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So you know you want to avoid Plot Interrupted and Tab A/Slot B mechanics, but how do you get “down and dirty” into the emotions of a really deep sex scene?
Here are a few different approaches that may help. Different stories/characters require different techniques, so don’t be afraid to experiment! Some of these begin to overlap and cross over — because each one is trying to get to the CORE of what your character needs — and fears.
Glass Half Empty Approach
Or, everything I learned about characterization, I learned from Paperback Writer. Okay, not quite everything, but I often come back to Lynn’s three basic character questions:
Who are you?
What do you want?
What’s the worst thing I can do to you?
So ask these questions with intimacy in mind. This is a really good technique for pushing boundaries and hitting hot buttons with readers, and definitely how I approached Conn and Rae in Dear Sir, I’m Yours. What’s the worst thing I could do to a college professor? Make him fall in love with a student. Not only would any kind of relationship with a student be forbidden, but they’re also leaning toward a politically incorrect BDSM relationship, a double whammy.
Some key questions that might get the juices flowing: when it comes to intimacy,
What do you need?
What’s the worst thing you think you might need?
What sexual limits are you afraid of or challenged by?
Sometimes you can use sex to show a significant change to a character’s perception, their physical shape (paranormal), or their world view. In Beautiful Death, Isabella is physically changed by a viral mutation and must depend on Hades for survival. In my friend, Jenna Reynolds‘ novella The Emissary, Shina is able to use sex to change the Kjartan alien’s perception of not just her but her entire world.
Questions to ask your character: how can sex/intimacy change
your opinion of your partner?
your perception of yourself?
how you view the world or society in general?
This kind of approach is great when you have two polar opposites, like different cultures or enemies.
For a romance, two questions I always ask myself are:
Why is the hero the worst possible match for this heroine?
Why is he the best possible match for her?
Now change that up and think of it from an intimacy/sexual angle.
How are they incompatible sexually?
How are they perfectly matched sexually?
There are all sorts of ways to build opposing needs through intimacy. Maybe one character needs/wants kink and the other fears it — or perhaps there is a particular act that one party avoids or fears. Maybe one is very conservative and the other character has been promiscuous in the past.
Even better, deepen this fear to something buried in the characters’ past (see the Haunted Past). Our “core beliefs” about who we are were formed when we were children. Deep down, we all fear that we’re unlovable for some dread reason.
Raise the Stakes
Sex can be dangerous for many reasons. Ask your character:
What can I lose? What’s it going to cost?
What can I gain?
What am I willing to sacrifice in order to get closer to this person?
The Haunted Past
While we don’t need info dumps of backstory, it’s important to have a richly defined past for your characters. What are the key events that happened outside the story that shaped who your characters are today? Specifically, think about their sexual encounters.
What haunts them today?
What emotional scars do they still carry?
My friend Jenna already did a fantastic post on writing sex scenes that matter using the hero’s journey. We both highly recommend the Emotional Toolbox — I use it for every single story. When all else fails and I can’t get the pieces of character and plot to come together, I can always turn back to my simple drawing of the mask, want, and need to come up with the answer. Some questions that might help you identify the character’s mask — and ultimately rip it away:
Deep down, what fear keeps you from being with this person?
How can intimacy force me to face this fear?
How can I use my fears to push this person away?
How can sex with this person cause a setback to my goals (whether external or internal)?
Referring back to Jenna’s story, The Emissary has some lovely flavors of the Japanese geisha mixed into a futuristic science fiction world. Shina is in training to become a courtesan, but she never expects an alien to pay her virgin price. When she meets the Emissary, he deigns to even give his name. He’s cold and harsh, but Shina has been trained to be gracious and willing to provide any pleasure her partner requests.
The Emissary ridicules her society and her. She is too soft. She would never survive on his planet. She is small, like a little willow, and that’s what he begins to call her as they begin the “pillowing.” However, Shina tells him a story of how the mighty oak tree fared when it refused to bend before the vicious wind. The willow swayed in the wind and survived, while the oak suffered defeat.
Indeed, this story is played out through their sex scenes. She is the willow, bending to his demands. No matter how fiercely he blows, she gives, gladly, and finds pleasure in his touch. Her softness and the delicious way she sways in his wind is exactly what he finds so intriguing, and in the end, the might oak falls.
Through sex, Shina changes the Emissary’s complete world view, forcing him to admit that she is the emissary. She has brought their cultures together.
Discussion: Can you suggest any other questions to access our characters’ deepest sexual fears and desires?
Share them in comments (or simply throw your name in the hat) to be entered to win a $30 gift certificate to any online bookstore retailer and winner’s choice of any book from my backlist.
As Lynn always says, anyone on the planet can enter, even if you’ve won something from me before. I’ll accept comment entries through midnight CST Sunday night, July 19th, on this post, or you can e-mail me ONCE (joely AT joelysueburkhart DOT com). One of the monsters (my kids) will draw names on Monday and I’ll post all winners then.
(Click the image to visit PBW for more great workshops!)
I really hate “workshops” that sound like “buy me! buy me!” with examples solely from the author’s own work, so I promise to pull in several other authors’ examples for illustration. However, to start the discussion, I want to refer back to an interview I did with Kelly Jensen of SF Crow’s Nest after she reviewed Beautiful Death:
SFC: How did you decide to handle the transformation from human to monster as the most sexually intense part of the novel?
JSB: I think a good sex scene in a novel should be both intense and transformative. Isabella and Hades trusting each other enough to be intimate was just as significant as her metamorphosis into a “monster.” On the flip side of the coin, she was already a monster, though, and Hades wasn’t the monster she thought him to be, neither. Her world viewpoint had to transform, too, and Hades made it possible for her to survive the final mutation as well as see the truth about New Olympia.
SFC: Do you see sex scenes as necessary to sell a book?
JSB: Not at all, although I won’t deny that I love writing an intense, physical relationship. A good sex scene reveals characters like nothing else. As a reader, I want the sexual relationship of the characters to progress along an arc as the story unfolds. The scenes are important and significant, not gratuitous. As a writer, I use sex to add another layer of conflict and complication. I always love watching the afterglow fade away to a sudden realisation that now things are so much worse than before.
Until this interview, I’d never really thought about my writing process for sex scenes. I had a gut feeling about when I’d include a sex scene — just like I had a gut feel for when to kill a character. I never stopped to question why I felt that way. But Kelly really got me to thinking about why I include sex scenes, and it all comes back to transformation.
Any writer who has studied much of the craft at all knows that if a scene doesn’t move the story forward, it should be cut. But have you really thought about what that means for a sex scene?
I’m not going to get into whether or not your story should or should not close the door — the level of intimacy you write is totally up to you. This also isn’t a workshop on how to write hot sex for the sole purpose of arousal–although there’s definitely a market for hot books! I’m also not claiming that these two are mutally exclusive. In fact, I bet if you write a sex scene to deepen characterization, really dig into the whys and emotions, then the scene will also get hotter. Let’s see if I can convince you.
Transformation implies change. A good story begins with a protagonist who changes throughout the story. There’s not just an external goal, but internal goal/need as well that may be even more frightening an undertaking to achieve. The success of the external goal should hinge on whether or not the protagonist can heal whatever internal conflict she’s been battling throughout the story. If you’ve read here long, you’ve already heard how much I love the Emotional Toolbox. My friend Jenna is going to talk more specifically about how she uses the hero’s journey to write sex, so I’ll point you to her site.
So let’s assume that you as a writer have decided to include a sex scene in your story. You feel like it’s the best fit for you, and your writing instinct tells you this is the right spot for your characters to get intimate. They’re nekkid, they’re going at it, but it feels…stilted. It’s boring. Tab A/Slot B mechanical. What went wrong?
Common Problems with Sex Scenes.
How many times have you heard a reader say, “Oh, I skip the sex scenes because they’re [boring, repetitive, mechanical, waste of words].” Or have you read a high-tension romantic suspense, only to roll your eyes when the hero and heroine call time out to roll around in the sheets with the villain waiting outside?
Two common problems with boring or useless sex scenes are:
1. Not enough emotion — too much anatomy.
If you took a survey of adults in our current age, I think we could all list at least a handful of slang words for both male and female genitals. All day, everywhere, we’re bombarded with sexual elements. If you get two (or more) consentual adults together, chances are pretty good they all know the mechanics of sex.
Books and attention spans are getting shorter every day. Why waste several thousand words on the physical aspect of sex that we all have read or seen a hundred times or more?
On the other hand, what makes a reader linger over those scenes, even if she’s read hundreds of romance books this year alone? It’s the emotionalconflicts and bonds that form during sexual intimacy. Sex makes us vulnerable. Boundaries should be falling left and right; masks should be removed; hearts and bodies laid open bare. That’s what makes a sex scene emotional — and transformative.
If the heroine is feeling deep emotion, I guarantee she’s feeling transformation. Both characters are opening themselves up for risk, both physical and emotional. Think about animals in the wild: mating can be a dangerous undertaking, even if you don’t think about how badly your heart will feel when its broken.
Instead of pushing the envelope with more and more bizarre and extreme sexual behavoir, why not dig a little deeper into your characters’ psyche?
2. Plot Interrupted.
Nothing makes me roll my eyes quicker than when the external plot takes a backseat for the required “sex scene” moment. The reader shouldn’t feel like a referee is standing over in the corner blowing a whistle so the heroine can go take a break, if you know what I mean.
However, when the external plot is truly worsened by the developing attachment of the heroine and hero, and when they have legitimate reasons not to be together, the combination of sex and conflict can be so tightly coupled that no reader would ever dream a skipping a scene. Any scene that is “skipped” — even a sex scene — should mean that the reader MISSED something. If nothing important happens, if some change doesn’t happen, then why is that scene still in the story?
Don’t call time out for the plot — but make things even worse for the protagonist. Heap on emotional guilt, smear with a little betrayal, top with a new fear. The external plot will taste all the better. *winks*
In tomorrow’s post, I’ll list some basic questions and techniques that you may find helpful in digging deeper to reveal characters through sex.
Example: Talk Me Down by Victoria Dahl
This book seems like the pretty typical girl makes it big story, coming home to small town and dealing with old flame. However, this book made me laugh and cry and delay dinner long enough so I could finish the book. Why was it so compelling?
Everything was tightly coupled together, beginning with the hero’s backstory. Ben has a measurable, concrete reason to hate gossip. Now, as the chief of police of a small town, he has an important place in society. He can’t tolerate gossip or scandal about him again without damaging his career. So he has INTERNAL conflict and EXTERNAL conflict regarding scandal.
In walks Molly Jennings, his best friend’s kid sister, and his careful, staid existence is thrown out the window. She, too, has a very key backstory moment that has driven her secret career, starring Ben, even though he has no idea. No one in town knows what she does for a living. It’s hilarious watching Ben think about all the scandalous possibilities: hooker, sex phone operator, etc. As a cop, he even investigates her. He can’t let himself get involved with someone who might be doing something shady, no matter how sexy she is.
Molly has very measurable and concrete reasons NOT to tell Ben her secret, too. Again, it’s tied to her backstory, and the whole thing just builds and tangles until you think there’s absolutely no hope they can work things out. Then it gets worse, and the very thing Ben fears the most rears its ugly head: scandal, and he’s at the heart of it. Or rather, the book of it. *laughs*
Don’t get me wrong — there are several sexual scenes, many of which are hilarious. (I laughed out loud when Molly thought her little blue friend might have electrocuted her.) But each one very carefully pulls back a layer of character. We peek under Molly’s fun, confident mask as an erotic writer, unafraid to ask for exactly what she wants, only to find that she’s afraid she’ll never live up to her parents’ expectations. Every sex scene revolves around these fears and secrets, and only when both heroine and hero face their deep fears that they’ll never be good enough (Molly) or that gossip might destroy him forever (Ben), can they heal themselves…and each other.
Discussion: what’s your most favorite emotional, transformative sex scene?
Share them in comments (or simply throw your name in the hat) to be entered to win Victoria Dahl’sTalk Me Down and Start Me Up (unsigned), and winner’s choice of any book from my backlist.
As Lynnalways says, anyone on the planet can enter, even if you’ve won something from me before. I’ll accept comment entries through midnight CST Friday night, July 17th, on this post, or you can e-mail me ONCE (joely AT joelysueburkhart DOT com). One of the monsters (my kids) will draw names on Sat. and I’ll post all winners then.
(Click the image to visit PBW for more great workshops!)
As a writer, I hate rules, especially Romancelandia Rules, like:
“The heroine and hero must meet in chapter one!” or “The heroine must be a virgin, a virgin widow, or has experienced nothing but horrid sex with any man except the hero!”
But let’s face it — as readers, we all have lines that we don’t want an author to cross, else their book may very well end up denting the wall.
Here are a few commandments, either based on my personal reading tastes or something I’ve learned from my lovely talentedevil editors!
Thou shalt not lie to the reader and call it “a plot twist.” Grrr, there’s a highly popular author to this day whom I refuse to read because of a little lie she told in a novella I happened to pick up. I can’t stand “surprise twists” that are basically lies. I feel totally betrayed when this happens. (Not talking Sixth Sense sort of plot points here — which I loved — but deliberate lies told through the POV character and only revealed at the end with a flourish.) For a twist, the little hints should be there for me to follow like a trail of bread crumbs.
Thou shalt not beat the reader over the head with “foreshadowing.” Personal taste, but I hate “Little did she know…” or “Unbeknownst to her…” These are author intrusions and pull me immediately out of the story.
Thou shalt not make the reader dizzy by headhopping. As my dear friend Wanda said once, headhopping makes my skull crack open. I just can’t tolerate blatant hops back and forth, paragraph to paragraph. (Straightfoward shifts once or twice in a scene don’t bother me as much.)
Thou shalt NEVER be kind and gentle to the characters. Torture them! Throw more rocks! Put them in an untenable position, not once but over and over!
Thy hero shalt not flex his “bicep.” It’s biceps, even if the heroine is looking at a specific arm.
Thou shalt not rely on “fateful” to describe a character’s day. Lazy! (I was guilty of this in Dear Sir, I’m Yours, until Angie got ahold of it.)
Thou shalt not use the word “sag” anywhere near a sentence mentioning the heroine’s breasts. This one was caught by the copyeditor. I said her dress “sagged past her breasts” and this was his comment. Totally cracked me up! Changed it to “slid.”
Thou shalt NEVER take the easy way out, especially in the climax!And I mean that both ways. *winks*
No Romancelandia hero ever need Viagra. Obviously. He’s also got the biggest tool in the shed, but that goes without saying, right?
So what are some of your commandments or readers’ peeves?
Share them in comments (or simply throw your name in the hat) to be entered to win Patti O’Shea’s three Light Warriors books (unsigned), including In the Midnight Hour, In Twilight’s Shadow, and Edge of Dawn, and winner’s choice of any book from my backlist.
As Lynn always says, anyone on the planet can enter, even if you’ve won something from me before. I’ll accept comment entries through midnight CST Friday night, July 17th, on this post, or you can e-mail me ONCE (joely AT joelysueburkhart DOT com). One of the monsters (my kids) will draw names on Sat. and I’ll post all winners then.