You expect sex in a romance novel, right? Like Julia Roberts’s* character in Pretty Woman, it’s a sure thing. When I first started working in this biz, reading books with sex in them was a novelty. My colleagues were amused. Then after my 300th romance, I started flipping through the sex scenes, bored to tears. So many writers write amazing sex scenes, but after a while, they seemed the same to me. In fact, for me, the sweeter romances, like the Inspirationals were more sensual and palpably romantic than the steamier ones, so I devoured those for my hot fix.
Over the years, my expectations for great sex scenes have dwindled as those for romantic tension have escalated. The foreplay/romance/character development became more fun and I care less about the sex. Often in the story, the couple has a simultaneous “release”, in the same position, and they crest the wave of ecstasy with fireworks booming. One of them wakes up to the other making breakfast, they don’t want to leave, but do and misunderstandings, vulnerabilities ensue. Another sex scene occurs close to the end, much like the first.
Just when I think I’ve read everything, a gripping sex scene will have me flipping pages so fast, my fingers are on fire. I love it when a writer can surprise me. Here’s how it can happen:
1. If you have a sex scene at the beginning, make it charming and not gimmicky. Give it some build-up, like the heroine really, really wants to let loose. She’s determined that tonight is the night and is picking out her target. Or the hero is an expert at seduction. Or maybe they’re both challenged and just wind up in bed by some cosmic, delicious accident. I tend to dislike sex scenes at the beginning but sometimes I love them if they’re done right (no sensual dream of sex then waking up sweating to empty bed; this one hurts me).
2. Pardon the graphic note, but give them another position from the usual. I’m so embarrassed I’ll just move on to the next point.
3. Make the sex unexpected. What about in a coatroom during a party? In the car on the way to dinner, instead of peacefully at home in bed. Embarrassed again. Moving on.
4. As much as possible, cut out the cresting the waves, riding the hills of ecstasy, falling over the cliff with fireworks guiding them into the abyss of desire. An editor doesn’t register this. It’s filler. Filler’s not always bad, but see if you can make it less cliche.
5. For some, writing sex scenes can be difficult or just a big pain. Some may need a big glass of Pinot to get through it. What if you removed the scene? How would your book change? Is there a way to shape your story so that intimacy must happen and must be exciting? Think of your favorite sex scenes in movies or TV. How do they happen? I guess I’m suggesting that you look carefully at how to make this part more interesting for yourself and for the reader.
6. If your voice is sweeter, plunking down a sex scene right in the middle of your story might create an “ewwww” factor. If you don’t want one, don’t include one. It’s your book. And awkward sex is just funny.
7. Condom or no condom? Hmmm, good question, me. I used to be very strict about wanting characters to practice safe sex. Then I relaxed a bit. Sex in a novel should be an escape for the reader. If you can be safe in a sexy way, do it! Just recently, I read a story where safety was orchestrated beautifully. I’m not a stickler for this, though also not condoning unsafe sex.
8. Good sex in Romance comes from intimacy/chemistry. The way to an editor’s heart is to show the wild chemistry between two likeable characters. A really great scene will linger in my mind and encourage me not to skim those pages in the future.
Sex scenes can be memorable (Princess Daisy, p. 49, thank you, Judith Krantz). You can build a name for yourself that way. Or… you can close the door, which is just fine, too.
*I use any excuse to bring up Julia.