Justine: Showing Love and Lust on the Page

red lips, writing sex, writing physical love, eight ladies writing, justine covingtonSo all of this talk about sex this week got me thinking about the physical aspect of love and how to convey that on the page. We’ve all heard the mantra, “Show, don’t tell,” but we also know that telling is easier. However, it’s not as engaging for the reader, plus, as I implied, showing is hard. It takes extra brain work (and chocolate to fuel that brain work) to come up with a myriad of physical manifestations of love.

I have to admit that right now, I’m pretty bland when it comes to describing a person’s physical reaction to someone who turns them on. I mean, how many times can their pulse race, their heart beat faster, or adrenaline course through their veins? Remember, too, I’m writing a Regency historical, so I can’t even mention “adrenaline,” because it didn’t exist back then!

Sometimes, a good place to mine emotions is from within ourselves. For example, I can easily whip up a list of things I thought about my husband when I first met him:

  • His eyes are beautiful.
  • I love his smile. It lights up his face.
  • What a polite gentleman.
  • Look! He holds a chair for a lady!
He’s tall…thank goodness.
  • God, he’s lovely!
  • Should I tell him he has food in his teeth? Nah…
  • etc.

But those are just emotions…thoughts. As with “telling,” they’re easy. “Showing” is harder. I have to sit back and really think about the physical sensations I had when we first met (Warning: this delves into the TMI zone — after all, we writers should lay ourselves bare on the page, right? — so skip ahead if you’d like. I won’t be offended):

  • My armpits are wet and tingly.
  • Jeez, my palms are sweaty.
  • The adrenaline is making my hands shake.
  • God, I’m so nervous, I have to shit.
  • Hoo-hah status: warm, wet, swollen, sparkling.
  • I feel like there’s bees or butterflies flying around in my stomach.
  • I can’t breathe. Only small, shallow breaths.
  • What is that pang in my chest?

(Can you see why he’s my husband? haha! Er…ahem.) At this stage in my writing, my focus is on finishing the first draft, so I jot down the same physical reactions over and over again. However, when I go back in revision, I’ll have to layer on different physical sensations. To help me, I picked up a book called “The Emotion Thesaurus” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It’s just like a thesaurus, only instead of listing the different words for a feeling (such as love, anger, or fear), it lists physical manifestations of that feeling. Anger may be shown by flaring nostrils, sweating, or sweeping arm gestures. Fear may be shown by clammy hands, trembling lips and chin, or a shrill voice.

I figure if I start reading the book now, one emotion every couple of days, by the time I’m ready for revision, I’ll have absorbed some of the different ways emotions can be felt. I’ll be ready to conjure up different ways to show, “Man, he turns her on!” or “Dammit, she’s pissed!” without actually saying it. Until then, my characters’ pulses will just have to race.

Do you have any “go to” phrases that you use in first drafts for describing a physical reaction to an emotion?

4 thoughts on “Justine: Showing Love and Lust on the Page

  1. The thought flit across my mind that a little role-playing might be a fun way to remember those first reactions. Get the kids in bed, set up a mini-bar in the basement, and say, “Hey, honey . . . wanna have some fun?”

    Me, I guess I’m always trying to find new ways of saying “heart palpitations” and “knees turned to jelly” and “brains turned to vanilla froth”. Crotch-based emotions are really, really tough for me. My brain stutters.

    I think there’s a delicate balance. On the one hand, cliches are cliches because they often capture something that’s true for most people. The ol’ “racing heart” thing. But on the other hand, when we see them too often, they turn into words on a page, and our hearts don’t always race in sympathy. There’s a strong sympathetic reaction when something is described just right. My heart beats with the heroine’s, and my hands tremble as I turn the page just as hers tremble when she draws aside the hero’s unbuttoned shirt . . . . On the other hand, if a description is too shocking, the reader stops reading the story to think about it.

    Perhaps the first reader of the jellied knees thing thought, “Wait. Do my knees turn to jelly? Really? What flavor? I wouldn’t want quince jelly, no. Apple jelly, though. Oh yes, with my first love, my knees did turn to jelly and I needed to sit down for a minute. Oh, nice metaphor!” (-: Or maybe not. Stopping the reader is a dangerous game, too.

  2. I don’t necessarily have go-to phrases, but I’m definitely on the look out for those stock phrases every writer seems to fall back on when describing love making so that I don’t go down that road. I want my love/sex scenes to be unique, riveting, and hot and that’s been a challenge. I’ll definitely pick up the book you reference, Justine. Or maybe in the name of research I’ll start a new romance of my own…

    • A good place to find phrases to avoid is the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books Romance Novel Reader Workout series. They’re posts from last January with the idea that you’d start reading the novel of your choice and break off to do (say) 10 sit-ups whenever the writer uses a particular cliche, phrase, or done-to-death plot device. I think there are about a dozen workouts, plus comments, and many of them are about sex scenes. When you’ve finished laughing they make a pretty good checklist of things not to write. (Go to http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com and search Romance Novel Reader Workout.)

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