Oh, no! It’s Kissy-Kissy time! Janet E Cameron
Picture it. You’re ten years old, and you and your friends have gotten hold of a cheap paperback romance. Right away you start to ransack those yellowing pages in search of the big payoff: the love scenes. The burning gazes. The chest-thumping declarations. The thundering hearts and racing pulses, bursting bodices, lips afire. Then, of course you’ll read everything out loud in a high goofy voice – acting each role, adding rude sound effects, rolling your eyes as you fall about the place laughing.
Now fast forward several years. You’re alone, in front of a computer or clutching a notebook. The moment you can’t put off any longer has arrived: one of your characters has fallen in love, or at least deep into an attraction, and something has got to happen, something physical. Lips touching, promises made, clothes coming off. Yes, it’s time to write that Big Love Scene.
Not so funny now, is it?
Love scenes, and sex scenes too, should be a high point in any story. There’s such a range that can be explored here – not just love and attraction, but vulnerability, power balances, betrayal, pity, obsession, self-discovery – even economics, if someone happens to be charging. These scenes can reveal how the characters feel about themselves and the world in general as much as the person they’re locking lips with. Yet authors who wouldn’t blink at writing a detailed account of two people kicking the bejeezus out of each other may approach the more tender scenes with eyes squeezed shut and fingers clamped over noses. Why is this?
I did a quick Vox Pop and asked several writers how they felt about writing ‘kissy-kissy scenes’. Scrolling through their answers, I saw a definite pattern emerge:
‘I will only write a sex scene if it’s absolutely necessary.’ Jen Brady, Novel Fair winner 2011
‘I am really not a fan of writing these scenes.’ Lisette Brodey (Crooked Moon, Molly Hacker is Too Picky)
‘If it’s not essential to the plot, there’s no need to include it.’ Susan Stairs (The Story of Before)
‘That’s why bedrooms have doors.’ Jennie Ridyard (Conquest: Chronicles of the Invaders)
So writing about love and sexytime appears to be a bit like fishing gunk out of the drain for many of us: not exactly pleasant, but sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and do it.
I can understand. I went through this myself. The hero of my novel is a teenager who is struggling with his sexuality, and I realised early on that I couldn’t show the struggle without including at least a little bit of sexuality. I was intimidated, and this wasn’t because I’d be writing a make-out scene for gay characters. The fact is that writing anything at all with snogging in it scared the hell out of me. I’d never written a kissy-kissy scene in my life – except as part of a play, and then you can just say (kiss) in stage direction brackets and pass the buck to the actors.
So I did what any independent thinker in crisis would do. I went out and bought a self-help book. The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict (Souvenir Press 2002) is sane, funny and an excellent companion to any writer nervous about including boom-boom time in their story. I’ll paraphrase her main technical points of advice here, but you’ll need to read the book to get the full benefit:
1) Don’t narrate from some neutral standpoint outside the action: stay in the characters’ heads.
2) Set the scene – the physical location is important too.
3) Your characters can talk – don’t forget dialogue.
4) Be specific, though you certainly don’t need to be explicit.
5) Include a surprise.
So I tried it. Damned if it didn’t work! I had those boys smooching for three pages and more. It was almost…fun.
Could it be possible? That writing love scenes doesn’t have to involve horror and dread? Clodagh Murphy (Some Girls Do) had this to say: ‘I love writing love scenes and look forward to them. … it’s a good way to get the words flowing for me if I’m having a bad writing day…. it feels like an omission if they’re glossed over. I don’t agree so much on saying as little as possible – I (and I think a lot of readers) enjoy a nice indulgent love scene.’
What a great attitude! So come on, writers! Face your terror! It’s Valentine’s month and guess what is in the air? Now get down to that laptop or dog-eared pad of paper and write us some lovin’.
But first, let’s hear some advice from my sexy, sexy Vox Pop authors:
‘If I have to write a sexual scene I try to take down my own barriers or inhibitions, I try to remember that behind a shut door, or in a place of privacy, anything can happen, good or bad. I try not to steer the pen too much and…not to rewrite the awkwardness out of it too much. I also try to remember that for many people sex is a very psychological as well as physical experience…’ Jen Brady
‘I had very few sex scenes in my last novel – though I had what I hoped might get an award for shortest sex scene ever in The Herbalist, anyone who’s read the book will know what I mean. (It involved counting!) ….[Sex is] only worth reporting on if it moves the story forward. In that, it’s like any other scene – get good vivid images and leave the boring bits out…’ Niamh Boyce
‘There was no sex scene in Love is the Easy Bit. Sylvia and her husband’s socks mingle at the bottom of the laundry basket. ‘It’s as intimate as we’ve been for a long time,’ says Sylvia….The fact that my mother was alive at the time of writing might have something to do with this, subconsciously of course. That and the fact that sex is hard to write because it occupies the body and not the mind…’ Mary Grehan
‘It’s all about what you leave out, I think.’ Susan Stairs
‘Goodness, I struggled to write a kiss! It’s so easy to slip into cheesy, or disgusting. So no clichés, no throbbing members, no frissons, no heaving bosoms, no licking… no sex actually….God, I’m a prude.’ Jennie Ridyard
‘I think that when they’re integral to the plot, the task becomes easier….one scene in my novel Crooked Moon that I had MANY people tell me they loved, was a scene where two people who had mad desires for one another…almost had sex. This novel has a sexual tension between these two characters from the beginning to the end, and if it didn’t come to this, something would have been lacking.’ Lisette Brodey
And finally, let’s hear from the only fella who responded to my query:
‘The taste and texture of saliva is a no-no, halitosis is acceptable only in certain circumstances and tongues, only if pierced.’ Guy LeJeune
Words of wisdom indeed! Happy Valentine’s, everyone!(c) Janet E Cameron A Canadian writer and teacher, Janet E. Cameron has been living in Ireland since 2005, where she teaches ESL at Dublin Business School. She has also lived, worked, and taught in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, and Tokyo. Last year she graduated from Trinity with an MPhil in Creative Writing, and her first novel, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, was published by Hachette in March of 2013. Cinnamon Toast was also one of the winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre’s inaugural Novel Fair contest. For more information or to contact, go to www.asimplejan.com