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.
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?