Let’s talk about sex.
All right, all right, I knew there would be mention of Outlander –a book I’d hoped to avoid like the plague as the thought of Herself happening upon my analysis of her scenes sends a shiver of fear running through me. I imagine eye rolling and snorting ensuing, because, who are we kidding, the poor woman has had a lot of people picking apart her work. But you asked for it, and I shall comply. First, however, let’s talk about love scenes in general.
Love scenes can be broken down into three main aspects. We’ve got Character (which I touched on two weeks ago), Emotional manipulation or “the build” (which you can read about here), and Purpose (which is what does each character want/get out of the exchange).
These things have to work together for a good love scene to exist. Character and the build start first. Way before a love scene even occurs, you the writer have to have characters with great chemistry. The reader has to practically taste the anticipation of these two getting together. Which goes in conjunction with “the build”, because this chemistry between them has got to build. To use my last example –it’s the inching up that steep hill on the rollercoaster ride. Outlander is actually a great example of character and build.
Heidi mentioned the scene in which Jamie comforts Claire when they finally reach Castle Leoch. Let’s backtrack for a moment. I’m using my trade paper back edition of Outlander and we have Claire meeting Jamie on page 44. Whereupon Claire repositions Jamie’s shoulder, dresses his wound, they engage in some light flirting (well he does anyway) and ride together on one horse for quite a ways about. All build –about twenty pages of it. Then we go to Claire redressing Jamie’s shoulder. The actual scene that Heidi mentioned starts much earlier than Claire crying –page 60 in my book. She is dressing his wound, and discovers much older wounds, Jamie’s flogging. Diana gives of several pages of Jamie telling Claire about this event, letting her into his personal life, and all the while Claire is touching him.
...“Why were you flogged?” I asked abruptly.
He sighed, moving his shoulder uneasily under my ministrations. He was tired, too, and I was undoubtedly hurting him, gentle as I tried to be…Gabaldon, Outlander, pg. 61 (1991).
The scene is a quite and intimate one. Diana’s use of word, “sighed, gentle, tired” moves you into a quiet feel, as does Jamie’s body language and Claire’s action. This is the build. It preps the reader, manipulates them into a mindset that sets off that slow burning sexual tension that Heidi reacted to once the actual scene comes around…
The lad had nice feeling. Instead of calling for help or retreating in confusion, he sat down, gathered me firmly onto his lap with his good arm and sat rocking me gently, muttering soft Gaelic in my ear and smoothing my hair with one hand. I wept bitterly, surrendering momentarily to my fear and heartbroken confusion, but slowly I began to quiet a bit, as Jamie stroked my neck and back, offering me the comfort of his broad, warm chest. My sobs lessened and I began to calm myself, leaning tiredly into the curve of his shoulder. No wonder he was so good with horse, I thought blearily, feeling his fingers rubbing gently behind my ears, listening to the soothing, incomprehensible speech. If I were a horse, I’d let him ride me anywhere.
This absurd thought coincided unfortunately with my dawning realization that the young man was not completely exhausted after all. In fact, it was becoming embarrassingly obvious to both of us… Gabaldon, Outlander, pg. 65 (1991)
Wow. This is Jamie and Claire’s love for each other in a tiny nut shell. They are each other’s comfort, each other’s trust. We won’t know this for certain for many, many pages, but it’s all there in this little scenelette. We are seeing a good deal of Jamie’s character here, his compassion, maturity, and ahem, honesty (because, as most of us know, he doesn’t try to hide or bluster about his ahem condition, he merely brushes it aside for Claire’s greater need –namely food. *g*) We also see Claire’s pragmatic nature, and how she let’s down her defenses here. Great scene.
Something else to note, take a good look at the sentences here –at their length and rhythm. These are long sentences. There is a lot of body staging going on. Diana is slowing the reader down, letting them “see” what is going on, and by doing so, manipulates the reader’s response. This is a natural result of knowing both the characters, what they need out of this situation AND the writer knowing what they want to convey to the reader.
As you can see, knowing your characters is hugely important in love scenes. The way a person views the world ABSOLUTELY affects how they are going to view a romantic encounter. And one of the masters of character is Joanna Bourne. No wonder you all mentioned her. :)
Let’s look at The Spymaster’s Lady.
So we’ve got two spies, on opposing sides, ready to take a bath –together. :)
Note Jo’s way of slipping into Annique’s mindset…
“I cannot. You distract me.”
Oh, but he thought that was very funny. He made the water shake with his laughter. “I think I’ll distract you some more.” He kissed one breast, then the other.
She ached. Already, she swayed in his hands, unable to stop herself. But he wanted the words of surrender also. He tormented them both with this foolish scruples. She was not so naive to acquiesce to a man while he laughed at her… Bourne, The Spymaster’s Lady, pg 235 (2008)
See the words of war? Surrender, tormented, acquiesce, foolish, want, distract. This small exchange is jam-packed with words conveying the mindset of opposing forces giving in to want. It is thick with character. But let us not forget, they are in a tub. And the language fits…
“I am…deciding.” Warm water lapped and eddied between them with every mote. Hot shivers gripped and tugged at her. “Do not hurry me. I am still deciding whether … or not. Maybe not.” Bourne, The Spymaster’s Lady, pg 234 (2008)
This is the language of water itself, lapped, eddied, tugged. The pacing moves and swirls, almost disjointed, down to the use of the ellipsis in the dialogue. All of it mimics that floating, steamy feel of being in a bath, making love. Beautiful, manipulative, and full of character.
When crafting a love scene you have got to think about words, their sound, pacing, the texture of it in your mouth, as you have never before. You are a conductor here. Are you making the best use of them? Are you slowing it down to convey tenderness, sensuality? Speeding it up to get the reader as hot and bothered as the characters are?
Colleen Gleason is the author of The Gardella Vampire Chronicles. Okay, I love, love these books. For me, Gleason is one of the BEST writers of understated elegance in character development. She never over explains. Her characterization of Max, a vampire hunter and emotionally closed up as a guy can get, is simply brilliant. This guy almost never divulges what he is feeling, even though we go deep into 3rd person with him, and yet it is all there.
Anyway, I’ll digress. The OTHER thing Gleason does exceptionally well is “the build”. *I’ll warn you now, major spoilers ahead if you are thinking about reading these.*
The Chronicles span five books. Book one starts with young Victoria, a Regency era debutant who discovers that she is part of a long line of vampire hunters. Yes, shades of Buffy, but in a really good way. Max is her partner, and acerbic, disdainful of her need to be both slayer and society miss, and often aloof. They two of them trade barbs and fight side by side book after book, the sexual tension rising between them, all the while Victoria gets married, become a widow, and has an affair with another man. The following scene is in book four, When Twilight Burns. That is four books of build. The sexual tension between these two has had a chance to build to a fever pitch. A love scene between them is going to be hard to do…
Mini set up: at this point, Max is jealous of Victoria’s relationship with Sebastian (another vampire hunter and Victoria’s on-again, off-again lover). Max has also been weakened by multiple events and can no longer claim the sort of inhuman strength Victoria and Sebastian have. Victoria is guilty of having tried to protect Max, because she fears his weakness will get him killed, and because she’s starting to realize her feelings for him. This is in the middle of a scene in which they have been literally sparring, fighting in a sort of martial arts match while Max has been balling her out for “protecting him.”
… “Where are you going?” she demanded, throwing herself toward him. Her leap knocked him to the floor, and they tumbled there in a tangle of limbs. She landed on top of him, but he gave a great twist and she flipped onto her back with a loud smack, pulling him with her. “Coward!”
“I’m getting the hell away from you,” he said, rearing over her. His head blocked out the lamp and left him half-shadowed. “Because if I don’t, God help me, I’ll be doing this.” And his face swooped down toward her, fingers once again digging into the soft spots on her shoulders.
It was a furious, ferocious kiss; a desperate smashing and grinding of mouths pressing against teeth, a slip-sliding of lips, the deep long swipe of tongue…and the more and more, so that she became completely breathless… Gleason, When Twilight Burns. Pg 281 (2008).
Again, note the language. Everything here is about the fight. Heck that whole last sentence is all words of anger, lust and repression that has violently snapped. These two are fighters, they don’t like to discuss their feelings, so they do it physically. But they are also so afraid to telling the other how they feel, it takes something like a physical fight to break them of their restraint. This is fast, paced writing. And it needs to be, because the characters demand it here. But as with all good love scenes, the tempo changes, keeps in tune with the song they are playing. A few paragraphs down we have this:
Then suddenly, he stilled, as if caught. Poised over her, his face against the side of her neck, buried in her curls, his breath moist on her skin. She felt the brush of his lashes, the sift of his hair over her cheek, the thump of his heart reverberating in his body, so close to hers… but his lips had lifted. His rough breathing mingled with hers in the silence.
She tightened her hands on his body beneath the linen shirt, folding her lips together, ready to speak his name.
“Don’t,” he said sharply, his mouth moving against her neck. “Don’t…say…anything.”
Tension radiated; she felt it trembling beneath her fingers on the smooth skin over his ribs, in the deep, long breath he took, expanding under her touch.
She felt it when he gathered up, ready to pull away, and she tightened her fingers on him.
And then, after another long moment, as though released, excused, sanctioned…something… he moved again with a little shudder, a release of stilled breath. He brushed her hair away, and kissed her neck, gently now, languidly, with the same skillful lips that had done so three months ago. They tension eased beneath her fingers and, when he moved again, it was to find her mouth once more with his… Gleason, When Twilight Burns. Pg 282 (2008)
Ah, so you see what happens here? Victoria notices the little things and in doing so, slows things down, until we are still and softly breathing right along with her. The language becomes touch, feel, breath, taste. It is no longer angry but just as tense, right until the very end where they both simply release. An important thing to remember here is also Max’s reactions. They are in keeping with his character. He keeps himself under air-tight reins. You can practically hear him thinking, “oh crap, I lost it.” And then, when it is clear Victoria wants him there, his literal letting go.
All of these great love scenes have a commonality –they are firmly grounded within the particular character’s head, thus they convey they character’s wants, beliefs, fears etc. with clarity. They have an emotional build before the fact, thus increasing our anticipation and enjoyment of “the scene”, and finally, they writer has manipulated language to convey all of this to the reader. Language is key here. You’ve got to pick each word with care. What is it that needs to be conveyed within this love scene? What layer are you peeling away from the character to show us? This is about rhythm and timing.
You want fast, hot, sexy, speed you language up. Shorter sentences, hot words, this is more about feeling than thinking, noticing. Thrust, swipe, push, pull. You want slow and sensual, you drag things out, give us longer sentences, let us notice things, a touch, a breath, the smoothness of skin -much as I’ve done here. :) You want tenderness? Give us a good quiet build, let us see the characters opening up, let them expose themselves to each other.
Writing a good love scene is one of the hardest things a writer can do. Sure, there are people who will turn their noses up at that statement but I bet they can’t write a good love scene to save their lives. And why not challenge yourself?
I’d start by reading, reading not only other love scenes but poetry as well. Fall in love with words because they’ll be your best friend and your arsenal when crafting your scene. Sure all of this pertains to writing in general. A love scene is merely writing on steroid, IMO. And once you’ve gotten the hang of it, a pretty fun thing to do! So go on, let ‘em have sex!