Monday, September 11, 2017

7 Tips For Writing Great Love Scenes

By Joyce Scarbrough, @JoyceScarbrough

Part of the How They Do It Series

Joyce Scarbrough is a Southern woman weary of seeing herself and her peers portrayed in books and movies as either post-antebellum debutantes or barefoot hillbillies รก la Daisy Duke, so all her heroines are smart, unpretentious women who refuse to be anyone but themselves. The former senior editor for Champagne Books, Joyce now does freelance editing in addition to writing full time. She writes both adult and YA fiction and has seven published novels as well as several short stories available as Kindle downloads. Joyce loves hanging out with other writers and stays active in her local writers’ guild as well as her regional chapter of SCBWI. She’s lived all her life in beautiful LA (lower Alabama), she’s the mother of three gifted children and a blind Pomeranian named Tilly, and she’s been married for 34 years to the love of her life—a superhero who disguises himself during the day as a high school math teacher and coach.

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Take it away Joyce...

“I’m not a romance writer, but I played one on TV.”

Okay, that’s not exactly true, but it’s catchier than “I used to be the senior editor for a romance publisher.” I just felt the need to state my credentials for giving advice on writing love scenes—other than having been hot-to-trot for most of my life. And although I don’t write romances myself, all my books feature love stories (even the one with the dead protagonist!) and contain love scenes of both the sweet and steamy varieties.

So here are the tips I used to give the authors I edited for so that I wouldn’t have to read any more cringe-worthy, boring, or oh-jeez-not-again love scenes. And, yes, all the bad examples I give here came from books I’ve edited. And, yes, I made the authors take all of them out.

NOTE: These tips are meant for romantic love scenes with an emotional arc and may or may not apply if you write erotica.

1. Whenever possible, make the scene about something more than sex.

Does it symbolize a deeper commitment for the characters or a new level of trust? Maybe it reveals that there isn’t anything more than sex between the characters, potentially setting up a difficult decision for one or the other. Even love scenes should advance the plot.

2. Be selective in your word choices.

Word connotation is more important than ever in love scenes. You’re creating a mood, so don’t spoil it with clumsy, comical word choices. No “clucking” or “hammering” or “squeaking,” and remember that “groan” and “moan” are not the same things. Neither are “murmur,” “mutter” and “mumble.” Don’t have your characters mumbling or muttering their words of passion if you want their beloved to understand them.

3. People can still “get” what you mean without mentioning body parts.

Even if you’re not comfortable going into a lot of detail, you can still write a pretty hot scene by using generalities. Here’s how I did it in my novel Symmetry.
He lifted her hips and held them poised above his against the door, then he looked into her eyes with his breath coming in rapid puffs against her face. She cried out as he simultaneously lowered her hips and pressed upward with his, their bodies reuniting as though they’d never been apart. And despite the familiar temporary insanity that overtook her while he moved them both in a rhythm that was much too divine to sustain for long, and even as she approached the point where all she could do was clutch him and murmur his name over and over, she couldn’t help thinking how incredibly stupid she had been to think she could ever give him up.

4. No purple prose or hokey euphemisms.

It’s fine to add some poetic emotional content, but please don’t have your characters “soaring like doves into infinity” or “sailing through the stars on a rocket ship of love.” You are not Lady Gaga writing a “Bad Romance,” so please don’t use phrases like these or the ones below. Scratch that—DO NOT EVER use phrases like the ones below.

“his rod of ecstasy”
“his man pollen”
“her sex cave”
“her golden donut”
“his manhood glistened like a swimmer just coming out of the water”

5. Foreplay is important in life and in books, so don’t shortchange your readers when it comes to flirtation and buildup.

Anticipation makes everything hotter. Sometimes foreplay can even make the whole scene, so you don’t always have to leave that door open if it makes you uncomfortable. Take your characters as far as you want to go, then close the door and let them have their privacy if that’s all you can allow. Your characters will help you decide this.

6. It’s okay to include humor, but timing is everything.

Lots of love scenes start out playful, and a misstep or two early on can be hilarious, but no jokes when it’s time to get down to business. Once you’ve established an emotional connection between the lovers, try not to spoil the mood with misplaced slapstick. Imagine reading something like this.
She started to undress but he asked her to let him do it because he’d been dreaming about it for so long. As he removed each article of her clothing, he touched the part he’d revealed with a light brush of his fingertips.

“Damn, your hands are cold,” she said with a giggle. “Have you been juggling ice cubes?”

7. Don’t forget that most of the time, sex changes everything.

Once your characters cross the line of physical intimacy with each other, things can get complicated, and that’s a good thing. For maximum effect, don’t make it happen too soon but also don’t wait too long. If your characters don’t make love until the last chapter, you lose the chance to add a lot of great conflict to your plot.

Of course, as with any kind of writing advice, all these things are relative depending on your characters and your book.

Well, except for the euphemisms. If I hear of anyone using “man pollen” or “golden donut,” I will hunt you down and hit you over the head with Snoopy’s typewriter.

About Symmetry

Jessica Cassady is a copyeditor for a small newspaper in Georgia where her husband Lee is a sportswriter. When he attends a convention in New York, Jess is shocked when she calls his room in the middle of the night and a woman answers. Lee swears things aren't what they seem, but Jess isn't so sure. She decides changes need to be made.

After she kicks him out, Lee realizes just how much he's lost and tries his best to win her back. Things become even more complicated when Noah Hamilton, a sweet man from her past shows up. Sparks fly as these two polar opposites on the testosterone scale compete for her affection.

While Jess is enjoying her new-found independence, conflict abounds and a choice needs to be made. Should she forego the beefcake brigade and give the sensitive type a try, or should she give in to the addictive rush she's always felt whenever she's close to Lee?
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  1. Awesome post and many thanks to 'redheaded self-confessed hot-to-trot southern belle' Joyce Scarbrough for sharing her expertise.

    1. I think I may have to add that description to my bio. ;-)

  2. Thank you, Joyce! Sounds like I'm on the right track, and so glad to know it. Thanks!

  3. I couldn't read #4 without giggle-cringing. Those are hilarious!

  4. Replies
    1. I know, right? I'll never look at my Krispy Kremes the same again.

    2. I was just about to say the same thing!

  5. Joyce, would you share some insight into YA and sex? I'm working through my editor's ms assessment & she's warning me that I've 'crossed the line' with on two on the page love scenes. No body parts named. OTOH, I've sent the ms out to a variety of beta readers & one of my questions was would you give this story to your 15 - 16 - 17 year old daughter and granddaughter. Thus far, my readers tell enthusiastically yes. Your take?

    1. Thanks for the great question!

      There's a big difference in what some parents/grandparents think is inappropriate for young adults and what the teens themselves are comfortable reading. Some teens are okay with reading about sex and some are grossed out by it. I would say that the main thing to consider in writing sex or love scenes in YA books is to make sure the scene is in there for a legitimate reason (to add conflict and move the story along) and not just to make the book "edgy" or "contemporary."

      As I said in Tip #7, sex changes everything in a relationship, and this is even more true for young adults. If your characters have sex, I think you absolutely have to show how it affects them, whether it's good, bad or just confusing. And as it is with just about every aspect of a novel, your characters determine what should happen. Just make sure you stay true to them.

      As far as how graphic to be or not to be, it depends both on your own comfort level and whether the book is YA, Upper YA or New Adult. I have four novels that feature teenage characters--two have sex in them, one has a close call, and one has only kissing because that was all the characters could handle.

      And, of course, each publisher has their own standards for YA sex, so authors may get leniency from one and restrictions from another. This can be really frustrating and is one of the main reasons I now self publish. :-)

    2. Thank you, bunches of roses - thank you's!

      Your #7 is my no, it's not sex, it's love and one of the most powerful story drivers for cripes sake! Your two Upper YA titles with sex are?

      Le sigh, re trad publishing restrictions. I wonder if there's a resource that spells all that you shall, shalt nots out?

    3. I have one scene where it's sex and not love, but it's not my protagonist in the scene. And that scene is there because someone is using sex to self-medicate a broken heart. Other than that, there has to be love involved for me.

  6. Emily Caton Rogers9/15/2017 4:25 PM

    Enjoyed reading your post!

  7. Great advice, Joyce, and after reading most of your books, I can tell they are "thoroughly" researched. Thanks for the tips.

  8. Awesome post. As a new writer just jumping into writing her first romance novel, these tips came at the perfect time:).