When I was a teenager, there were two movie theaters within a block of my high school, so without much else to do, my friends saw a lot of movies after school. I remember there always came time for the obligatory love scene. This we treated as nothing more than a commercial break – an opportunity to hit the candy counter.
Why was this? Was it just that boys aren’t interested in “love?” We were certainly old enough to feel the physical pulse of sex, yet the love scenes in these movies held no power to involve us.
Later, learning the trade of fiction writing (and screenwriting), I realized the typical Hollywood love scene of that era, the late 50′s – early 60′s, was perfunctory, thrown in mostly for change of pace – and because, with two hot stars, some making out was mandatory: there had to be sparks. But it rarely advanced plot or deepened character knowledge, which is why we’d miss nothing if we went for popcorn.
Lots can be said about how to write about love, specifically how to write a good sex scene–and Elizabeth Benedict has written an excellent guide, The Joy of Writing Sex – but my general advice boils down to 3 points:
• Make sure the scene reveals something about the characters we didn’t know before. An awkward truth is revealed in the heat of the moment.
• Make sure the scene, or something in it, has consequences down the line, complications that one or both of them must face. The characters’ relationship is altered. Emotions are enhanced or altered, causing unforeseen consequences.
• Make sure the description of what the lovers do isn’t a collection of generic, off-the-shelf “moves,” rendered in cliche phrases we’ve all read a million times.
Sex is actually a great way to reveal character, if you approach it that way: a man reveals his inherent cruelty, or his lack of confidence, or his sexual confusion. A woman reveals her hidden hunger, or fear, or an unexpressed need to dominate, or be dominated.
From a sheer writing standpoint, sex is a collection of specific behaviors–even more specific once you’ve invested them with story and character values. If you have difficulty on the show/tell axis, writing sex will inevitably place you comfortably toward the “show” end of the axis.
Why “inevitably?” Have you ever read a sex scene like this:
Bob and Jane withdrew to the bedroom and after a period of exchanging simple confidences and gestures of affection, they were fully disrobed. As the afternoon progressed, they became intimate, a distinctly new development for them, causing both persons to attempt, and accomplish, an act of sexual fulfillment. Bob knowledgeably led Jane through a full menu of pleasurable actions, while Jane pleased him no end with her interesting variety of responses–sometimes malleable and yielding, other times demonstrating a surprising degree of leadership. By nightfall, they had accomplished all their goals and were unable to perform further, so they dressed and went out for dinner.
Did you read the whole paragraph? If you did, I’m surprised. Did you find yourself riveted? Did it draw you deep into the story or increase your fascination with either character? Did it make you need to read on? No on all counts, I would guess. And why? Because I intentionally wrote it without specifics, and the effect is ludicrous.
Personally, I would skip this scene in a blink––the literary equivalent of hitting the candy counter with my buddies––and probably toss the book aside.
I guarantee you won’t suffer such a fate, however, if you make sure your love scenes have specific, dynamic story values. If, that is, they reveal, through action, something essential or surprising about either character or situation or, at best, both.
The most spectacular example I can think of occurs in the movie, The Crying Game (if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean). But good literary sex doesn’t have to be shocking or extreme – all sorts of less sensational but well-crafted erotic moments occur in the best stories.
What are your favorite love scenes? See if you can figure out why.