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Writing Excuses 7.38: Writing Love Scenes

Writing Excuses 7.38: Writing Love Scenes


Key points: Ask "does it show character, move the story forward, and entertain the reader" to decide whether or not to include a love scene or sex scene. Let the characters drive the language and the action, and select details. Start writing, and expect to cut some warm-up words. Teasing the reader in foreshadowing, and using specific objects, are both good practices.

[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 38.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writing Love Scenes with Shanna Germain.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you're in a hurry.
[Mary] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] Shanna, why don't you introduce yourself?
[Shanna] Hi. I'm Shanna Germain. I've been writing erotica since 2001, when I submitted my first story and realized that I could get paid to write about sex. I've done… I'm published in 200… 350 anthologies, collections, novellas, poetry, just a little bit of everything. My newest book is Bound by Lust, which is a collection of BDSM erotica.
[Brandon] All right. We are going to do our best, listeners, to keep this to a PG-13, still clean, rating. We'll see how we do. Because I'm a prude, Mary's going to be leading this one.
[Brandon] Although I'll try to throw out questions here and there. So, Mary, let's let you take over.

[Mary] Well, this… The reason we invited Shanna on is that we had a listener who asked how to write love scenes and we all kind of went arghararar.
[Shanna] That's exactly how you write a love scene.
[Mary] [garbled -- Wow, the shortest podcast ever.]
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] So we thought that we would get someone in who really knows how to deal with this topic. One of the first questions that I run into when I'm trying to decide whether or not to include a love scene is how do you decide when to have that happen.
[Shanna] As often as possible.
[Shanna] No. So my theory, and the way that I write, is that everything that I put on the page has to do at least one, and ideally three, things. Those things are entertain the reader, move the story forward, and show character. So for me, a sex scene has to do all of those things as well. So if I feel like, oh, there needs to be a sex scene here, and a lot of times what you get is an editor saying, "Um, this is a great story, but could we have some more sex?" The answer is often no. Right? Because you can't just throw in a sex scene, because then it just feels like somebody has stuffed a sex scene in there. So I ask myself, "Does it show character? Does it move the story forward? And does it entertain the reader?" The last one always being yes, right, because it's sex. But the other two are definitely harder to make sure that they fit.
[Brandon] That's an excellent response, because looking at the romance genre as a whole, I think that's the… Like the criticism leveled at it, right? The sex scenes are just stuffed in there. Just like in fantasies that I write, the criticism leveled at us is, "Oh, you can just solve anything with magic, so there's no tension." It's one of those kind of… Yes, it's a poor job when you do that. You can do that, but that's a poor job. I really liked hearing this because I think maybe that's what people aren't seeing in the romance genre is that there is a right way to do this and a wrong way to do it.
[Howard] We had a guest on the cast back in season two or three, I think, who had pitched a story to an editor of a romance line. The editor said, "Yeah, this is good, this is a great story. Now in order to punch this up, we need to put sex in every other chapter." She looked at it and she said, "Well, this chapter, this isn't really going to work." "Oh, you know what, it can just be people in the bushes as the wagon goes by." Yeah, it was a real head scratcher for us, because we thought "Well, apparently for this editor and this line, that trumps story."
[Mary] Yeah. That seems so unappealing.
[Howard] Exactly.
[Mary] Well, that's one of the things that… Shanna and I were talking about this a little bit before, that one of the things that makes something interesting and builds character in erotica is the context in which it's in. Like in my books, I've got… I'm writing in 1815, so they almost kiss.
[Brandon] That's racy.
[Mary] It is. That moment of tension and conflict is actually much more interesting… When I was… Here's a secret, which is not. When I was in college, I was an art major, and I would model nude for the art department. The most difficult part was the taking off of the robe, because it was the transition from one state to the other. I think with love scenes that state of tension between the two places is one of the things that is most interesting for the readers.
[Shanna] I absolutely agree. I mean, you can build a whole collection, or a whole novel, about the tension. Because that's the really interesting part, is before anything starts to happen. In a lot of ways, it's actually easier to write the tension because we live in a society that's this weird combination of very prudish and very open, right? So writing sex that's interesting is really… The actual sex act is very difficult because we see it all the time. All you have to do is go to anywhere online and it's everywhere. So how do you make that interesting when people can see sort of everything that's out there all the time? For me, a lot of the way that you make it interesting is by creating these characters that have this sort of sexual tension that they can't really act on for whatever reason, and that they don't yet know how to do or what to do with it, and it changes their lives. So for me, that pre-thing before the actual sex act happens is part of the rising tension of a plot. I think that's actually even more important than the sex part.
[Howard] So the fact that in like a first-person… Excuse me, a third person limited setting, the fact that you can get into the headspace of a character, makes written erotica much more powerful than just Internet porn, because you're in the head, you're in the thoughts, you're having… sharing in that experience.
[Brandon] Well, the thing I've constantly said, there are things that visual mediums can do very well. Like I usually talk about action sequences this way. But there are things that the written word can do that no film can do. I always encourage writers, look at the things that books can do and focus your efforts there. Don't just try and do the action sequence the same way it would be done in a Jackie Chan movie. Do it the way that a book can do it better. I think we're approaching the same thing here.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Shanna] Yeah, that's great.

[Mary] So, how do you write a sex scene that is not silly? Because this is…
[Mary] Because there are certain aspects of it in real life that are, if you step back and think about it, inherently funny.
[Shanna] Absolutely.
[Mary] Which is not usually what you're going for.
[Shanna] Sometimes it is.
[Mary] Sometimes it is.
[Shanna] In fact, I'm totally for sex scenes that are funny, because they're… I'm actually editing a collection called Geek Love right now. It's all geek erotica. Some of the stories that were getting are so fantastically funny, because they're these great moments. So I'm actually really a fan of that. Because I do think we take sexuality really seriously, and a little bit of laughter in the bedroom is not a bad thing. But on the other hand…
[Mary] But intentional laughter.
[Shanna] Yes. Yes.
[Shanna] Good point. Let me rephrase that.
[Howard] That was nice nervous laughter from the audience.
[Shanna] But when you… I think it really comes back to that idea of character and creating these characters. One of the things that people often say when they read my work is, "I don't know if I'm supposed to be… If I'm supposed to cry my eyes out or be turned on." Right? That's because a lot of times, what I do is I put my characters in these very real situations where they're struggling with something, whether it's self-confidence, whether it's expressing their desires, or communicating their desires. I have a lot of sexual stories out there about people going through things like cancer, and how do you… How are you able to be erotic when you're struggling with something like cancer? So for me, the sexuality comes from the internal thing that's happening with the characters and the way that they come together. So a lot of it is driven… Because they drive the language and they drive the action. Because then the reader's in a completely different space, and they're not just like sex, sex, sex, they're in this headspace of the character, that humor kind of washes itself out kind of naturally, I think.
[Mary] Yeah, I think it's… A lot of what you're saying are things that apply to any other…
[Brandon] Yup.
[Mary] Anything else. Like I'm listening to you, I'm like, "Oh, it's about the details that the character notices." One of the things that I will see sometimes with men who are writing women is that the women are looking at the wrong things.
[Shanna] Yes.
[Mary] That they are… Because we all notice specific and different details. That to me seems like that's one of the…
[Shanna] Right. It's especially important for some reason in the erotic genre. Because one of the things that happens is that people get really mad at you for writing things that are outside your own life, right? So I write a lot of gay erotica, I write a lot of things that people are like, "Oh, you can't write about that. You're not that age, or you haven't had that experience." It's the same thing. It's the details, right. I don't need to have that experience because this is my character. This is the thing that the character looks at, and the things that the character is turned on by, and the things that he's afraid of sexually. So, by being able to be into that character, it allows me to write any kind of sex and then it also allows the reader to sort of move into that world as well.

[Brandon] Let's go ahead and stop for the book of the week. The book of the week is One Hot Summer. Will you tell us about this?
[Shanna] Sure. Audible just signed on Susie Bright, who is a great writer, editor, and longtime sex activist to be their editor-at-large, which means that she's going out and gathering things she finds a really interesting. She just picked up my novella which is called Safe Haven and it's part of One Hot Summer, which is a collection of three novellas.
[Brandon] All right. Howard, how can they get that?
[Howard] Head out to You can start a 30 day free trial membership, and grab yourself a copy of One Hot Summer. Get that read to you, and pick up another book for, I think, half-price.
[Brandon] Unfortunately, Mary's not going to be reading it in her romance novel voice.
[Mary] Sorry, guys.
[Howard] For the listeners at home, yes, you missed out. We didn't actually include that audio in this episode because Apple wouldn't let us.

[Mary] That's why you need to come to the live shows. So, why don't we start getting into some specifics?
[Brandon] Okay, go for it.
[Mary] Do you have any specific suggestions on say starting a sex scene? Like the transition?
[Shanna] Oh, right. The transition is tough, because all of a sudden, you have these characters who had this thing sort of happening that's often unspoken, and then all of a sudden, they have to start getting naked and doing things. That's a really hard transition. There's lots of ways to do it. Again, I go back to driving it by the character. So if the character is shy, they're not going to just be, "Hooray. Let's take everything off." So I drive it by the character, I see what the character would do, and then I kind of take it from there. Some people are much more quickly get into those kinds of scenes than other people. Sometimes there is a driving force behind it like time or… So if somebody is sneaking off to do something, then there's a time thing. So if you're concerned about how to move into that, I would say walk into it slowly, and then know that you're going to cut all of that stuff. When I teach erotica, that happens a lot. People start, they kind of warm-up and sidle up to it like they're going to jump on this shy horse, and then all of a sudden, they really start. So I say just start writing, and then now you're going to cut out those first 4 or 5 paragraphs at least.

[Brandon] Okay. That's very good. Actually, I do that with a lot of things. Particularly with the beginnings of books, writing myself into a character. One question I have is, do you use any kind of specific foreshadowing? So it would be like, "Hey, this is coming? Oop, no it's not. Oh, yes it is." Is that teasing a very big part of this?
[Shanna] Absolutely. With any other fiction, I think, things like… Like objects are very, very, very important, and that's a great way to ground a sex scene. Because when you read some sex scenes… And we call these stroke. They're the things that… Where you get the woman, and you get the size of every body part, and it's very insert tab A into slot B. There's nothing wrong with that…
[Howard] Plumbing. It's all plumbing.
[Shanna] It's all plumbing. There's nothing wrong with that. It totally has its purpose. But when we're talking about telling stories, right, that's a very different thing. I think in that case, it's really important to use objects, just like you would in any fiction. So this… Like clothing and glasses and the things that characters notice about each other, I use those kinds of things a lot for foreshadowing. If you notice a piece of clothing or an object that's in the room or those kinds of things, they start becoming part of that foreshadowing for me. Absolutely.

[Mary] That was a good question. I was like, "What's your follow up?" So we've gotten through the transition, and now they are engaged.
[Shanna] Maybe.
[Mary] Trying to keep the…
[Brandon] Yeah. Trying to maintain a clean rating. So the dance here, it's really interesting. Watching Mary. This is why I let her take charge. I'm just sitting over here, gleefully watching her try and talk around things.
[Howard] Yeah. There have been… For those of you not benefiting from the video feed…
[Brandon] The video that doesn't exist…
[Howard] That doesn't exist. I've been watching Brandon break out into smirks about every 45 seconds. This is pretty entertaining.
[Shanna] I'm going to try to get that faster.

[Mary] So we've gotten through the transition into the actual act. What are the things that… Like one of the things that… Because I am not writing erotica, I'm writing scenes, although clearly there are erotic elements, but I find that the less that I show, the more effective it is for the type of fiction that I'm writing and the audiences that I'm writing for. When you're writing erotica, how much are you expected to show, and how do you make that choice about which… I realize you're going to say character again, but…
[Shanna] I'm a broken record.
[Mary] But if you can talk about kind of how you make those choices somewhat based on audience as well as story?
[Shanna] Right. So for me, I think it comes down to the camera lens of what we're seeing, right? When you write fiction, you focus specifically on the things that you want the reader to look at. That's really, really true of a sex scene. It's like the monster with a zipper. You don't want to show too much, because then it does sort of go into funny or weird. So you really want to focus on whatever that character is focusing on. You want to say, like, "What is it about this particular character that really makes him or her think that that other character is so hot?" You really want to focus in on those, whether it's eyes or something that they do or something that they say… That gives you a lot of options, right? Some characters are really dialogue driven and they want to hear everything articulated about their sexuality. Others are really physical. Some are all about scent, and some are all about touch. So it's a great opportunity to use the five senses, and to see which one really appeals to your characters in which way. So I actually think the more narrowly focused you can get, the sexier it is, because you're getting into these tiny details of our bodies and of the acts that really are the things that you can't get with a sort of porn scene where it's kind of the same shot over and over of sort of a backed up thing. So yeah, narrow is definitely better in that way.
[Mary] Oh, interesting.

[Howard] Question with regard to pacing. In the past, on the podcast, we've talked about… Well, we've talked about try-fail cycles. We've also talked about scene-sequel format. Where the scene is where the story is advanced, things are happening, and the sequel is a relaxation of tension. Where do you fit… How do you apply those principles when you're writing erotica?
[Shanna] Actually, it's the perfect principal, right? Because you have this rising tension, which is an attraction and arousal and increased, right? Like, is it going to happen? Is it not going to happen? Am I going to be rejected? Then, of course, you have the climax, literally and figuratively of the story. Then you have the dénouement, with the afterglow. It actually follows the story arc absolutely perfectly. So for something like a short story, you can have one of those, you can have many of those, you can increase the length of the rising tension. You can have sort of all those little things, where "I want to try this" "Okay" then "No, we're not going to…" So you can do these lovely little hills and valleys. It's actually kind of a perfect mirror, even in language, of how to build a story arc.
[Mary] Well, we're…
[Brandon] I think we are, we're out of time. We probably have to cut this. But you probably heard from the last one, I force people to do writing prompts.
[Shanna] Ah. Yes.

[Brandon] Do you have a writing prompt you can give to our listeners?
[Shanna] Sure. I totally do. Okay. So one of the things that often happens with my beginning erotica writers, is they start writing all this tension and then when the sex scene comes, the characters go different ways. Like, because it's the same as when you start writing conflict, and the conflict arrives, and you push the characters out of the room. So I say, put your characters in a place they can't escape… This is an elevator, a hot tub, I don't care where… And then keep them there. As long as you can, using all of the five senses, don't let them out of that little tiny space.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write. Thank you very much.
[Shanna] Thanks for having me.
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