Thursday, August 16, 2012
When to Shut the Bedroom Door
A discussion on a readers’ forum got me wondering about this topic. How much sex is needed in the average romance novel? When do you want to get down and dirty, and when should you just shut the door? Answer: depends on the heat level and how much the story demands, and whether or not the sex scene informs characterization or furthers the story, or is plain ol’ PWP (porn without plot). While PWP can be fun to read (and write), if you’re on a limited word count – say, with a novella or short story – every sex scene described had better do more than bring the characters to orgiastic fulfillment.
First of all, how many sex scenes? As many as the story needs. Some books might have one explosive scene at the very end. Or it may be one quiet scene. I once read a Nocturne where the characters don’t even have on-screen sex; there’s some explicit foreplay, then they consummate their passion between scene breaks. In other books the characters can and do tumble into bed in Chapter 1 and never let up from there. Too much of a good thing? Maybe not to them, but to each their own.
Next, how hot should they be? Euphemisms or fuck me fuck me? Again, that’s up to the story, the characters, and whatever publisher or line you’re aiming for. You probably won’t find too many trembling virgins being gently deflowered in the final chapter at Ellora’s Cave. Write your story the way it needs to be, study publishers’ guidelines (better still, examples of what they’re publishing), send yours to the one that best matches what you’ve written, and cross all fingers.
Keep in mind the characters can have sex every other page if they want to, but we don’t necessarily have to watch. Does the sex scene serve another purpose? Does it further the story? Does it tell us something new about the characters? If not, skim over it or skip it. If it does, that’s the one we want to see.
My M/M couple in Belonging has plenty of sex, but not all of it is onstage. I chose which scenes I described and didn’t describe deliberately. When the story opens, Jeremy is a prostitute working in a brothel and his vampire lover, Wallace, is a regular customer. Wallace has just fed and he’s in the throes of blood lust. All he wants is a quick, hard lay. He won’t even remember the particulars afterwards. Though emotions are involved, this is first and foremost a business transaction. As Wallace’s sanity fades out, so does the scene. There’s little point in watching a mindless vampire receive what amounts to physical therapy. Therefore, we don’t have to.
A couple chapters later they have sex again. This time it’s different. Wallace isn’t in blood lust and knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s determined to show Jeremy the difference between the brutal, blood-lust sex Jeremy’s accustomed to and actual, tender lovemaking. This scene is described in detail because it’s more than sex; it deepens their relationship and moves the plot forward. Subsequent sex scenes are glossed over or hinted at. They’re together now and they’re falling in love. It’s okay to save the explicit stuff for when it actually matters. Otherwise it’s just PWP and a waste of wordage.
Later on in the story Jeremy learns a devastating secret about Wallace’s past which the vampire has been keeping from him. He’s heartbroken and furious. He finds Wallace at his house, dying of blood lust, and only sex can save him. Angry as he is, Jeremy can’t leave the vampire to suffer and die. He picks up his lover, slams into the bedroom and kicks the door shut. What’s about to follow will be ugly and have nothing to do with love. Therefore, it isn’t shown. The story picks up in the aftermath, with emotions clashing as brutally as their bodies did moments before.
There are only two more descriptive scenes: their reconciliation, where Wallace conquers his blood lust and actually stays aware throughout the act, and the HEA finale. In restrospect, I probably could have cut the second one, but I wanted my characters to go out on a high note. Anyone who’s read the book, let me know: does the final sex scene add to the story, or could I have axed it without consequences? That’s the ultimate test of any scene, sex or non: Does it add to the story? Consider that when you’re wondering whether to leave in that scene between Axel and Molly and the matching dildoes, or if you’re better off with just an ellipsis.
Too much? Too little? In the end it’s a tightrope walk. We all learn by doing. With time and practice, instinct should tell you if you’ve hit a workable balance. Otherwise the readers will, God love ‘em. Hard to believe you can go wrong describing explicit sex, but that’s one of the joys of writing. Have fun!