Monday, April 6, 2009

Everything I Wanted to Know About Writing Sex Scenes - Part One

For the first two weeks in March I immersed myself in sex. I signed up for an on-line class entitled “Building Hot Sex Scenes” sponsored by the Mid Willamette Romance Writers with instructor Delilah Marvelle ( Although Delilah claims this was the first class she’s instructed, I think she must be a natural. I learned a lot about sex…er, writing sex, from Delilah.

I wanted to take this class because I had the feeling that my sex scenes were too clinical, a little too much “Part A into Slot B”. I was bored with them, and I found I was using the same phrases, the same moves, from scene to scene and book to book. I decided to up my game.

Rather than simply recite the dos and don’ts of writing a sex scene in a lecture, Delilah went for a more ‘hands-on’ approach. Participants uploaded a sex scene they’d written to the files section of our Yahoo group and Delilah critiqued the scene. We could all read both the original and edited versions of everyone else’s scenes.

Let me tell you a little about the scene I submitted. It’s from a work in progress called “Welcome to Paradise” which is the story of Jack and Bridget, who fell in love when they were teenagers. Jack wanted to marry Bridget but she had dreams and ambitions that didn’t include staying in their little town of Paradise, Saskatchewan. Fast forward twenty years and Bridget is back in Paradise with her fifteen year old daughter. Her life is a mess, and she has come back home to live with her mother because she has no place else to go. Of course, Jack and Bridget discover that their old flame is still generating some heat.

So the scene I submitted was their first time between the sheets in twenty years. I knew this critique was not going well when Delilah’s first comments, before she actually started the critique, were “Watch for clichés, especially in a love scene.” Although she addressed her remarks to everyone, I knew I was the chief offender. I’ve been accused of using clichés before. Delilah’s reasons were very well thought out. “They are what I like to call empty calories and they take away your reader’s ability to connect with your character on a physical and emotional level because they aren’t learning anything new about the character’s perspective.” According to Delilah the love scene is the only place in our writing where we can get away with flowery language, so we should work in sensual metaphors that are unique but not overdone.

Whew! Rough start and she wasn’t even in the actual story yet.

Her next comment really surprised me. I got busted for writing “he said” as a dialogue tag. What’s up with that?

Delilah argues that he/she said “adds no tone, no feeling, no emotion.” Using he/she said is fine for the rest of the book, but in a love scene these tags are just taking up space without giving any emotion to the reader. “Start getting creative with tone and tags. Because that’s when it counts most.”

I had never even considered before that ‘he said’ would be too bland for a love scene. Every word has to count and every word needs to be as sensual as possible.

At this point in the scene, Jack is slipping Bridget’s blouse from her shoulders. Delilah peppered me with questions. “When he’s slipping it off, how does it feel? How does HE feel? Remember to always bring it back to the emotion after so many actions.” In fact, one of Delilah’s tips was the 3:1 ratio. After three physical actions, there should be some form of emotion. It doesn’t need to be slavishly adhered to, but it’s a good rule of thumb for me to remember so my characters don’t go for long periods of ‘doing stuff’, like taking off clothes, kissing, touching etc. without any thoughts or emotions. It’s the prolonged bits of physical action in a sex scene that makes it feel clinical, like “Part A into Slot B”. The sex will make the scene hot, but it’s the emotion that will connect readers to my characters and make the sex satisfying for them.

I’m only on page two of the critique, so I’m going to have to continue my journey next week. In the meantime, does anyone have a cigarette?

Do you find writing love scenes difficult? What do you do to get in the mood when you’re writing a sex scene? Do you have any tips for writing a sex scene?


Karen said...

I do feel I have to get into a certain mindset before writing a sex scene. I might go and read a sex scene written by a favorite author. There has to be the right music playing in the background. I have a playlist on my ipod for this purpose.

Writing them feels weird until I get rolling and then look out. The awkward part, for me, comes the next day when I have to reread it and fix it.

Great post, Jana. Look forward to hearing comments and part two.

ban said...

ah karen, i so understand that ! nothing like going back to a 'romantic' scene when you're no longer in the mood ... ahem ... right mindset *cringe* :D

Erika said...

Jana that sounds like an awesome class. I am going to check out her website immediately. Thanks for the hook up.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I haven't had a lot of cause for writing sex scenes, but I've worked with less "Slot B" romance scenes. The 3:1 ratio sounds like a good signal flag to keep in mind. I wonder with intimate scenes, is that the one scenario where the author can trust her own reaction? If the scene reads steamy, rather than clinical, when you come back to it, is it a success, or how much is in your head? :)

I really like to bring experiential descriptions into the narrative in general, as they make a lot more sense than a direct character coming out with a flowery metaphor all of a sudden, so I think that's another good facet to bring to a sex scene. As you mentioned, it's a chance to actually get into passionate, emotional prose. I think if the metaphors and such still savour of the pov character (an artist comparing the moment to molding clay on the wheel, for example), then it adds more believability. It's also nice to avoid the snicker-factor in sex scenes, so not having an alpha hero compare newfound love to flowers opening before the sun is always good :)

Great post Jana, I'm looking forward to part two!

Janet C. said...

That sounds like a great class, Jana. Is this the lady who will be guest blogging with us in August? Can't wait.

I like the 3 to 1 ratio, too. It makes sense, so you don't have an over abundance of physical, nor an over indulgence of emotion. And like Hayley said, it has to be in the characters POV - nothing turns me off a good sex scene than a man gushing about rainbows and sunshine :)

I'm going to go back to my sex scenes in Lady Bells and check my ratio. I didn't have a difficult time writing them - but the emotional baggage that romance is known for (the cliche, the metaphor, the rainbows and sunshine) gave me much grief. Perhaps I should be writing erotica?

Great post, Jana - looking forward to part 2.

Jana Richards said...

Hey Karen,
Delilah Marvelle talked a lot about getting "in the mood" to write a love scene, so you're on the right track. You can read a steamy scene from a favorite author as you do, light candles and incense, make out with your hubby, whatever works for you. Honestly, I haven't done this before. I usually just put a note in my manuscript "insert love scene here" and then delay writing it as long as possible. I'm not embarassed to write the scenes, but I do find them hard to write. I think I'll have to work on getting in the mood.


Jana Richards said...

Ban, I know what you mean. That's when a sex scene feels really clinical -- when you have to analyze it in the cold light of day.

Erika, it was a really good class. I was really lucky because it was a small class and I think everyone who wanted to got a chance to post their scene and have it critiqued. Even seeing the critiques of other people's work is valuable. It was definitely the hands on nature of the class that made it so good, so if you take it I recommend you participate as much as possible. I hope Delilah is giving another class, but I hope it stays small.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I think if you come back to the scene (or others read the scene)and it reads steamy, or romantic, or poignant (whatever mood you want to project - more on that next week)then I think you've done your job. Sure, it's a sex scene, but it's also a romance novel and that means everything comes back to emotion and the connection between the hero and heroine. The 3:1 ratio just reminds you to always come back to the emotion.

You definitely want to bring the sense of the emotional, but you don't want your construction worker to go all flowery on you. Make it passionate but keep it real.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Janet, I nearly snorted my root beer when I read your comment about rainbows and sunshine. That's right up there with pan flutes, isn't it?

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
Yes, Delilah Marvelle is the writer who will guest blogging with us on August 1. I'm really looking forward to it.

I am so bad at using cliches. It's laziness on my part really. I use them when I'm too lazy or too much in a hurry to dig deep for a better way of saying things, especially in a first draft.

Just remember to always keep it about the emotion the characters feel for each other, no matter what they're doing physically to each other. :)

And erotica? I'm pretty sure I couldn't do it. I'm more of sweet, but sensual writer I think.


Helena said...

You have chosen a very helpful topic -- sex scenes are not always handled well.

My take on writing sex scenes is that if the sexual tension has been building in the story, then the sex will happen as a normal consequence in the relationship. It has to be felt through the pov of the characters, rather than simply described. The 3/1 ratio is a great guideline. I'm afraid it might be reversed in the few sex scenes I have written, so I think I may have some work to do to achieve the proper balance between the emotional (which doesn't have to be written in flowery phrases to be intense) and the physical. I don't want my readers to feel as though the bedroom door has been shut in their faces.

I'm reminded of the song from an old musical, "Doin' what comes natchurly." If your writing can reflect that feeling in all its dimensions, you've probably aced the art of writing sex scenes.

Thanks for giving us food for thought today, Jana.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana, good post.

As you all know by now, I don't write sex scenes. I don't feel a book has to have such a scene to make it interesting. But, I know that many readers feel it's necessary.

Another way of explaining the 3:1 ratio is that every scene must project the story forward. If it doesn't, cut it out. Therefore, if a sex scene is only about the act itself without any emotion, the story isn't moving forward and the scene is just taking up space. Readers might like it, but editors don't.

I wonder what's in part 2... :0

Molli said...

Hi Jana. Like the post, and that class sounds interesting--nuts and bolts hands-on approach is the best in my opinion (this particular subject notwithstanding, as it were).

I'm not shy about writing sex scenes, but I haven't done scads of them, either. I know with the ones I have done one of my big concerns was keeping the emotional connection, or it's development, in mind--as Helena said, having the scene grow "naturly" within the story.

I like the idea of re-reading them later with the 3:1 ratio in mind. I try to write them as I see them in my mind, and try to put myself into them, too, so I have a feeling I may be using the same phrases, moves, etc, too often since they're coming from my perspective, not necessarily the character's. Hmm... Also, good call to remind us that we need to show the reader something about the character vis-a-vis his/her emotions as well as the physical experience in these scenes.

Hayley, I like your comment on metaphors from the character's pov--I'm going to mark that down with the ratio reminder for my edit time. Karen, I'm curious to know what's on that iPod playlist. I haven't tried to set the mood before when I start one of these scenes. And Janet, I'm totally with you on the rainbows and sunshine (unless, of course, your hero is a poet, and even then...); now, since you usually make me laugh out loud somewhere along the line, the challenge will be to combine that with the purple prose so that Hayley doesn't have to snort anymore root beer--although, come to think of it, the picture that creates in my mind is worth exploring.

Seriously, though, when I think about challenges for me when I'm writing a sex scene, another big one is the hero's perspective. So far I've started by writing it in the heroine's pov, i.e. as I would experience it, then go back as soon as I've done that and analyze to see if I could or should switch to the hero's pov and whether it sits right overall for both the physical action (initiation and response) and emotional drive. I haven't tried the back and forth pov thing yet throughout a scene, although I have read scenes where that has worked well, and I have switched half-way through the scene in my own ms for a stronger read.

Looking forward to part 2, Jana, thanks.

Karen said...

When I want to create intense emotion I always go for Loreena Mckennitt, who I love. No such playlist would be complete without The Lady in Red by Chris De Burgh. Some others on my list are This Shirt by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Keep Holding On by Avril Lavigne, Where I Was Before by Blue Rodeo, When You Say Nothing at All by Allison Krauss and Apologize by OneRepublic. Okay I'll stop now.

Janet C. said...

That sounds like a great playlist, Karen. I never listen to music when I write - but maybe for a love scene, it might generate more emotion. Something to think about.

Rainbows and sunshine - you should see how many 'couplings' I attempted before I came up with that one - trying to keep it PG rated. That being said, Jana, what did Delilah say about euphanisms?

Speaking of Hayley's concise comment about POV - Karen, how would Chase emote? Just thinking of your answer last week (Chase's vocab with viewing a garden - lawn, tree, etc). Now that's snort-worthy :)

ban said...

there are some good songs on the wild orchid soundtrack as well and i love enigma myself !

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
I totally agree with you. If your hero/heroine make love it should be a natural extension of all the feelings that have been building throughout the entire story. There's nothing worse than a sex scene stuck in just to shock or titalate.


Jana Richards said...

Hey Molli,
I don't exactly feel shy about writing sex scenes, but to this point they haven't been my favorite thing to write. Maybe I'm putting too much of myself in these things rather than thinking of the characters and what they want and need.

For some reason I prefer writing a sex scene from the male POV. I'm not sure if I'm getting it right but I do enjoy trying to get into the male POV.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
I agree that a story doesn't necessarily need a sex scene to be interesting or to have sexual tension. I've written at least a couple that didn't have any love scenes because it didn't feel right for the characters and the story.

And you're also right about a love scene moving the story forward. It shouldn't be there if it isn't moving the plot. If characters make love as a natural extension of the way they feel about each other, I think it will move the story forward.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Karen and Janet,
I don't listen to music either when I write because I find it too distracting. But maybe I should make an exception for those special scenes :)

Delilah definitely calls a spade a spade when it comes to sex scenes. But don't worry; I told her she had to keep it PG for her guest blog.


Silver James said...

I'm always a day late and a dollar short. Sorry to be weighing in on this subject so late, ladies.

I've written a couple of books with nothing more than kissing and cuddling because that's where the characters were in their relationship. I have another book that went from a couple of close encounters to the 'dirty deed' at the end, though mostly glossed over until a rewrite. At that point, the scene became...rather pointed. I have other books where the sex is quite explicit.

So much depends on the characters, the story, and the audience I'm writing for.

As for the mechanics involved, I sit back, close my eyes and *picture* the scene in my head -- like I was watching a movie. Then I describe, on paper (virtually through the keyboard) what I saw in my head. That gets the Tab A and Slot B out of the way. Next layer is dialogue and internal thoughts. I've also been told by my editor that one of the few times head-hopping is allowed is during a love scene. w00t!

Have a great evening, ya'll.

Delilah Marvelle said...

Hi Jana!
Waving madly. Wow! How freakin' awesome that my sex class was worthy enough to make it into your blog post! I am so thrilled that the class proved to be useful.