Whenever I write a love scene, I always consider that my mother might read it. What’s worse is that I consider what my mother might think of me after she does. Writing love scenes takes tact. Too graphic and you’re writing erotica, too prudish and it seems Puritanical, and if you’re not careful, your prose could wind up in Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. To write a love scene, you must find a balance somewhere between, and it needs to strike an emotional chord with your reader. Personally, I like reading about romances fraught with so much sexual tension that when the characters enter a love scene, it’s a relief. (Sorry, Mom)
I’ve been slogging through the novel The Perfect Letter by Chris Harrison* of the Bachelor and Bachelorette franchises. Every January, my girlfriends and I get together each week and watch the show, complete with fantasy league picks and in-depth analyses of every contestant. Last year, one of our friends got married and as a collective we gave her Bachelor themed gifts, including the Chris Harrison book to read on her honeymoon. The book has cycled through the group and when my turn arrived, I had very low expectations.
I should’ve lowered them. There are so many things wrong with this novel, but one issue has really bothered me. Within the first several pages is a startling sex scene with a little light BDSM. I’d barely gotten to know the characters and out of nowhere, one was tying the other to the bed frame. A few chapters later, there’s another one, the detailed description of the main character’s first time with her misunderstood-bad-boy-she-started-off-hating-and-now-loves-and-has-been-forbidden-to-have-as-a-romantic-partner boyfriend as a teen.
Isn’t anyone exhausted by this theme yet?
The love scene was somewhat contrived, scheduled, and in a barn, which was so completely Bachelor-esque of Chris Harrison. It was too long to a point when I was begging for mercy. It also had missing pieces of action that forced me to go back and reread the thread. How did she pull him to his feet when she had been lying on the ground? Did she stand? When? Whenever I write any motion, I always think in terms of improv—if you have a cup in your hand, you can’t suddenly not have a cup in your hand. The most glaring thing in that love scene was that the word nipple was used three times. Three too many times. Admittedly, I’m like a middle school boy when it comes to that word. It makes me laugh. Not only did the author not sell me on the authenticity of the scene, it came across as, “hey, this should happen now,” and the repetitious action made me lose all interest.
American attitudes toward sex are funny. We’re okay with gratuitous war violence, but blush at side-boob. Because of that, I’ve found writing these scenes to be a challenge. In film, there’s the luxury of camera angles and lighting and great editing. In writing, love scenes require transparency and a careful selection of words that keep a reader and don’t detract from the scene. I often wonder: how much is too much? How vague is too vague? Which words are too clinical? What words can I substitute with others before it gets silly?
I believe honesty is the best policy. I’ve put forth an effort to be as realistic as possible to complement the characters in the scene. Whether it’s a casual fling, or a long awaited moment, I work to give the character the voice he or she needs to tell the story as only they can. It is, by far, one of the most intimate things to write about and to make feel sincere. I’ve been guilty of first drafts that slip into clichés and cringe worthy metaphors. I’m no expert, but if it’s part of the story, I give it my best.
But I will not use the word nipple. Even typing it now makes me giggle. And it’s not necessary to use three times in one scene. Lookin’ at you, Mr. Harrison.
*Edit: Since writing this, I’ve finished the book. There are at least seven sex scenes (feels like 27) and every time I knew it was coming, I screamed at the book. Two memorable descriptions: a female orgasm described as a “soft pop,” and the phrase “wetness on wetness” which made me laugh out loud. Also, some mild voyeurism and a scene that involves a hotel ice machine. (Sorry, Mom for a second time)
I’ve found writing a sex scene to be difficult. I have one in my first novel but it’s short and lacks detail. It was more about the characters than the act itself. I wince whenever I read it because I’m still not happy with it.