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Yep, I said it: SEX. The hot-and-sweaty, no-holds-barred, tangled-sheets or on-the-floor, down-and-dirty three-letter word that terrifies some of us so bad we write, “put love scene here” on a page and move on in seconds! Yet sex scenes can be so vital to the story (unless you’re doing Tender Romance or Inspirational, of course), if they’re done right: they can emotionally connect the hero and heroine like nothing else, and raise the emotional stakes so high between them that a reader MUST keep going to finish the story, even if it’s 3am!
We’ve talked about why we hide like this on day one: I think, fundamentally, it’s the “what if Mom reads it?” syndrome. What if Daddy reads the type of sex his little girl writes about (or shock, horror, might actually indulge in), or “what if my kid reads this and thinks Mom and Dad do this? What if their friends read it?” It’s the “gross-out” factor we can shrink from.
Now, this part of the workshop isn’t for everyone, I realize. Blaze writers, Temptation writers, can make the sex as physical, technical and sweaty as they like, and more power to those who can; but they can also make it as emotional as they want. So, if this isn’t you, if writing about sex paralyzes you at all but you need to get past that fear, read on.
Okay! How to overcome this terror – for terror it can be? For me, I got over this fear by making my sex scenes emotional. When sex is done with emotion, it takes out the ick or embarrassment what if? factor — at least for me it does. So let’s stop making it clinical and embarrassing, and make it both emotional and beautiful — so lovely that readers — even Mom — will sigh and be proud their little girl wrote it!
Right. Emotional sex. Note that I am NOT coining the “love scene” euphemism. I do this deliberately — for now — though by the end, I’m hoping that’s exactly what sex will be, making love: sweet, hot, emotive sex that is unforgettable. And this can be done.
Making sex emotional does NOT mean the characters have to be in love already. What it means is, they have to have inner conflict, tension, insecurities or physical or emotional limitations that add to the emotional wallop of the act itself, and add to tension later, if necessary. Sexual tension is one part of this, of course; but the rest must come from within the characters. In other words, give them an agenda. Give your characters something deeply emotional to work with (and not just fear of commitment, which can turn readers off) to hit the readers, so that they care — they’re with the characters all the way as they do the deed. And I use this term deliberately! It’s funny how it doesn’t fit in this paragraph, isn’t it? Because “doing the deed” is a funny, if derogatory term for a loving, emotional act. And so it doesn’t fit. When we add emotion, tension, fears and their baggage, sex becomes making love, an act of self-giving that touches our soul.
So be brave with it! Throw out the baggage that comes with sex, the “of course I don’t do THAT” attitude that demands we shut doors and turn lights out, or worse yet, pretend to the kids and relatives that we don’t do any of it at all (uh-huh, and we got our kids out of the cabbage patch!) making an act of love something slightly shameful, when it’s the most beautiful act a man and woman can share. I believe sex is a gift from God to bond people for life. Let’s face it, once most people have “been” with someone, the emotion’s there, isn’t it? You don’t forget it. You can’t just say “G’day” to them, grin and walk off.
Sex is a bridge, an emotional bond that is eternal for many people, and should be for our characters, to make them heroic. Even if they’re multi-experienced (which I’m not, so if I sound old-fashioned, blame it on that), they usually remember their partners with either fondness or anger, depending; but they shouldn’t be indifferent to them. Especially heroines. (Note: I know some very “alpha” heroes get away with this. I won’t say more, since that kind of attitude is a turn-off for me in a hero. I know some men can be this way; but truly, if we’re honest, do we want our heroines to share their lives with a man like that? He might change for her — but will it be an eternal change? I always doubt it.)
The Deep POV workshop hopefully showed you how to go deep into your hero or heroine’s head, involving the reader. This is vital for emotional sex. And the first thing to take out, is tags. One or two are fine; but after that, you’ve taken the reader out of the scene and left them uninvolved. A sex scene then becomes just that: a sex scene, not making love. Clinical, not the tender, emotionally binding act that will keep the reader fused to the book. So keep the reader (or judge, editor etc) where they belong: with the characters, in the bed or in the pool, on the floor, in the river, etc, etc! That doesn’t mean the sex can’t be hot, sweaty, fast or furious: it can! But just never, never forget to put the emotion, the fear, the agenda in there. Take chances! Fly with the characters!
Now this might be terribly hard for some of you. I’m not going to put anyone on the spot here or go into details of why (there’s a guzillion self-help books on the subject already), but for some women, sex is a chore rather than a pleasure. So this is where imagination must really work hard. But working with emotion and tenderness can make the job easier. Try it and see!
I’m going to give an example (with the author’s permission) from In Bed With The Boss’s Daughter, by Bronwyn Jameson (Silhouette Desire):
He slid down her body, the heated glide of his mouth everywhere at once, tormenting her with his thoroughness, too much yet never enough, hungry yet restrained, turning her wild and frantic, then soothing her with low words of restraint and approval. When she felt the strange soft caress of his hair on her inner thighs (what a way to SHOW this, by the way!) she trembled with want and need and love. And then the kiss of his tongue — there! — shocked the trembling from her body. Until he touched her again, gently, then more boldly, and the delight shivered and shimmered through her body in a quicksilver rush. She fisted her hands in the sheet, clutching for control because this couldn’t happen yet, not without him there, inside her, completing her.
This to me is a masterly, show-don’t-tell way of writing emotional sex. Jameson takes you right inside her character’s mind and makes you feel what she’s feeling. She could easily have made this a clinical romp, a go-for-it, no-holds-barred sex act, but she turned it into a gently-shimmering act of loving that I think is very tasteful. And emotional! And see how the lack of names took you right into Paris’ mind? You could be the heroine and feel what she was feeling, because no names or tags jolted you out of the scene.
Now I’m going to wed deep point of view, deep characterization and emotional sex (I hope), so the point is well and truly made. Here’s a scene from my second book, Who Do You Trust?:
“Lis-sa!” He hoped like hell she understood his plea, because speech was beyond him.
A low, rippling laugh, and his eyes lifted in a hunger matching hers, drinking in her flushed, naked, sweat-sheened body. She was sitting on him, legs spread over him, fingers splayed on his skin. She was literally glowing, incandescent with radiant sexual desire. “I know.” She wriggled back, moving her soft wet heat against his hardness, slow and seductive, in the sweetest drenching any man could want to know. “Mmmm, my strongest sexual fantasy. Me sitting on you; you on your back, begging me to end the torture.”
“You want it, you got it.” Sweat poured down his face; the exquisite pain was killing him. “Baby, please, I have to be inside you. Now.” He reached into the drawer beside the bed, handing her a packet. “Use — this,” he muttered through gritted teeth as she moved on him again, feeling like he could die of this anguished bliss.
“I’ve never done this before, either.” Her face filled with another new wonder, she opened it and rolled the condom over his length, hand over hand, sweet and tight — almost causing him to lose it then and there. “Thank you,” she said softly, and eased him inside her.
But he couldn’t wait; he was dying by slow degrees. He thrust hard and fast, desperate to be inside her sweet warmth; and she gasped and bucked instinctively, in the most glorious friction ever known to man and woman.
He couldn’t be slow; control had deserted him with her whispered fantasies of him, with her hands and perfect mouth fulfilling each one. He was gone, beyond thought of anything but the pleasure gripping him. Lissa, his beautiful, beloved Lissa was riding him, flying on him, her face filled with that same burning ecstasy searing him alive. Her hands braced on his chest, she bucked and rocked with his every movement, meeting him, flying with him all the way, crying out with each new sensation, moving faster, higher, harder, hotter. Moaning his name, making the gorgeous guttural sounds of a woman in the grip of the pleasure-pain just before orgasm.
He was gonna lose it, now — he thrust into her again, lifted her up and brought her down in a fast hard jolting hit of white-hot — the rush roared through him like a midnight express and oh, God, his heart was gonna explode, he couldn’t stop it and everything disappeared but the —
Lissa cried out his name and fell onto him, her soft wetness clenching all around him.
“I love you, Lissa. I love you,” he gasped and poured himself into her, in the sweetest relief and most joyous giving he’d ever known.
Silence, broken only by quiet gasps of breath and muted rat-tat-tats of gunfire in the distance.
Eventually, he found the strength to kiss her hair, soft and lazy. “You all right?”
She buried her face against his chest. “I’m fine. Wonderful.”
But she wasn’t. Though she stroked and caressed him, she’d withdrawn somehow. She’d been with him all the way — beyond any imaginings of her he’d ever had, until —
Oh, God. He’d told her he loved her. She knew now — and she wasn’t talking.
This is why I always stick to one point of view in a sex scene – to go deep inside a character’s head, so the sex is always, always emotional. Mitch couldn’t finish his sentences, he was so lost in sensation — first sexual, then in fear. To me that made sense, so I wrote it that way. It hits more emotionally.
But to give a character — or preferably both of them, an agenda from the start, or a strong, compelling fear, ups the emotional stakes even before they make love. Returning to Can You Forget?, the Tal and Mary-Anne book (warning, this is a long scene, and it doesn’t even involve sex):
Long before he saw her, he heard the slow, uneven pounding of exhausted feet, the high-pitched ragged gasps of her exhaustion. She slowed down as she got close to where he sat unseen, and came to a stop on the stretch of sand approximately behind their room. He peered through the soft, fragrant velvet darkness, but seeing little at a thirty-foot distance he moved closer, with all the stealth Anson taught him in training.
She was bent over double, holding her sides. Her face, strange and ethereal in the rising moonlight, was turned toward their room, filled with that look of helpless self-hatred she — d always had when she looked in a mirror as a girl, or copped abuse from the kids or people in town for being so different.
A tear trickled gently down her cheek, and fell to the sand.
“Stupid, stupid,” she muttered, and dashed at her face. “Why do you keep hoping? Don’t you ever learn?”
He watched her, unable to turn away. Dear God — the press called this woman the Iceberg? Before he’d gathered the guts to speak, to break the horrifying sense of hopelessness, the self-hate and silent anguish he felt radiating from her, she spun on her heel and staggered to the water’s edge. A slow, careful look around; she kicked her shoes and socks off, put them out of the water’s way, then stepped fully clothed into the shimmering dark ocean, the moon playing off soft silver lights on her gilded hair and pale skin.
“Mary-Anne,” he called, quiet yet commanding. “Come on — enough’s enough. We need to talk.”
Up to her knees in the warm water, she stood frozen, her curly braid falling down her back, her fists clenched. “How long have you been there?” Her voice was neutral.
“Since you ran past me.”
She sighed. “What’s to say? I got the message.”
“And you believed it?”
She still wouldn’t turn around, wouldn’t or couldn’t look at him. “Why not? It’s just the old, familiar territory, isn’t it? Nothing I’m not used to.”
“No, it isn’t,” he retorted bluntly. “You’re the famous one now, you’re the one who’s bloody gorgeous — and I couldn’t keep my hands off you when you weighed nearly twice what you do now. What the hell’s familiar about this?”
Her head drooped. “Why bother talking about it? You’re here for revenge. You know I can act. Anson will never know we didn’t do the deed. So you’re off the hook.”
He chuckled wryly, limping over to her. “Oh, he’ll know all right, sweetness. Any man would who knows you. When you’re frustrated, you’re cold. When you’re satisfied, you glow. It’s unmistakable. Trust me.”
“So I’ll rub Vitamin E oil on my face and smile a lot,” she snapped, still facing outward to the shimmering ocean. “Now would you please leave me alone?”
He grabbed her shoulder, turned her around to face him. “For Pete’s sake, don’t you get it? It was me. I had the problem! I was too bloody scared to take my clothes off in front of you!”
“Why?” she cried. “It’s not like we weren’t lovers before! Surely after this morning’s kiss you knew you could make me want you — that I already want you?”
Part of his mind reeled under the onslaught of her words, but too furious, too bloody terrified to process them, he shouted, “How the hell would I? You act for a living! As to the why, isn’t it self-explanatory, my pretty bride?” He thrust his face at her, his ugly mess of a cheek. “Come on, look at me, Miss beautiful bloody West: you’ve been there, done that. So look well, and tell me what woman would be crazy enough to want to look at this face in bed even once — not to mention the leg — let alone the rest of her life!”
If she’d answered in words, he wouldn’t believe her; if she’d argued, his self-hate would conquer reason. But one simple act was so effective it stunned him: she blushed so furiously her face, throat and shoulders were scorched, visible even in the moon’s dim light; she turned away in terrified silence.
Standing up to their knees in warm ocean, face to face in the shadows of soft-lapping water and sensuous night, they were frozen in time: she couldn’t, or wouldn’t speak; he was too speechless to respond, his heart pounding with sudden, wild hope. His hand shook as it reached out, turning her face back to his. “Mary-Anne?” He heard his own whisper, touched with wonder
Tears filled her eyes; she bit her lip; but she looked right into his eyes, letting him see inside her soul: naked longing, anguished hope and want. He came closer, moving his imperfect body against hers in gentle testing, and longing became pain, a need so strong and sharp it cut his fears to shreds. She moved her tongue over her lips, her breathing harsh and erratic. Her eyes were fixed on his mouth as if glued there, filled with oh, such tender, terrible hunger, her need for him eating her alive.
Shaking, he tipped her face up to his. “Mary-Anne — oh, honey, don’t look at me like that unless you mean it.”
A trembling hand lifted to caress his face, right over his scars, as if she didn’t even see them, or care. “Please, Tal. I’ve been cold so long.” Her voice shaking, her face filled with such heart-deep terror and need, it humbled him. “Oh please, make me a woman again!”
He closed his eyes, dragged in a deep, heaving breath. By instinct, his mouth brushed hers.
She made a tiny mewing sound, like an eager kitten. With a harsh groan, he pulled her up hard against him and deepened the kiss; but she was already there before him, making tiny, guttural sounds of pleasure as she ravaged his mouth. Her hands slid beneath his T-shirt, drinking in every inch of skin she could find, with a need for him so absolute, so voracious he gasped for air between consuming kisses and insatiable touch.
He tore his mouth from hers to nibble soft-freckled shoulders and throat. Her head fell back, giving gasps of primal joy. As his hand hesitated on her ribcage, she moaned and pushed it onto her breast, shuddering when he puckered the peaked nipple to shooting life, writhing against him. Then she uttered magical words, words he thought he’d never hear again, from her or any other woman. “I want to make love now — “
But unbidden, a memory rose in his mind: the memory of the one hospital visit from his beautiful, shallow, stupid ex-wife. Staring at the bandages covering his worst wound, the one on his front and inner thigh, she blurted, Can you do it any more? Could you even get it up? I — I mean, wouldn’t it hurt? Those scars must be awfully close to your —
Ginny’s horrified, faltering words stripped him of self-confidence, the arousal proving his ability withering in the flames of fear. “Mary-Anne — ” How the hell to say it? “I don’t know if I can — “
Her whole body stiffened. She pushed his hands off. “Then leave me alone.” Her voice was rough, scratchy, as if she spoke through a rock lodged in her throat. “Please, just go! Get away from me. I can’t keep doing this!”
Point made — I hope! Even before the sex, the agendas are out there, the fears and anguish and past pain alluded to or thought — and it raises the stakes to painful levels, hopefully making the reader unable to put the book down. It was hard to write, but I think it works oh, and they do go on to make wild, beautiful love in a few more minutes!