We’ve all read them: love scenes that drag on and on, using words that would work better atop a Ritz cracker than on the page of what’s supposed to be a scintillating novel. And we’ve all done it: slammed the book closed and tossed it across the room, when the most respectable character magically turns into a porn star at the sight of an erect penis. But don’t be too hard on the author. Writing a sex scene that is also a love scene is a precarious dance, one involving a three-step tempo. So how can you become the next Dancing with the Stars champion? Learn the basics.
1. The pacing must be perfect. In a love scene, you should slow the pace way down. Focus on the five senses and how they are being stimulated. Does the lace of your heroine’s bra cup itch, thus keeping her nipples stimulated throughout dinner? Has the smell of the hero’s cologne driven her mad all night? What does it feel like when the hero unzips her dress and her flesh is exposed to the chilly room? What is the difference between those Goosebumps, and the Goosebumps she gets when he licks her navel with an ice cube in his mouth? What images does this conjure for her, and how does it make her feel? Slowing down the pacing allows us to understand the relationship between what is happening externally, and how it affects our protagonist internally.
But please note, slowing down the pace is not an excuse for focusing on boring, meaningless prose. We don’t need to know the hero passed three doors on the left, then took a right, then climbed five stairs, then turned left, then nudged a squeaky door open with his foot and took seven paces to the bed where he finally raised a knee and dropped her ever-so gently on top of it. “He carried her to the bedroom,” would cover that part of the journey most succinctly.
2. The actions and reactions of the participants must be organized and believable. There is a sequence in which human beings receive and experience sensorial stimulation, and there is a uniform manner in which to write about it. Dwight Swain asserts using Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs) is the “magic key” to compelling fiction
Motivation is external and objectively observable. For example, “Dylan stared deep into Mary’s eyes and touched her face.” The Reaction is internal, subjective, and has three parts: a feeling and a reflex, followed by rational action and/or speech. For example:
Feeling: “Mary’s cheeks warmed. A tingling sensation burgeoned between her hips. ” (You show this first because it happens instantly.)
Reflex: “Her hand shot up and cupped his fingers, removing them from her sensitive skin.” (You show this second as an instinctive result requiring little conscious thought.)
Rational Action and/or Speech: “You know I can’t. You’re married.” (You show this last, when Mary has had time to consider her emotional reactions and act in accordance with her ultimate goals.)
3. Character conflicts must be addressed and transformed. Remember, this is a love scene, not a “just sex” scene. And in order for it to be a love scene, it must be intimate. And in order for intimacy to occur, it must tap into the characters’ internal conflicts, and transform them. Practically speaking, the sex must be a metaphor.
We all know the image of The Sexy Librarian: stiff and strict on the outside, but a disinhibited wild cat on the inside. Native Americans use the term, “Big good, big bad,” to describe this pendulum swing. Freud used the term “Repression.” But the important thing to remember when writing a love scene for a strict librarian, is to ask yourself, why is she rigid? How did she become that way? And how can she learn to loosen up?
If your rigid librarian is about to have sex, it is unrealistic to assume she’ll suddenly flip like a switch and fulfill a man’s every fantasy. And if you make her do that, you will lose credibility with your readers. She might have a sensual kitten buried inside, but she’s more likely to claw a man’s eyes out than let him get within an inch of her tail, unless he can challenge her emotional defenses in a real way (i.e. produce a feeling of safety and intimacy, first). There are a number of ways you can have the hero demonstrate he is trustworthy leading up to this scene, but in the heat of the moment, try to think of these things in terms of sex acts.
A strict librarian appreciates consistency and practicality, and would need a slower approach with increasing stimulation—aka, foreplay, and lots of it. A man should demonstrate control over his own desire long enough bring her to the point of climax, and then abandon it, so she is forced to break through her rigid shell and express her deeply buried desires. She needs to know he has enough control over himself before she can relinquish complete control to him (i.e. allow her to let go of her Daddy issues). No swinging from the ceiling or ten different positions for this gal.
In contrast, let’s say you have a Bohemian type heroine who is an unbridled spit fire. Taking it slow and trying to lull her into a state of complacency might make her feel bored, trapped, or manipulated. In this case, a man would need to make a big impression and come on strong in order to get her attention. While novelty might scare the librarian off, it could bait your artist, hook-line and sinker.
In sum, keep the pacing slow and to the point, your protagonist’s actions and reactions believable, and make sure the sex is both intimate and transformative. Follow these three basic steps and you’ll not only have the perfect love scene, but also successfully move your plot forward with a significant turning point.