Last week, a lot of us had a lot to say about sex scene (Kay, me, Nancy on 8LW), and I had a major breakthrough. In romance, the sex is often supposed to show the POV character going in for orgasms or fun or comfort . . . and coming out with orgasms, fun, comfort AND True Love.
That explained a lot about the sex scenes that I haven’t written in the past.
Last year, I wrote a romantic short story where I quite firmly closed the bedroom door on the readers. There really was no point. As far as I was concerned, the pair had shown their Natural Compatibility through fighting to defeat the villain. They were on the same wavelength, and they gained mutual respect for each other through the fight scene. So, when they headed off for post-battle sex, there was really no point in showing that, I thought. (-: Pardon the pun, but it would have been anti-climactic. The sex was a reward for a job well done, and I left it to the readers’ imaginations to envision their own very satisfying happy ending.
In a different short story, my characters were having really great sex. And again, I shut the door firmly on the readers. They had to pick up the action again in the next paragraph. There were some technical issues involved (honestly, I’m not quite sure if one of the characters is a boy or girl, and it feels very important not to probe that issue). But the other issue was that the short story is actually a sort of prologue to a series of short stories that are essentially romantic in nature. The main characters in this sex scene were having great fun, but it wasn’t True Love – that was supposed to come later. I didn’t want to confuse readers with their Natural Compatibility. They got along very well on a lot of shallow levels, because my hero Jack seems to be a very compatible sort of guy. He loves the ladies, so he makes himself so. It seemed to me that a great sex scene would seal the deal, and make readers think these two were meant for each other.
I’ve only read a few romances where the heroine had great sex with a guy who was not her True Love. She reported on the sex as being great, but it wasn’t actually shown in any detail. I do think this is a smart move if you are playing by genre rules. If you show two characters having great sex, the romance reader tends to say, “Ah ha! True Wuv!” This happens even if you’ve given several clues that, no, no they aren’t meant for each other at all. And once a reader has an idea in their head, it can be very hard to dislodge it.
The thing is, a lot of romances depend on Natural Incompatibility to add frisson and conflict to the plot. The very wonderful Loretta Chase in her great book The Lord of Scoundrels uses a disparity of temper between the hero and heroine to good effect. Dain behaves very badly, and when Jessica shoots him in the first third of the book, I felt the pleasure of catharsis. (Soon followed by guilt that I liked the scene so much, but that’s a different problem for a different day.) Eventually, Jessica and Dain go for the nurse/patient routine, with her healing his psychic wounds, and they discover a happy ending through great sex, fertility, and finding roles where they can be compatible with each other. (Please don’t think I spoiled this book! The book is much more than this paragraph, and deserves a good read, if you haven’t read it already.)
So, incompatibility is not a tell for These Aren’t the True Lovers. Great sex, shown on the page, is often a huge tipoff, though, and must be used responsibly when writing for readers of romance.
And, if like me, you are writing for readers of SFF, keep in mind that there’s a big crossover between the two genres’ consumers, and that even a lot of “straight” SFF readers love a good love interest to spice up proceedings. You might be able to get away with a great sex scene between two people who aren’t soulmates, but you’ll have some convincing to do later to show your ‘shipping fandom that there’s a new guy/girl in your protagonist’s life now.
BTW, I found a great, practical and funny list of rules for writing sexy sex scenes. I haven’t read the guy’s books, but I love this advice. Steve Almond tells us what’s what on the Utne Reader website. What do you think? Even after my week of soul-searching and a whole blog post justifying my approach, I love the comfort that step number 12 gives me.