lose control. Conflict. Emotional conflict.

RULE #5 - DIALOGUE ENHANCES A LOVE SCENE.

Dialogue is a wonderful tool in a love scene. A touch of teasing dialogue can dispel a woman's (or a man's) nervousness, a bit of tender dialogue can make an awkward moment less awkward, a whispered endearment can banish fear. Dialogue also helps the author hint at an action without having to physically describe the action. It can also heighten the sexual tension unbelievably and build some of that anticipation we talked about earlier.

RULE #6 - HUMOR HELPS.

Making love is inherently awkward. All those naked body parts. The impossible positions. The whole idea. It can also be embarrassing to think about. A touch of humor can help dispel some of those awkward moments of taking off clothes, getting into bed, etc. Even in the most emotional, angst ridden scenes, a moment of humor--perhaps a wry remark--can help lighten the tension, because unrelieved tension can almost be worse than no tension at all.

RULE #7 - THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY TO WRITE A LOVE SCENE.

The love scene should be unique to your characters and your story. Some writers take us all the way from the first glance to the last sigh, describing every stop along the way. Other writers close the door to the bedroom.

Some writers are heavy on imagery and sensory details, others rely on dialogue and humor to carry the scene.

Some writers have intensely emotional love scenes. Others write sexy, fun-filled love scenes. Some love scenes are naughty and filled with sexual innuendo. Others are tender and sweet and warm. Some are erotic and make us squirm. Others make us cry or laugh.

It doesn't matter what kind of love scene you write, as long as it is true to your characters and your story. Only then will it be right.

RULE #8 - A LOVE SCENE IS NOT A COLLECTION OF GYRATING BODY PARTS. WE DON'T NEED A PLAY BY PLAY OF EVERY PHYSICAL ACTION.

Some of the best and most sensual love scenes I've ever read contain no graphic words or descriptions at all. They rely on the imagination, which is more powerful than any play by play account could ever hope to be.

If you doubt this is true, just think of movies where there is one scene after another showing open mouths, lots of tongues, lots of body parts--don't you feel mostly embarrassed? As if you're a voyeur watching something too personal to be shared?

Then think about movies such as my personal favorite, THE BIG EASY? Does anyone remember the big love scene? Where Remy, the hero, and Ann, the heroine, are in her apartment and they've kissed and are going to make love? They go into her bedroom, and the next scene shows her sitting up on the bed, fully clothed, and him laying next to her, his hand under her skirt.

Her head is thrown back, and she's breathless. She says weakly, "Stop that." He gives her a wicked smile. "Stop what?" he says. "This?" Pause. "Or this?"

Nothing is shown.

Everything is implied.

As a viewer, you are nearly as breathless as she is, because you KNOW what he's probably doing, you can IMAGINE how it feels, what she is feeling, and what he is feeling. It's absolutely wonderful. Their dialogue, their expressions, their tone of voice--all are fueling our imagination. The scene is very sensual, with such impact, that everyone in the audience is probably feeling their toes tingle.

Another favorite is the New Year’s Eve scene in THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS where the Jeff Bridges character is playing the piano and the Michelle Pfeiffer character is laying on top of the piano and singing. Later, when the revelers are gone and the party is over, they are going to make love. They know it and we (the movie goer) know it. That scene is filled with more sexual tension and eroticism and sensuality than just about anything I’ve seen before or since. Of course, I think Jeff Bridges is the sexiest thing on two feet, so I could be just a tad prejudiced. <g>

Perhaps you think it's easier to build this kind of sexual tension through a visual medium like the movies, but I maintain that as writers, we are supposed to be wordsmiths. We should be able to accomplish the same result with the use of the right words. In fact, we should be able to do it better because the reader's imagination will come into play more intensely than if she is watching a movie.

Just try to remember: you don't have to tell the reader about every touch, every moan, every contortion of the hero and heroine to write an effective love scene.

RULE #9 - DON'T BE AFRAID TO TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT, AND DON'T BE AFRAID TO BE A LITTLE RAUNCHY IF THE STORY CALLS FOR IT. FOLLOW YOUR INSTINCTS.

Surprise your reader. Do something different. Something they don't expect. Shock them a little bit. Remember, romances are supposed to be a little bit of fantasy, something to liven up our ordinary lives, something to get our imaginations working. In one of my early Special Editions, I had the hero tie a red bow around a certain body part because he’d promised the heroine a present. She liked it. And many of my readers wrote to tell me they did, too.

RULE #10 - AVOID CLICHED PHRASES AND EUPHEMISMS. TAKE AN OLD PHRASE AND MAKE IT YOUR OWN.

Aim for variation and imaginative use of language, but not so imaginative it's laughable, and beware of over-dramatization. To read a master at original phrasing and imagery, immerse yourself in Nora Roberts' category books. I don't know how she does it, but she manages to make every love scene fresh and wonderful and filled with brilliant writing.

RULE #11 - EVERY PAIR OF LOVERS SHOULD HAVE THEIR OWN CHEMISTRY, JUST AS EACH BOOK HAS ITS OWN TONE AND ATMOSPHERE.

There’s not much to say about this. Just keep in mind what I said earlier in this article. Your characters, like your love scenes, should not be interchangeable. They are unique and the way they relate to one another should be unique, too.

RULE #12 - DON'T FORCE THE SCENE. LET IT EVOLVE NATURALLY.

Just because it's page 160, and your hero and heroine haven't made love yet, doesn't mean you should panic and throw in a love scene. The reader isn't stupid. The reader knows when you're forcing the characters to do something they wouldn't normally do. The best thing to do is just write the story the way you know it should be written. And let the love scene come where it's supposed to come--not dictated by what page you're on--but by your characters and how they feel. An editor is not going to refuse to buy your book because your love scene doesn't appear until the end.

Case in point: my June, 1995 Special Edition called THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. This book is about best friends. The entire conflict revolves around the fact that Jenny, the heroine, realizes she's fallen in love with her best friend, Simon, and he's blind and dense and clueless (in other words, a typical man). He can't see what's right under his nose. Now in a story like that, you can't have them falling into bed together. It's totally out of character and completely wrong for the story. So I knew up front that the only love scene would come in the last chapter, but I also knew I needed some reason to have them kissing and touching, or else how was Simon ever going to discover that he had more than feelings of friendship for Jenny? I came up with the perfect answer. A way to have them in each other's arms and a way to intensify the sexual tension to a fever pitch before they ever go to bed together.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, in my December, 2000 Special Edition, WEDDING BELLS AND MISTLETOE, there was a love scene in the Prologue, because what happened between the hero and heroine when they were kids is what drove the plot and gave me a story to tell in the first place.

Ultimately, the story and the characters should dictate when, where, how, and what kind of love scene should take place.



Copyright 2001-06 by Patricia Kay




Patricia Kay taught fiction writing classes at the University of Houston, Cinco Ranch, for three years. She has given workshops on a variety of writing-related subjects at dozens of local, regional, and national conferences. She is a former national board member of Romance Writers of America. If you would like information about her availability to speak to your chapter or appear at your conference, you can contact her at P.O. Box 441603, Houston, TX 77244-1603.



 












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