I’ve been writing romance since 1990. Even in the beginning, I wrote hot. That’s what I liked to read, and I sometimes would poke around the middle of a new book looking for the love scene. As I created my own story, I most looked forward to scenes of physical of intimacy between my characters, ranging from the first innocent brush of hands, to the first kiss, to the first scene where they almost make love, to the first time they consummate their passion. And then, of course to repeat performances because they just can’t get enough of each other.
Twenty-two years is a long time to have been doing something, and over that time, the romance genre has branched out and experimented, boldly going places where our foremothers didn’t imagine. A subset of the genre has ventured into the frankly erotic, and I’m one of the people who’ve followed it there. My Carina titles aren’t erotic, but they’re hot. Romantic Times even characterized Miss Foster’s Folly as a “scorcher.”
Today, I’d like to offer a few tips on writing the physical side of love. They’re not exhaustive. I don‘t have time or room here to give a complete course on writing love scenes. As always, you should certainly ignore my ideas if they don’t feel right for you. In any case, here they are.
1) Climaxes aren’t the main point. That may sound odd, but I once wrote in the margin of a contest entry “to many climaxes.” Several times in the chapters I read, the main character would become overcome by lust and dash into the bathroom or somewhere else private to give herself some relief. It wasn’t convincing. What we need to experience as readers is the realization that our characters have committed to making love to each other, followed by the first touches and then the climb to full arousal. In fact, the plateau right before the ultimate moment has the greatest potential for showing how excited the characters have become. Draw that moment out in great detail and follow it with the ultimate reward, and you’ll have satisfied readers. It’s possible to linger too long in the plateau phase, but I’ve seldom seen that happen. Rushing things is more common. Ask for feedback from other writers if you’re having a difficult time with this.
2) Euphemisms and other problems with language. Back in the olden days, we weren’t allowed to use crude words for things. “Manhood” and “hardness” were pretty much necessary as was “her most sensitive scrap of flesh” because the real words for these things didn’t appear in romance novels. Of course, even back then, we all laughed at things like “his purple-tipped dart of love.”
Now, we use more straightforward language, but we still have a problem with the use of language during high arousal. Namely, just about nothing rational we can say will accurately reflect what goes on in someone’s mind as s/he approaches climax. While we certainly don’t think of “my most sensitive scrap of flesh” or “my throbbing organ,” we also don’t really reflect on those body parts by their more down-to-Earth or clinical terms, either. Mostly we think in simple concepts, our intellectual brains having tuned out long before. We might think “harder, lower, there, don’t stop” but that’s about it. Similarly, we don’t talk a whole lot but only make noises that are pretty much impossible to translate to the written word. Trust me on this. I’ve tried.
I think, in the end, we have to compromise between what’s real and what written language allows us to convey. So, while we won’t use long, flowery descriptions of body parts and what who’s doing to whom, we will have to give our characters a little more coherent thought than what actually takes place during sex. Similarly, although our characters won’t speak in long sentences with subordinate clauses, we can allow them a little bit of teasing or telling the other how very turned on they are.
This issue is something I’m still grappling with in my writing, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and any solutions you may have come up with.
3) She did/he did. While we’re writing love scenes, it’s easy to slip into a rhythm of describing our characters’ actions and reactions to the acts of love. It comes out something like:
“He pressed a kiss to her earlobe and then another against the corner of her jaw. She sighed and dug her fingers into his hair to urge him downward. He moved lower, now caressing her neck and skimming his fingers over her ribs. She arched her back and stretched at the pure, sensual pleasure of his body moving over hers.”
That’s extreme, but I used to write in something similar to this rhythm until an editor finally told me to cut it out. I’ve also seen it in other people’s writing. As a matter of fact, I think this pitfall is what results in what readers see as “tab A into slot B” love scene writing.
Of course, inserting emotion in bits between the lovely caresses will help to fix this problem. Express her joy that this magnificent man loves her. Show her surprise that anything could feel so good.
For a different rhythm, you can insert a sentence fragment or even a one-word sentence. You can also change the sentence structure. Above, I could have written, “Moving lower, he caressed her neck while his fingers skimmed over her ribs.” Be careful, though, not to have characters do two things at once if doing both is impossible. For example, a woman can walk slowly toward her lover while removing her bra. If she tries “Removing her panties, she walked slowly…” she’s like to end up flat on her face.
Give these a try while you're writing your next love scene and let me know if they help.