Tuesday, February 18, 2014

How to Craft a Love Scene

By Robin Constantine, @RConstantine14

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Please help me give a big welcome to YA author Robin Constantine, who joins us today to share some tips on writing love scenes.

Robin is a born and bred Jersey girl who moved down South so she could wear flip-flops year round. She spends her days dreaming up stories where love conquers all, well, eventually but not without a lot of peril, angst and the occasional kissing scene.

Her YA debut, The Promise of Amazing, was released on December 31, 2013 by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Take it away Robin...

There you are plugging away at your novel when you get to a point and realize your characters are about to kiss (or more) and you freeze. Maybe it’s your first draft and you simply write, “lips touch”, and continue. Or maybe you’re on your third round and you find yourself procrastinating to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that arise every time you try to imagine your characters together in that way. If this describes you, you’re not alone. Love scenes can feel awkward and clinical to write. A woman from my former critique group wrote gorgeous prose but when it came to writing love scenes she said, she just felt embarrassed and silly about it.

Love scenes, which I categorize as anything from flirting and kissing to more, are actually some of my favorite scenes to write. While I tend to take a more humorous approach in my writing, here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful:

Ask yourself how it moves the story forward

I adore a good love scene, and while it’s always fun to write (and read) it should feel organic to the plot. Are the characters kissing for the first time? Will it bring them closer or drive them apart? Or quite possibly they shouldn’t be kissing at all but couldn’t help it and their liaison becomes a festering secret. Whatever the reason, just make sure there is one.

In The Promise of Amazing, my characters kiss for the first time after a scare for one of them at the ER. For me, it’s the first time they are both completely open and vulnerable with each other. This particular chapter is told from Grayson’s POV. In my initial draft he didn’t kiss Wren, only thought about it and wondered if it might be too soon. One of my crit partners urged me to write the scene differently, and her notes in the margin were “if he wants to kiss her, maybe he should”. I switched up the scene and had Grayson ambush kisses Wren. I loved the way it played out. The kiss gave that moment a sense of urgency that was lacking and set up the following chapter much better.

Leave perfection at the door

Unless you are Leo and Kate on the bow of Titanic with a dreamy sunset and a haunting James Horner melody in the background--it ain’t gonna be perf, ya know? First kisses rarely go according to plan. Think about your own first kiss, or first kiss with a new person. Maybe s/he missed your mouth, maybe your phone went off, maybe your father appeared on his nightly walk with the dog as you and your amour crouched in the shadows waiting for him to pass so you wouldn’t get caught swapping spit with the boy next door.

I tend to overwrite love scenes in my first draft--all flowery and smooth with everyone saying the right thing at the right time. On my next round I try to grit it up. See where I can inject humor or awkwardness to give the scene some authenticity. If you write young adult, remember to put in details that make it uniquely young adult, which is normally a time of overloaded senses and hyperawareness. (And of parents sometimes being home!)

Consider your pacing

Does it all unfold like a Barry White song? Or is it a little more angsty like The Cure? Knowing what mood you’re trying to create can help too. Short. Quick. Sentences. Can convey that feeling of urgency. Of things happening. NOW. Or you could write long, swoony sentences with mouthwatering words and take a paragraph or two to describe your characters staring deeply into each other’s eyes. A mix of both – quick and long – is usually what I strive for – slowing things down when there’s a detail I want to highlight and quickening things up to move the scene along.

Remember, less is more

Your characters don’t have to go all the way to make things sexy. Holding hands, shoulders brushing, a look that lasts a little too long can be just as sensuous as a full-blown love scene. Or maybe it’s the repercussions of being physical that are more important to the story. Everything doesn’t have to happen on the page. How much or how little you want to include is your choice.

Walk the fine line between cheesy and romantic

Admittedly, this is something I struggle with at times. I think it’s because the topic of romance is so subjective. I happen to be a fan of eye contact. Flirty, longing, the whole eyes-are-the-window-of-the-soul thing works for me. For someone else, this could be a cheesefest, wait-a-moment-while-I-throw-up-in-my-mouth factor. Our most intimate moments, exposing our naked feelings to someone, well, yes, can be a little sappy. General rule of thumb is not to be heavy handed or have characters talk about souls, or fate or anything that can be put on a candy heart.

Set the mood for yourself

Music? Wine? Whitman’s Sampler? What are some things that could help set the mood for you, the writer? It may sound silly, but it can help. I wrote one of my favorite scenes in The Promise of Amazing at night with the same song on repeat. I’m not sure what it was about the song, not really the lyric, more about the singer’s voice and the feelings it brought up for me. From a technical point of view, it felt like I was choreographing the scene. Listening to the song helped me with the flow and the pacing and put me in touch with the mood I was trying to create.

Don’t be afraid to go too far

I’m a bit of a fade-to-black girl myself, but recently forced myself to get a little more graphic in a scene than I normally would have. Going into it, I knew it would be for my eyes only, just practice to see how far I could take it without getting squeamish. Turns out, pretty far. The scene is more NA than YA and will never see the light of day, but I’ve already taken some of the elements and put them into the new story I’m writing. Time spent writing is rarely wasteful. This exercise was freeing.

Forget about your family

Or your neighbor. Or your pastor. Or whoever it is you think is going to read what you wrote and realize what a naughty, puerile pervert you really are. Write what needs to be written!

About The Promise of Amazing

Wren Caswell is average. Ranked in the middle of her class at Sacred Heart, she's not popular, not a social misfit. Wren is the quiet good girl who's always done what she's supposed to--only now, in her junior year, this passive strategy is backfiring. She wants to change but doesn't know how.

Grayson Barrett was the king of St. Gabe's: star of the lacrosse team, at the top of his class, and on the fast track to a brilliant future--until he was expelled for being a "term-paper pimp." Now Gray is in a downward spiral and needs to change but doesn't know how.

One fateful night, their paths cross at Wren's family's Arthurian-themed catering hall. What follows is the complicated, awkward, hilarious, and tender tale of two teens shedding their pasts, figuring out who they are--and falling in love.


  1. Great post!! Romantic scenes can be a bit embarrassing to write, but done right they can add another layer to bringing the characters to life on the page.

  2. Hi Robin
    Great post, thanks.
    I've been struggling with romance in my latest trilogy. There's more of it than in previous books and it's key to the plot so I've had to have some of the scenes you're writing about above.
    I've been mostly going for the less is more approach! It'll be interesting to see on the second edit whether it's too little and I need to get a bit more on the page.
    The line between cheesy and romantic is the toughest thing for me. As soon as I start any kind of description its hard not to fill in the cheesy bits in my head, at which point i start to giggle and lose all the atmosphere :)
    I think the key was your comment about leaving perfection at the door. Making sure the characters are feeling those uncertainties and noticing the details that stop it being Titanic can make all the difference.
    Lots of good stuff here, thanks again

  3. Such a great post, Robin. Thank you.

    The first couple of drafts (first novel), I wrote my love scenes pretty raw, like, 'looking over my shoulder in the café or library to make certain no one was copping a peak lest I be utterly mortified or asked to leave,' kind-of-graphic. It was fun, really. I liked those scenes. They were hot. Didn't know a middle-aged-married-twenty-two-years babe still had it in her.


    As revisions went on and my characters get even deeper under my skin and the story rang through the words, I tamed those scenes way down, injected humor in some, and faded most everything to black. It wasn't about being embarrassed or not finding the least-obnoxious euphemism for acts or body parts, it was what felt right for my characters and their story. I still have the more graphic versions, of course, and I could still tone down what I've got in my current draft. Beta readers will help with that perspective, I hope.

    I'm working harder on this second novel to build tension, to do the "less is more" as you suggest- the brief touch, the almost, the dialogue that can build the relationship as much, if not more than, the physical interaction.

    And as Michael noted, your advice to leave perfection at the door is, well, perfect. When I added in humor, silliness, awkwardness, I felt the whole scene relax and become even sexier.

    I'd love to trade love scenes with a male writer, to see how he'd write my characters' encounters and I, his. Wouldn't that be a great workshop?!

  4. Just in time for me!!! I have been accused of writing intimate scenes like a guy so this works for me. I have an ADD man in love with a "normal woman" and how they get to being married is a journey all on its own since he has poor social interaction skills... Your comments about eye contact and don't over do it are a real relief to hear. I did not want to read 50 shades of grey to do my research so thanks again :)

  5. Oh, what fun advice! Now I'm curious which song you played on repeat.

    I tend to under write these scenes and add to them later, when I'm a bit more aware of the pacing. After I've "added fleas" to these scenes, they tend to be my favorites.