Birds do it, bees do it. The poet goes on to assure us that educated fleas, camels, bears and in Boston, even beans do it. And increasingly, editors of many aspects of the romance genre are demanding more of It, up front and in detail.
Which leaves writers in a bit of a quandary, because frankly, It’s difficult to write about.
And not because you’re a prude or because Aunt Ethel might have to stop bringing up your name at her book club. But because, let’s face it, at bottom, It’s really a silly activity, and anybody who has engaged in It for real can tell you It can involve unflattering noises and facial expressions, exclamations that don’t sound anywhere near as attractive as they did in your head, and a whole host of awkward moments large and…ahem…small. Incedently, IMHO, this may be the real reason why you should wait until you’re reasonably sure you love or at least really like your partner before you engage in It.
So, writing about It in a way that is even engaging, let alone romantic or glamorous, is a real trick, and authors do not have the advantage of mood lighting and clever camera angles.
I got to thinking about this because I was recently involved in a discussion among a bunch of other writers, present and former romance writers, about It, and the problems of how It was being presented in modern romance. Particularly, there was a problem with It being put in too soon. The author pointed out that she was being asked to care about the consumation of sexual attraction between two people she essentially knew nothing about.
This points out one of the big challenges of writing a successful sex scene, because so much of what makes it successful is not in the scene itself, it’s what goes in the secnes before and after. The earlier the story or the editor demands you put It in, the harder…sorry…more difficult your job becomes. You have to make the reader care, and care a lot, right away, about everybody who’s going to engage in It. Further, you have to entertain and engage the reader enough that they’ll come along with you even while you seem to short-circuit the courtship process. The game of courtship; of coming together, falling apart, and circling around is, of course, a huge part of romance. It is in fact the portion of the story that interests a large portion of the audience most. By putting the sex in early, you’re upping the sensation factor of the story, but you’re running the risk of losing readers because they see that the…sorry…climax has already arrived, why keep going with the rest of the story? Especially if they don’t feel they care enough about the people.
So, what we have here is a situation where art imitates life. With any successful sexual relationship, the set up is very, very important.
Admittedly, the reader expectations help. Romance readers aren’t stupid. They’ve seen the cover, read the back blurb, heard about the author from friends. They know what they’re getting. This, however, is no excuse for lazy or sloppy writing. It is also no excuse for rushing things. If the story; the plot, the setting, the characters, require that the suspense build and the characters resolve all kinds of other situations, then — again in literature as in life — it is better to wait. If you need or want to write a story with immediate heat and sexual activity, you need to structure the story so this makes sense within the terms of everything else. It’s got to make sense in the setting and sense for the characters.
When deciding the appropriate location for It, you have to look first at the characters; at their situation, at their experiences and physical comfort levels. You also have to look very hard at the implications for them if they get found out. Obviously, in a contemporary romance, usually, there are fewer possible consequences as long as somebody remembered the condoms, but in a historical, the implications of being found out can be life-changing.
It is tempting to start such a story with the character engaging in some kind of activity that allows plenty of time for thought; driving a car, riding in a carriage, getting dressed, etc. This allows the author to clearly state all of the above in a compact and direct form. It is fast, but it is also dull, and does not allow the reader to sink into the character or the world.
If the story, editor and author call for an early sex scene, the start of the story should have the chacater involved in some kind of action, and interaction. It doesn’t have to be a car chase, nothing has to blow up. But, if we see the character moving about their world, interacting with other people, actually meeting their opposite number (or numbers) the reader will gain a better understanding of who they are than they will watching them sitting in traffic or trying on new earrings in their room. We can see how other people regard them, as well as how they regard others. Dialogue can reveal the state and nature of an existing relationship in a more dynamic and interesting way than all the internal monologue in the world, especially in an opening scene. An active opening gives the author a lot more room to clearly, fully and quickly establish the characters. The monologuing can wait until after we’re already sure we like these people and are interested to know how they will manage to stay together after the sex.
Next Week — How?
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