In honour of the RNAs 60th anniversary year, we have put together a special series of blog posts on various aspects of writing romance. These will feature advice and comments from some of our bestselling author members, who all have a wealth of experience and expertise. We hope these posts will be informative and interesting to both new and seasoned writers, but please feel free to add your own tips in the comments section below!
Each month we are highlighting a particular aspect of writing romance, and this month our bestselling authors are discussing how to write hot scenes:-
‘The most important point to remember is that a good sex scene isn’t just about the sex,’ says Kate Walker. ‘They’re about something hugely emotionally important that is played out physically in an act that makes people extremely vulnerable no matter how frivolous and offhand the characters try to make it. That’s why sex scenes are so crucial.’ She adds, ‘For me, the most important thing … is the “before and after” – what was happening before they end up in bed together and how have things changed after it. Sex, literally, is a way of becoming totally naked with the other person – so it’s what happens as a result off that experience that matters.’
Sarah Morgan agrees. ‘The most important aspect of the sex scene isn’t the sex itself, but the impact it has on the story. How does it move the story forward? How does physical intimacy affect the characters and the relationship? How does it change them? If they leave the bedroom feeling no different than when they entered it, then the scene isn’t serving a purpose.’
‘Sensuality, the emotional impact rather than detailed manoeuvres,’ is the most important thing according to Liz Fielding, while Sheila O’Flanagan feels it’s that ‘the people concerned are having fun.’
‘The scene needs to be part of the story and carry it forward,’ says Barbara Erskine. ‘The thing is to try and make the reader care desperately about whatever is going on.’ However, it also depends on the story. ‘In a detailed longish novel with, like mine, a lot of time to cover, there isn‘t usually room to suddenly home in on too much detail in one particular scene. I like a light touch most of the time. That is, unless that detail is a particularly important part of the plot.’ She adds, ‘I don’t think I have inhibitions, although of course some of my characters do, so I respect their feelings on the matter.’
‘My novels do tend to be open door,’ Dinah Jefferies says. ‘I try to write books that deal with the darkest of times but that ultimately uplift the reader, soulful books that touch the heart in various ways … Some scenes naturally demand explicit sex and then I try very hard to avoid cliché and make it feel physically real and not overblown. I don’t send my characters to heaven and back in ecstasy for instance. I think if you’re stuck when writing sex scenes, it’s a good idea to look at how other authors handle them. I have no inhibitions in writing sex scenes; in fact, it’s rather fun!’
Prue Leith sometimes opens the bedroom door, ‘if I feel the story requires it. I’ve written love stories with no described sex and ones with very explicit sex. I like writing it, I guess I don’t have too many inhibitions’ but ‘I find some writer’s sex scenes, especially if they are very anatomical, embarrassing.’ Sheila O’Flanagan agrees with that last point and keeps any sex scenes short. ‘I like to leave most of it to the reader’s imagination. That’s mainly because descriptions of sex are usually so gynaecological and it’s difficult to make them interesting!’
Not all authors leave the bedroom door open …
‘My daughter types up my books for me,’ says Jill Mansell. ‘Before she did it, my mum had the task. This is why my books are entirely devoid of explicit sex!’
Katie Fforde, on the other hand, wishes she could get more sex into her books but says ‘I always fail. I need my reader to know that my characters are going to have sex, or have had sex, but I can’t write about them doing it. I think it’s because one person’s “ooh!” is another person’s “ee-oo” (as in, extreme distaste.)’
‘I don’t deliberately avoid sex scenes and one of my early books was called a “mild bodice ripper”, but then I found that someone’s eight-year-old daughter was reading my books, so I decided to leave the sex scenes to the reader’s imagination,’ Dilly Court tells us. And in Elaine Everest’s sagas, the bedroom door is firmly closed. She likes ‘to see romance and shared emotions without the “nuts and bolts” of the sex scene.’
For Liz Fielding it hasn’t been a big part of her writing life, although ‘I did have some fun with a book I wrote for Riva,’ she says.
Milly Johnson’s books don’t really spill into the bedroom either, ‘other than a couple of lines when something needs to happen as part of the plot. I tend to avoid it because it’s not needed so it would read gratuitously. No one likes it to be forced in(!)’
‘You need to find out what is the appropriate level of sensuality for the line/sub-genre you particularly want to write for – the line you plan on targeting,’ Kate Walker advises. ‘The only way you’ll ever learn that is by reading. When I first started writing [for Mills & Boon], the lines weren’t divided as clearly as they are now. These days, writing for Modern/Presents demands “high sensuality and sky-rocketing sexual tension.” Many would-be authors think it’s the sensuality that makes a Modern Romance novel – but the emotional tension is more important – and along with that goes the sexual tension … you need to start with sensual awareness and build on that, building up to the actual bedroom scene.’
She adds that ‘the mood of the scene is important – and again that WHY question needs to be considered. Why – apart from the obvious desire – is this intimacy taking place right now?’
What about making sure we include the concept of consent when writing sex scenes and how do you keep that (and things like birth control and safe sex) sexy?
Liz Fielding feels it’s ‘essential [for there to be consent]. A scene works for me when it’s the heroine grabbing the hero by the shirt front!’ Milly Johnson agrees – ‘No one wants their hero to be aggressive in the bedroom – unless the heroine likes it like that (but even if she does, it might put off the reader). It’s important to show that whatever happens between characters is consensual, however “un-missionary” that may be. We would lose all respect for a hero who overstepped the sexual lines.’
Sheila O’Flanagan tries to ‘deal with those things early on in the scene, or mention birth control in another place in the book.’
It also depends on the type of story – it’s ‘tricky if one is writing about rape,’ says Barbara Erskine, and ‘historical attempts at birth control and abortion do come into some of my books as part of the anguish of the story.’
‘If it’s a rape scene, non-consent is the whole point,’ comments Prue Leith. ‘But a modern hero will not be a rapist. He’ll be careful to know, or feel, there’s consent. You can skip the birth control bit if you think it will disturb the flow, but putting on a condom could be sexy. But it’s not the novelist’s job to preach safe sex. This is fiction, not a government tract.’
Kate Walker says, ‘Using condoms etc is worked out between the characters. One heroine would be perfectly comfortable to open a condom and put it on her hero herself – with another couple this might not be the case.’ She adds, ‘Each bedroom scene is between the individual characters, so their personalities, their likes and dislikes, their emotions – and all the conflict that there has been between them through the book – goes along with them into that time of intimacy. The best way to lose any personal inhibitions is – again – to get to know and understand your characters so well that you are writing their responses and desires, which may be entirely different to your own. I always say I needed to get rid of any idea of one of my sisters – or, even worse, my mother reading a sex scene. My characters do things that I have never done – or would never do – myself. That’s because it’s their story. Use all the senses too!’
What about you – do you like stories with the bedroom door wide open? Or do you prefer to just get a glimpse? We’d love to know! (And any further tips for writing hot scenes are welcome too!)