Monday, March 22, 2010

Sex, Honesty, and Mary Sue

Hey all, as life is never predictable, we're going to do a bit of a change here. Claire is moving to Thursdays, Rachel to Wednesdays and I am taking over the Monday spot. Jen will still be on Tuesdays. Anyhoo...

Spring is officially here in the States. And for those of you who are finally seeing the sun and feeling some warm, let’s all shout a collective ‘Who hoo!’ As it is now spring, I thought I’d kick it off with that most beloved of topic, The Birds and the Bees, or SEX scenes. Dun, dun, dunnnn.

The thing is, a lot of us are terrified of these scenes. For one, the potential for embarrassment is high. What if my mother reads this? Friends? Neighbors? It can feel as if the whole world is sitting on your shoulder reading along with a snirk. And then there is the technicality of it; what goes where? Should A follow B?

Oh, let’s face it, the reasons for avoiding these scenes are as varied and endless as there are reasons for being a writer.

And yet, I’ve noticed that there are A LOT of writers out there who are telling stories in which sex comes into major play. A bit of a pickle if you as a writer have no clue how to approach these scenes. Now, I will not call myself an expert on writing sex scenes, but I have written them, and they DO come (pardon the pun) easily for me. So I’ll share what I’ve learned with you. :)

First off, let’s call them love scenes, shall we? Because, as I said before, it really isn’t about sex, it is about emotion. Further, a good love scene can occur without much physicality even happening between your characters. In Lord of Scoundrels, by Loretta Chase, there is a particularly hot scene in which all the character does is remove a lady’s glove. Go read it; it is highly enlightening.

Now, there is no way I can get this all down in one post, so today I’ll talk about character, next week, the technical aspects of “the scene”.

The truth of the matter is, a love scene is about character. Which is why learning to craft love scenes can really help a writer out. :)

In writing we have character development and plot development. They go hand in hand but they can be approached differently. Character development is a particularly difficult challenge for a writer. It depends on going beyond your analytical self. Writing for character is akin to method acting. You’ve got to go beyond what you ‘think’ the character should do and feel, and actually think and feel along with that character. In short, you become your characters.

One of the first things to do when approaching a love scene is to get into character. For me, it means reading a bit of my story to reconnect with my characters. What are their fears, desires, what are they confident in? Are they timid? Forward? What?

A love scene is about wants. The truth is, revealing our desires and/or feelings for another person is not a thing most of us take lightly. Getting physical with a person is a huge step in boundaries. It changes everything.

So what does each character want in this scene? Do both of them want to kiss? Don’t want to kiss? Touch but not kiss? (g) Why? Why not? What pushes them onward? More importantly, what are they willing to risk? These are the things that drive a love scene. NOT what the writer thinks might be sexy or hot.

Writing for character is about honesty. Honesty in what the CHARACTER would do in a certain situation –NOT what you would do in a certain situation. This is important in a love scene because you’ve got to disconnect from your brain and get into the character’s.

Now the funny thing about readers (and we all know this from our own reading experiences) is that the reader always catches on to a writer’s dishonesty. Ever read a love scene that feels off? I’m sure you’ve read plenty of them. Particularly in crit groups. We recognize this as a product of the Mary Sue syndrome. Somehow we (the reader) know when the character is doing what the writer would like to do. How that is, I’m not sure. It’s a strange phenomenon. Regardless of how the reader picks this up, the reasoning behind it is simple: a character becomes a Mary Sue when the writer controls the character.

Now, of course, we have to draw on experience when writing a love scene. But there is a difference between using what we know and using the character to create our own little fantasy, isn’t there?

In fact, one good exercise to rid yourself of that Mary Sue trap is to write a love scene –eh, make it a simple kissing scene in which the characters react to said kiss in a way that you the writer would never do. Don’t like kissing in public? Let your characters do it. Hate a man with a mustache? Have your heroine kiss a guy with a great big fuzzy one and love it. Yes, this is you controlling the situation but as an exercise you are going out of that comfort zone and learning to lose control.

SO… to sum up. Start by getting into character. Learn to leave yourself at the door. Practice stepping outside your comfort zone.

Next week, the actual building of a scene and those oh so fun technical bits and pieces (pun intended)


  1. Great post. I'm at a love scene right now. I've procrastinated writing it, written everything around it, spent lots of time on facebook and reading blogs, cleaned my house, baked, cooked great meals - all because I know I have to write it! The other thing is - it's a love scene I know my MC will eventually regret but she doesn't know that yet - only I do. So how to write it without the taint of that regret - or do I foreshadow with a bit of unease, ahhh - it's all too much. If only she'd never met him, if only she made wiser choices, if only... but then I guess I wouldn't have a very interesting story!

    Can't wait for next week.


  2. Thanks Heidi. :)

    Not knowing anything about your story, all I can say is that if you want the love scene to be powerful and work in a non-sqwucky way, and still have her regret it later, then she has to change as a person after the scene in question. So that by the time she gets to the point of regret, she would have approached the situation in a different way. Then again, if you want the readers to realize that this is the _wrong_ man for her, then you'll have to wait for next week and "the technique" half. (g,d&r)

  3. Great post Kristen! I`ve been reading the Miracle Girls YA series by Anne Dalton and May Vanderbilt, and the way they handle `first` scenes is amazing - it`s easy to forget how when you first meet someone you`re attracted to, even touching their hand is a hot, exciting moment, especially when you`re younger and it`s the first time. They capture that really well. I hope I can do the same...