When The Bodice Rips - The Do's and Don'ts of Writing Seriously Sexy Romance.
I'll let you in on a secret—the first sexy romance I wrote, I sat at my computer and blushed wildly for all 5,000 words! It felt voyeuristic. Like I was in bed with my characters, observing their most intimate moments.
This year will be my third as a contributor to the Romance Writers of Australia, Spicy Bites Anthology. Hopefully, I'm getting the hang of writing sexy.
One thing that intrigues me is how the best romance authors keep the sex scenes they pen so breathtakingly romantic as well. The challenge to new writers of sexy romance is how to get the balance right between "down and dirty" and our protagonists falling head over heels in love. After all, writing sexy romance is still romance. It's not erotica though erotic romance often blurs the lines. To be termed romance, a HEA or HFN is essential, and so is the emotional journey of the protagonists.
Writing sexy romance is definitely an art that improves with practice. It is most definitely something you have to enjoy writing. Don't force yourself to leave the bedroom door ajar if it doesn't suit you. Personally, I can't write about shape-shifting. We each have our preferences. I don't blush anymore when I write sex. My upcoming rom/coms have some pretty steamy, and, I hope, romantic "sexploits." And while I'm by no means professing to be an expert, I have done a fair amount of research to find out what makes sex in romance novels pretty damn hot.
Needless to say, to hone my skills, I've had to read some fantastic romances over the past few years. And the odd fizzler.
So I thought I'd distill a few dos and don'ts. (And you can totally disagree here or add some; in fact, I'd love to hear your views).
Thus, drawing in a deep and ragged breath, I'll dive in:-
Give me foreplay. I need the stage to be set. My fire to be lit. That doesn't mean sex can't come into the story early on. One great scene I read was at the beginning of chapter two. The hero and heroine had met in a bar in chapter one. My, oh, my! Talk about fast and furious! The instant attraction was handled beautifully by the author and the sex was full of emotion and sensuality. It can take chapters for them to get between the sheets, or it can happen fast, but make the plot and characterization support it or the sex will feel awkward and unnatural.
Give me the five senses. Bring 'em on. Sight, touch, taste, smell, sound. Getting this balance right is an art form. When we're new to writing sex it's easy to overdo it. (Hmm, should I mention his spicy aftershave now?). Work at weaving the five senses in organically to the scene. If he moves close to whisper in her ear, does her pulse quicken? Her skin goosebump? If he then kisses down her neck to her collarbone, what next? Choose the intensity and the senses you want to highlight based on the situation and the character's motivations and unique attributes. (Author of The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang, writes great sex from an autistic person's viewpoint).
Give me emotion. One huge difference between sexy romance and erotica is the level of emotional engagement. Sure, I want these two people (or three or however many), to have the screaming hots for each other, but I also want them to be falling in love. And that requires a clever sweep of the emotional pen. Is he the ruthless playboy who is fighting his softer side after a loveless childhood? Is she dealing with past betrayal and wary as a wild cat? What is the underlying script of their emotional world? Give me a real sense of what's going on behind their actions. How does this play out in their love-making? Her gasp of surprise as he intertwines his fingers with hers. The surreptitious kiss she drops on his shoulder when she thinks he's asleep. The broken cry of his name ripped unexpectedly from his lover's lips. We need to dig deep when we write emotive sex. Give it everything in that first draft, don't censor the emotion. There is a handy tool called editing. But get it down on the page first. Let it all hang out. Cut later. Ouch!
Lose me in too many details. Of course, how they get naked (or partially naked if they can't wait), is important. I once wrote a passionate scene only to find I'd left him with his shoes and socks on throughout—not a good look. That said, I don't need to know his left quadricep shifted across her pubic synthesis. Okay, so that's an exaggeration, but unless the slow peel of clothing is integral to the action, we can "tell" certain details briefly and then get back to the juicy bits. I find it helpful to read sex scenes written by authors I admire, then analyze how they deal with all those annoying little bra fastenings and sock issues.
Bury me in metaphors. Crashing waves, diving off precipices, falling into the abyss. (Yes, I have been guilty of all of them). They have their place but don't overdo them or they become cliched. The best advice I've had is to stay in our characters' heads and bodies and write from deep POV. Don't be afraid to use the correct anatomical term, or the colloquial variations people say or think during sex. Use the language the characters would use. And now I'm going to really embarrass myself. The first sexy short story I wrote (the blushing one), was sent off with high hopes to the Romance Writers of Australia Spicy Bites competition. It came back with a judge observing she/he had a giggle at some of my wording. At one stage, I had likened my heroine's orgasm to a sea anemone. The judge quite rightly pointed out they had no idea what it felt like to be a sea anemone. Moral of the story. Do not couch sex in strange metaphors. And never write about sea anemone sex (unless your romance is between sea anemones, of course). Happily for me, the story did get published in the anthology—with all references to sea anemones edited out.
Leave the scene. I've come across this several times and it drives me batty. Here they are, panting for each other, totally immersed in the moment and suddenly there's a couple of paragraphs about her thoughts regarding something or somebody else. This is not the time for a major analysis of her last boyfriend. Save it for another time. Stay in the scene. I want the bedroom door to stay open. Don't take me into the kitchen for a cup of tea. Keep the momentum up right until that amazing climax!
Finally, a point to remember: Sex can bring down emotional tension or it can raise the stakes. As writers, we need to ensure our plot expertly weaves in those steamy love scenes so that the sex doesn't become mundane, predictable, and turn up like clockwork every twenty or so pages.
Because no-one wants boring, predictable sex, right?
Authors I love; Nalini Singh, (she who wrote the words "fierce tenderness" has my devotion forever). Amy Andrews, (sassy, hilarious, super-steamy, all the feels). Helen Hoang, (not shy with her language, maintains emotion in the depth of the heat, @ownvoices), Talia Hibbert, (Quirky, funny, even less shy with her language, @ownvoices) and Evie Dunmore (historical, lots of steamy foreplay; Evie writes beautiful sensual sex).
I read mostly contemporary with a smattering of historical. Please let me know of any authors you enjoy who write great steamy romances. In particular, I would love to hear about more @ownvoices and paranormal authors who write seriously raunchy/romantic.
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Photographs: Dainis Graveris, courtesy of Unsplash.