Jilly: Writing Flawed Sex and No Sex

The birds are singing, the sap is rising, and we’ve been talking a lot here on the blog about writing great sex scenes.

Kay started the party by sharing her battle to reward her long-suffering hero and heroine with a gold-plated, caviar-coated, champagne-drenched, Lamborghini-driving, high-quality, meaningful one-on-one. Last Saturday Michaeline shared her thoughts on the sex scenes in Charmed and Dangerous, an anthology of short gay fantasy stories, and yesterday she told us about a pair of happy couplings she decided not to write. In between, Nancy gave us five points to ponder about writing sex in the romance genre.

I’d like to drop another suggestion into the mix.

According to the Romance Writers of America, a romance contains two elements: a central love story, and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

We learned in class at McDaniel (and I truly believe) that a story starts when the conflict starts, and ends when it ends. As the story unfolds, the tension rises and the pace increases until the implacable opposition between protagonist and antagonist comes to a head in one final winner-takes-all battle. Once that conflict is resolved, the reader’s investment in the story is repaid and it’s time to wrap everything up with a big, shiny bow.

So if a love story is the central spine of a romance, the story ends as soon as all obstacles to the romance have been resolved. To my mind, this means the end of the book is the only time that the characters should get to enjoy mind-blowingly fabulous sex (on or off the page) with no downsides or complications whatsoever. Ideally the big, shiny bow of a happy ending should include the prospect of much more of the same in the characters’ shared future.

That’s not to say the characters can’t have a good time together in the meantime. Of course they can. Just that whatever they do together during the story—whether they jump into bed at the first opportunity or resist with ever fiber of their beings—should ratchet up the tension until the final denouement is reached.

Which leads me to the suggestion that much of the fun and challenge in writing romantic relationships is to write scenes with problematic sex or no sex. The complications could be physical, emotional, and/or external—just as long as they’re not all resolved until the very end of the book.

For example:

Grace Burrowes’ RITA finalist Darius (Book 1 in the Lonely Lords series) is a lovely example of great sex causing horrible complications. A dying nobleman in need of an heir to safeguard his family’s future offers an impecunious young rake a fortune if he will impregnate the nobleman’s beautiful young wife, walk away and keep the secret. All three main players have credible and sympathetic reasons for accepting the deal. The hero and heroine are both determined that their acts of procreation should not become lovemaking, but of course, things don’t go to plan. Physical pleasure comes first, then emotional connection. The closer they grow, the worse the situation becomes, until (spoiler!) everything is resolved in a highly satisfactory fashion.

Most friends to lovers plots work the other way around—the characters already enjoy a powerful emotional bond but have no plans to sully/endanger their relationship with the physical. Take Nick, the hero of Jenny Crusie’s Crazy For You. He’s been in love with the heroine, Quinn, for years, but he’s commitment-phobic and keeps his lust for her tightly locked down. He’s most comfortable when she’s in a relationship with someone else, because he treasures their friendship, which he believes is more important than any fling. Until Quinn initiates a fling with him, and his entire worldview is thrown into disarray. Yay!

External forces may be the easiest. They are ever-present as a Sword of Damocles hanging over the h&h, which means the writer is free to draw the couple as physically and emotionally close as she can. Romantic suspense is great for this, and historical romance. One of the most brilliant examples I’ve ever read is Loretta Chase’s Silk is For Seduction, where Marcelline, a talented and ambitious dressmaker, sets out to persuade a duke to hire her to make the wedding dress of the duke’s intended bride. That goes as you might expect, except that the duke intends to honor his marriage proposal and Marcelline expects him to. But they have one night together, expecting it to have to last them both for a lifetime. The sex is beyond sizzling, the emotion is off the charts, and it makes everything as bad for them both as it could possibly be. Genius.

The hero and heroine of my current WIP will come to know each other very well before they have sex. They will finally get together, some time before the end of the series. I’m saying no more, except that the better it is for them, the more complicated it will make their lives. My dream is to make the scene pack a Loretta Chase-standard emotional punch.

I think there’s nothing more boring than characters who have great, fulfilling, committed, problem-free sex part way through a romance. Why bother to read on? But give me great, problematic, flawed sex or nail-biting no sex at all, and I’ll be reading way past my bedtime.

What do you think?

11 thoughts on “Jilly: Writing Flawed Sex and No Sex

  1. I think you are right in a romance situation. I’m trying to think of specific examples of my “Yes, but” statement, but I’m coming up dry. However, you know how in certain novels, the couple is already a committed couple? Then, some nice sex in the beginning is very nice indeed. But the romance conflict isn’t the major conflict in that case. Usually, they are solving a mystery or saving the world or something. The sex is a characterization thing (and they may run into romantic difficulties while they are pursuing the main plot, and the sex in the middle may be horrible as a result, but that’s a different thing).

    All I can think of offhand is the Amelia Peabody mysteries, with Amelia and her Emerson. The sex is totally off-page, though. I remember one of the running jokes being that he’d ripped up another shirt again . . . which always seemed to me to have such lovely sexual overtones.

    When romance is the main conflict, though, overcoming bad sex is also another good marker of the barriers that need to be hurdled over.

    • Yes, I’m only talking about romance, though for me the same applies to romantic sub-plots or series with significant romantic elements. It might have been Rachel who said in the comments here that she lost interest in Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series once the romance between Kate and Curran was resolved. I remember because I feel the same way. I’m still reading because I like the characters, but I don’t care so much about the fate of Kate’s baby and the future of the world. I’m afraid I am that shallow 😉 Readers who are primarily invested in the adventure plot and mythology might even prefer the later books.

      If the romance isn’t a storyline, or even a sub-storyline, then unless the scene serves some other purpose there’s no call for sex on the page. The characters can enjoy their good times in private, with just a sly joke to let the reader in to the secret. Like Emerson’s shirt.

      • Oh, that’s important to know. So many series lose their zing when the couple is an actual couple (I’m thinking of the Moonlighting TV series from the US in the 80s, for an example). (-: Saving the world just didn’t beat that witty will-they-won’t-they banter that went on!

        But I do think Amelia and Emerson kept the spark alive. They were married, but they still annoyed the living **** out of each other, and they still had a huge desire for each other. (I’m referencing the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters — the one with the lady archaeologist in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.) I should re-read those; I wonder how Peters pulled off that trick.

        I do think sex can be used as characterization, but only if the writer wants to commit to it.

  2. I’ve been wrestling with this same issue myself. I wanted a “fun and games” sex scene about a quarter of the way through the book. No commitments, just two attractive, athletic people having a good time. Unfortunately, without conflict/complications, fictional sex is pretty boring.

    Reworking now….

    • Is it serving another purpose, though? Make-up sex? Or foreshadowing that even though the couple are going to have problems, they still have this very basic, primitive connection? If it is, then it’s probably fine. (-: The boring part is worrying, though.

  3. I put a fun-and-games sex scene in chapter 2 of the WIP, and I had a lot of fun writing it and I think it works. But now that I’ve been sweating the second sex scene, I’ve been thinking about why the first scene works for me. I think it’s because that although the sex itself presents no complications, the fact that it takes place in a car (and the hero is the CEO of the car company) and the car itself presents some problems—that’s the complicating factor, or foreshadows the complicating factors. Anyway, I spent today working up to scene two. Tomorrow I’ll have to write it. Gulp.

    • I just watched a very interesting David Mitchell Soapbox where he complained about living in the moment. He said most of us live in the narrative, and don’t really know if we are having a good time or not until it’s put into the context of the narrative. He used sports examples — a game full of agony and surprise pleasures is going to be more enjoyable in retrospect than a straight win-win-win sort of game — even though one goes through a lot more in-the-moment agony with the first.

      (-: Not directly transferrable, but some pain in the relationship is a good thing. A very small economy car as a romantic setting sounds like just the kind of funny pain that would perk things up.

      • That’s the conflict thing again, I think. A hard-earned victory, especially one snatched from the jaws of defeat or against impossible odds, is so much more satisfying.

    • Ooh, the dreaded second sex scene, Kay! Maybe when you dive in, it will turn out to be as fun as the first one. Fingers crossed! Hope you plan to report back in due course 😉

  4. Pingback: Elizabeth: Friday Writing Sprints – The Hot Sweaty Sex Edition – Eight Ladies Writing

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