Get The Romance Writer's Handbook -
Writing the Love
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
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
#1: LOVE SCENES SHOULD HAVE A SLOW BUILDUP OF SEXUAL
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.
#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
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.
#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
#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
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.
#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.
#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.
#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
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.
#8 - A LOVE SCENE IS NOT A COLLECTION OF GYRATING BODY
PARTS. WE DON'T NEED A PLAY BY PLAY OF EVERY PHYSICAL
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
Another favorite is the New Years 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
Ive 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.
#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 hed promised the heroine a
present. She liked it. And many of my readers wrote to
tell me they did, too.
#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
#11 - EVERY PAIR OF LOVERS SHOULD HAVE THEIR OWN
CHEMISTRY, JUST AS EACH BOOK HAS ITS OWN TONE AND
Theres 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.
#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
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.