This month’s hints & tips is about a subject every aspiring romance writer needs to consider at some point – whether or not to write love scenes.
Recently a few authors have been accused of not writing romance because their books don’t include sex scenes. Which is a bizarre claim for a lot of obvious reasons (romance = sex?) but it does raise an interesting question about reader expectations.
There are readers for all kinds of romance, but the fact that most reviews give heat levels/flame ratings shows that sex is important for a lot of readers. Which is kind of disconcerting for us as writers. I mean, name another genre where books are judged by the amount sex they contain?
Even the subdivision of romance books into mild or hot feels kind of odd. Books without sex are often referred to as ‘clean’ or ‘sweet’, which either implies that sex is inherently dirty or sounds patronising. ‘Closed door’ is probably the least controversial term, but even then it implies a squeamishness that isn’t fair to the author. On the other hand, writers of ‘steamy’ romance are often treated as if they’re less serious than other writers, as if plot/dialogue/character development are just secondary considerations.
So should you write love scenes? I think, as in real life, consent is the key issue. If you want to, or feel that your story needs it, then go ahead. If you don’t, then absolutely don’t. It’s not compulsory – there’s a market for all heat levels – and you shouldn’t feel pressured to throw in a gratuitous scene just because some readers might want one.
If you are reluctant though, it might be worth considering why. If you have personal objections then that’s totally fine. But if it’s about family objections (trust me, nobody likes the idea of their parents reading their sex scenes) then maybe just talk to your families about it? Ask them not to read those chapters. Or if you’re worried about people assuming your books are autobiographical, well there’s a good reason for pen-names. The truth might eventually come out, but since people are going to judge you anyway, you might as well consider how much judgment you’re okay with.
If you do decide to write love scenes, however, then find a level of sensuality you’re comfortable with. If you feel awkward using certain vocabulary then it will probably be obvious to the reader, but you don’t need to be explicit. I’m not an expert in this department (the heat level of my books varies a lot), but just remember that love scenes are about physicality so be physical, use the senses, but don’t overdo it. Too much detailed anatomical description can sound clinical and actually be off-putting. And be consistent! Try to remember how many hands everyone has and where you left them the paragraph before.
Of course it doesn’t help that there’s an actual award for writing bad sex. Nobody wants to be judged for their skills, written or otherwise, in this department. But this is one area where the advice ‘write drunk, edit sober’ is especially useful. Maybe not too drunk since you still want to see the words on the page, but enough to get past the initial embarrassment. It’s definitely nerve-wracking at first, but you do get used to it. So just go ahead and write and then come back and edit the next day. Often it’s not as bad as you expect.
Finally, just be true to your story and characters. Don’t write a scene if it doesn’t feel right. In romance, emotion will always be the most important element, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Jenni Fletcher is the author of six historical romance novels and a visiting tutor of English at Bishop Grosseteste University. She’s also a hopeless and unrepentant coffee and Twitter addict (you can find her @JenniAuthor).