At the moment, I’m struggling to write a love scene. As a former romance writer, this ought to be a snap, right? Wrong. I’m reminded, once again, that these are the most difficult scenes of all to write. There’s a great blog on this over at: http://pjparrish.blogspot.com/2005/11/sexual-reeling.html, where PJ Parrish asks: why do so many great crime writers fall apart when they write about sex? Why is it so much easier to write about autopsy rooms or crime scenes (which, let’s face it, most novelists have actually never seen) than it is about sex (which, one assumes — one HOPES — that most novelists have experienced.) Why are we so comfortable writing about blood and gore, but so squeamish about describing the simple exchange of body fluids?
The answer is simple. We don’t want to be laughed at.
Romance writers have the freedom to go at it unabashedly, because their readers expect these scenes, want them, and enjoy them. But there is so much prejudice against the romance genre that it seems to be fair game for ridicule. Hey, anyone can write a romance, right? Just follow the formula. Boy meets girl, they have sex, they live happily ever after. But read a few romances and you’ll discover it ain’t that simple. Writing about sex is an art that’s underestimated, an art so delicate that many crime writers just avoid writing about sex altogether. So we have hundreds of fictional detectives who go through life eating pizzas, drinking exotic micro-brews, listening interminably to jazz, chasing serial killers, dodging bullets… and never get any nukie.
These characters are supposed to be believable?
So what’s the problem here? Why is writing sex so difficult? We’re talking about simple plumbing. How hard can it be?
Well, to start off with, what do you CALL those body parts? Generations of romance writers have found ingenious ways to avoid calling them by their official anatomic names. Let’s face it, seeing the word “penis” just yanks a reader right out of the fantasy. Instead you’re back in sixth grade sex ed, staring at slide shows of male equipment.
So okay, let’s try out alternatives to the word “penis.” Throbbing member? His staff? His flagpole? Before you know it, you’re giggling too hard to write another sentence. Giggles are a danger sign, a symptom of the dreaded PURPLE PROSE.
Well, we just won’t write about certain body parts, then. Maybe we could take the tough-guy approach: “He threw her on the bed and took her. Then he sighed and smoked a cigarette.”
Yeah, the ladies will really love that one.
Ask yourself, as a writer, what your love scene is supposed to accomplish. If it’s just to show that your hero is a normal guy having sex, that’s about as interesting as watching him eat bologna sandwiches. No, the best sex scenes are those that accomplish something far more profound. They offer us a deeper understanding of character, or show us emotional awakening or healing. When I write ‘m also thinking of hearts and minds as well — and how this love scene will forever change these people.
Here’s an example from BLOODSTREAM:
“They made love three times that night. The first was a mindless collision of bodies, limbs tangled together, then the shuddering explosion deep within. The second time was the slower coupling of lovers, gazes locked, the touch and scent of each other now familiar.
The third time they made love, it was to say good-bye.
They’d awakened in the hours before dawn, and knowingly reached for each other in the darkness. They spoke no words, their bodies joining of their own accord, two halves gliding together into one whole. When, in silence, he emptied himself into her, it was as though he was spilling tears of both joy and sorrow. The joy of having found her. The sorrow of what they would now have to face. Doreen’s wrath, Noah’s resistance. A town that might never accept her.”
No body parts are mentioned. What I write about, instead, is a bittersweet parting. These two people have fallen in love against all odds — his marriage, her resentful son — and this is the night they finally come together. While knowing it can never work.
This, I think, is the trick to writing a good sex scene. It should never be just about sex; it should be about joy and longing and fears and consequences.
It should be about the human heart.