Monday, March 21, 2011

A Character-driven Approach to Kissing Scenes and Sex Scenes

The day I tried to write my first sex scene was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. I'd avoided it for a long time, and then I realized that the story I was writing demanded it (not the first time I'd changed what I felt I was capable of due to the demands of a story). I had this idea of what had to happen, and I tried to write it. When I got through I realized it had devolved into a succession of meaningless generic actions and disconnected body parts.

It was awful. And, I realized, it was "sex-driven" in a bad way, the same way that stories can seem pointless and over-wrought when they are too heavily driven by plot.

Something changed for me at that point. I realized that that the point of a sex scene was not the sex.

Why do we need sex scenes? I suppose for erotica that they would be part of the point, but in my stories that's not it at all. In my stories, I have two people developing a relationship, and what is most important is what that relationship means to them, and how it changes them. I had already figured that out for kissing scenes, so that was where I went when I had to re-think the sex scenes.

As I see it, a first kiss is a form of communication between the characters. Tension may be building - and this is something I do by having the characters become more aware of one another physically, say, noticing for the first time the way the other person's throat moves when he drinks - but somebody starts it. The other person then has to decide whether to permit the kiss, and whether to return it. Internalization is critical here. Too little internalization and it will seem like I've slapped the kiss on from my position as author. More internalization may make it seem like the poor character is in agony trying to make the decision (which he or she may be!). Occasionally, since this is a big turning point in a story, I'll switch points of view and place the kiss itself at a chapter break so I can then move into the recipient's head and gauge the reaction.

What is important is not the movements. Yes, we can say "oh, this is how far they went this time." But what is important for me in a kiss is the nature of the communication - the psychological conditions that permit someone to take the chance, and the experience of the other person in response.

A sex scene is the same for me. The question is much less "how far did they go" but "what did they decide to do and why, and how did it affect the way they will interact in the future?"

I therefore place my focus on the characters. I start by asking, "What significance does this scene have for the characters, and for the story as a whole?" That will help me gauge what is necessary. If the scene is incidental, like a scene demonstrating that a character has sex as part of his everyday life and doesn't think much of it, then it will get a lot less attention. You'll see where the couple make their decision, and follow through with little detail, the critical ingredient being what the act means, and what it does for the characters, rather than what they do. I have one scene where a character makes love with his girlfriend because this is something relatively normal that they do often, and it helps him to release anxiety from the earlier part of his day.

The buildup for a first sex act is usually much longer. This I think is natural because, compared to kissing, the first occasion of such intimacy has far greater significance - and much greater possible disasters associated with it. Romance novels, after all, spend almost the entire book getting there! What I have found, though, is that in this case the physical act itself is far less important. I can build up the psychological conditions necessary, and once the two characters have made the decision to act, I can end the scene. The only reason I might include physical details is if there is some consequence of the act itself that must be experienced in order for readers to understand the characters as they carry forward.

All of this is to say that I recommend including only the most character-relevant details in a story, either when you're dealing with a kissing scene or with a sex scene (or anything else, for that matter!). Keep the motivations, the decisions, the justifications, whatever it is. Keep the mental states that matter in the front of your lens, and let all physical details follow directly from them. It's the best way I have found to create a scene of intimacy that actually fits the characters I'm working with, and matters to the story, without letting things fall into clich├ęd motions and lists of body parts.

Because of the subject of this post, I'm going to be moderating comments, but I am interested to hear what you think on the topic.

20 comments:

  1. The YA contemporary romance I'm writing has a sex scene at the midpoint but the actual sex act will occur off-screen. The fact that my MC decides to go through with it and how she approaches it reveals character and the consequences of the act matter more than the mechanics. I like your point that treatment of a kissing or sex scene should be the same as any other scene-- it should have a reason for existing.
    - Sophia.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Sophia. I like the way you put it: "the consequences of the act matter more than the mechanics." I agree.

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  3. I agree, like kissing, sex scenes should come as an extension of characters involved.

    It should be about the emotions and motivation. Not about the grabbing and mechanics. '

    Still, it can be difficult to draw the line...

    :-)

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  4. Misha, thanks for commenting. It is indeed a fine line. This is why I go through all such scenes multiple times, trying to make sure they fit within the larger story context.

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  5. Thanks for posting this. I wrote a sex scene last night that was the first one in YEARS. And as I thought it over, I wondered if it read more like a play-by-play. This is a huge deal for both characters with severe consequences. Thanks for helping put that back in perspective. Will definitely keep this for rewrites.

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  6. Thanks for commenting, lexcade. I'm glad you found it helpful.

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  7. I write romantic suspense, and I'd definitely say my characters decide when they're going to have sex, and how much they're willing to share with readers. And by the time they consummate their relationship, they've earned it. Excellent timing with this post; I'll be on a panel about "Sex & Romance in Mystery" at Left Coast Crime later this week.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  8. Thanks so much for commenting, Terry! I'm glad to have posted this at a good time.

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  9. Very good post, thanks.
    for me, as a romance writer, kissing and sex-scenes are mostly about what happens before and after the scene. It provides context to explore the conflict, becuase everything is about that conflict, the pull and push factors between Heroine and Hero.

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  10. Thanks for your comment, Kate! I find romance interesting because of the intense focus of conflict on the Heroine-Hero relationship.

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  11. I found so much freedom when I realized that my characters brought all their (my) neuroses into love scenes...and that a well-written scene of crappy or weird or wounded/damaged sex partners was just as fulfilling than the more orgasmically thrilling ones.

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  12. Really good observation, Carole. Thanks for commenting.

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  13. I was stunned to find when writing my novel that once my female main character finally "acquiesced," she didn't lose her power, but gained it. Until then she'd been dancing around, trying to be an influence in this man's life. Afterward, they were suddenly on equal footing. It fascinated me because I didn't plan it, but that's what the characters did.

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  14. Sounds interesting, Laura. There are all kinds of interesting character developments that can hinge on a scene like this. In such cases, it's important not to leave the scene out - because it's what happens there that gives us insight into the change. Thanks for commenting!

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  15. I've written stories where the "mechanics" of sex were included, and in them those scenes felt right. Lately I've taken to simply implying a physical relationship between my protagonists; it's all about how they feel and the changes such an intimate relationship brings about.

    Kissing scenes I still write, but the First Kiss is important because of how it makes one feel. The First Kiss is monumental, whether young or old.

    The first *ahem* physical interaction is also important, but unless you're trying to turn your audience on--and that's also valid in some genres--it's probably better left to the imagination. Imaginations are sometimes better than the "real thing."

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  16. Good points, Coogan. Thanks for your comment.

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  17. FYI: I included this post in my Saturday blog round up. :) http://www.smreine.com/2011/03/saturday-round-up_26.html

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  18. This is a really great post. I wrote a sex scene in my novel as well. I just realized that there actually was no first kiss before the sex. I'm not sure if I broke a rule here. Still, the sex felt like it was the right thing to for the characters to do at the time. It didn't feel forced and I was overall pleased with it.

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  19. Thanks, danbracewell. I think the whole idea is that what happens has to fit the characters.

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