Recently, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with the charming Asa Maria Bradley. I mentioned I had been studying non-stop lately and the conversation shifted to my nerdy academic pursuits. In two months, I receive my BA in Anthropology. My final class is Human Evolutionary Sexual Selection. I wanted to understand why we choose the mates we do. Is it hardwired instinct, cultural conditioning or something else entirely?
I was surprised to learn on an instinctual level, humans are attracted to the products of a person having robust health and energy to devote to something specific after their basic survival needs are met. Humans are attracted to features that require a lot of sustained energy (mental and metabolic) to acquire or perfect. I hoped my text would have male and female cover model shaped diagrams with the various swoon worthy features neatly annotated. No such luck.
We’ll stick to the men for the purposes of this post. I used to think it was the biggest or toughest males that attracted the female eye. I thought it was because they could defend the woman, her offspring, their resources, etc. The truth is men evolved larger and heavier to compete with other males for the chance to be considered as mates. It only affected the females by determining which eligible candidates they had to choose from. The part furthering large body dimensions and fighting ability played out before the ladies entered the picture.
In modern society, it is no longer acceptable to beat the competition to a bloody pulp or make them go away permanently, in most circles anyway. Since the way men compete to garner attention is different, sheer size and strength alone no longer guarantee female notice. The evidence can be seen in any crowd. For hundreds of thousands of years, men were up to 36% larger than women were, over the last few thousand years, men and women have grown closer to being the same size. That means women are not basing their mate choices on height or large overall size.
In an evolutionary sense, women drive evolution by individual choices. Individual females pick what they like, and that determines which traits survive and which ones don’t. That is why preference and prevalence of specific physical traits has and will continue to change over time.
So what is it that attracts women at first glance, if not broad shoulders or an expressive face? The easiest way to illustrate the answer is to talk about peacocks for a few sentences. Male peacocks have breathtaking tails specifically for attracting females. Unless there is a tickle fight, those plumes aren’t chasing off any competition. The tails are cumbersome, useless except for attracting females and put the male’s life in danger since a fully matured tail is so heavy it eliminates any chance of escaping predators. So why evolve a showstopper chick-magnet tail at all? It shows the females he can grow it. It advertises that over time he has had plenty of food, has avoided predators and has the genes to grow good tail (apologies for the bad pun). Being able to grow a tail of immense proportions is the key, the tail itself matters, but not as much as what it represents.
The same concept of ability applies to humans. If a man has a carved physique, a successful career or is an accomplished artist he draws attention, if only on an instinctual level and only for a second. He will be more attractive than those who do not have some stellar cultivated aspect. Do not discount the appeal of artistic talent. There is actual fossil evidence to prove our male cave painting and musically inclined ancestors killed it with ladies. Even those early humans had an aspect or talent that made them more accomplished and therefore more desirable than their peers.
All of these things show the male in question has the ability to do something specific long enough to become exceptional at it and avoid all the extraneous distractions and pitfalls that weeded out or kept other males from doing the same thing. On an instinctual level, what will catch the eye of a female reader, in the most literal sense, is a man who is uncommonly adept at something. That distinctive something can be any ability that makes the hero more desirable to the heroine than the next guy.
It is the author’s job to characterize their heroes into something more substantial as the story progresses. At first glance, a heroine seeing or knowing that stellar aspect of the hero and that ability catching her attention will strike truer than her being attracted by a specific feature or during a casual interaction. The heroine who knows the hero is a famous author, basketball player or violinist, or reads his remarkable book, watches him play a fantastic game or hears him play a moving piece of music, will be more believable enthralled than if the hero simply has eyes she finds attractive or nice broad shoulders.
Instinct is only an initial urge; it is not the final word in attraction. Each author must decide what works for his or her characters. I hope knowing a little about instinctual sexual attraction will help authors use it to advantage whenever they can.
For some reason, I have trouble writing love scenes. I’m not sure why, because I find it easy to write fight scenes, and love scenes are just fight scenes with more tongue, right? But while I can zing through a fight scene in an hour, a love scene of the same length can take me days of struggle with much muttered overuse of the F word in its non-fun sense.
I think love scenes are harder because the stakes are higher. In a fight scene, sure, the heroine might lose some blood or a limb or even her life, but in a love scene, she might lose her heart or her independence or her cherished worldview. In a love scene, the characters are stripped of their armor in a way they would never in a million years imagine while going into a fight scene.
Hell, even James Bond who choreographs every fight scene to exciting, ludicrous detail goes all soft focus and mood-lighty when he gets down and dirty with his (probably doomed) love interest.
To rectify this weakness in my writing skills, I recently decided to try my hand at some hotter — much hotter — stories. Because I’m a hard-core plotter, I attacked the problem as a list of steps. So here’s what I do:
Step 1: Build a word list and imagery bible
Even though I’m technically a writer, sometimes I have trouble thinking of the word I want. It helps me get through a scene more easily to have a ready-made list of good words. So I keep a mind map of, um, borrowed sexy words. I try to group the nouns, verbs, and adjectives by general level of raunchiness and/or silliness so I can keep the same list from book to book but fit the right words to the right characters at the right time.
The imagery bible is more specific to each book and each character. Depending on their background and personality, the characters have their own way of looking at the world and that view is revealed in their word choices. That word choice plays out in the way they experience sex too.
Step 2: Get in the moooooood
Once I have my words lined up, I put in sexy music. Not necessarily what I think is sexy, but what gets my characters’ blood flowing to their nether regions. Is it some smooth R&B or some pulse-pounding (or other-part pounding) techno? Depends on the character. But Spotify has some great playlists so I can sample what boom-chicka-boom might be going through my characters’ heads and bodies. Crafting a love scene’s beats and language rhythms around a certain song or genre of music can make the scene as unique and special for the reader as it is for the characters.
Step 3: Feel no shame
I have to admit, there are times when I blush as I’m writing. I’m not a prude (too much; thanks a lot, Puritans!) but occasionally a thought sneaks in about what “They” might think. “They” can be a grandmother, co-worker, boss, boyfriend, all of the above. I might rail against a society that has conditioned me to be more comfortable with TV and movies lopping off a head rather than giving it, but I’m a product of my times. To counteract the negative voices, I like to conjure up one angel and one devil. The angel explains I’m writing this scene to show how the positive forces of love and life, passion and pleasure, make this world a better place. The devil just shoots a naughty gesture and moons them.
Step 4: Write… and rewrite
In the end, a love scene is — like every other scene — a collection of words arranged in such a way as to evoke a certain reaction. I don’t have to get it right the first time. Just like losing one’s virginity doesn’t always work out quite the way we envisioned, practice — and revisions — make perfect.
Love scenes can be hard to write because they hold so much opposing tension within them: a mix of emotions and pure physical sensation, tabs and slots, the sacred and the profane, earth-shattering explosions and soul-deep peace. But the power in those contradictions is a chance to touch a reader with words in a way no other type of scene can.
Do you have a favorite sexy word? Please share in comments so we can all add to our sexy word lists. I’ve recently become enamored with W words: wet, whine, and writhe. I also discovered that I’ve never used languor in any of my books. What an oversight! So many words… So many love scenes!
One of my favorite love scenes ever isn’t in a romance novel.
In 1997, Steven Brust and Emma Bull co-wrote Freedom & Necessity, a massive epistolary novel set in 1849 that puzzled me greatly because I expected a fantasy (Brust and Bull write some of the best out there – Bull’s War for the Oaks remains one of my favorite books of all time).
I kept waiting for the magic to occur, but it didn’t — at least not in the hocus-pocus sense. That first love scene between James and Susan though? Now that was magical — unbelievably sensual and touching and gently amusing. It also surprised the hell out of me, set down as it is amidst all the philosophy and political intrigue and convoluted family drama.
The way in which these two people make love – transitioning from friends to lovers in a beautifully evocative ten-page scene – is entirely in keeping with who they are. They don’t check their personalities at the bedroom door. The foreplay – the afterglow – those are the things that make the experience unique to those characters and that’s what I love.
When I read a love scene in a book – whether it’s technically a romance or not – I want to know what makes this event important to the lovers, special to them, crucial for them. Why this man (or this woman), and why now? How does this woman’s (or this man’s) personality, background, and occupation, color the way she or he approaches sex? When it comes (as it were) right down to it, there are only so many ways two bodies can fit together, regardless of the relative genders of the partners. What matters is how these two people feel, and how each of them makes the other feel.
Because the only way I’ll enjoy the scene is if the characters are having a rocking good time as well.
Suzanne Brockmann’s Hot Target has another of my favorite “first time” scenes. Although the book gets a lot of (well-deserved) notice because it contains the first meeting of her popular gay couple, Jules and Robin (plus a lovely dedication to her son, Jason), the central couple, Jane and Cosmo, may be my favorite Brockmann duo. The first time they make love is so damned fun for me as the reader because it’s so much fun for the characters – not because of the way in which the genitalia fit together, but because both of them are absolutely true to the nature Brockmann has established for them.
Jane — scurrying around, setting the stage – and herself – for the seduction as she would dress a scene in one of her movies, defusing her own nerves with her trademark wisecracks. Cosmo — focused on Jane, wanting Jane, but determined to delay his own gratification if there’s a chance he might hurt her. The actual consummation is almost incidental.
Even though I’m notorious in my family for being a product person, love scenes are one place where I insist on process.
That’s what makes it good for me.
Since it’s Valentine’s Day month, let’s talk about love and love scenes. As a reader, I have no preference for heat level in my romance. Bring it on sweet, spicy, or super hot. I’m happy with all of them, as long as I understand why the two characters get it on. I don’t mean just why they fall in bed together. I need to know why they fall in love with each other.
In his workshop Writing Romantic Comedies and Love Stories, Michael Hague explains that one of the biggest reasons romantic story lines fail is because there is no believable reason for the couple to fall in love, other than that the writer wants them to be together. I of course want my couples to fall in love madly and deeply, but in the first draft, I often struggle to show the reader why they do. My natural style is to focus on the external conflict, which is great for driving the plot forward, but sucks in terms of showing tension between the hero and heroine.
One of the reasons I love Jane Porter’s books is because how well she builds and reveals the internal conflict and then use it to drive the tension between the couple. In her dialogue, what the characters say is often completely opposite of what they think. The tension lays thick on the page because you (the reader) know how the POV character struggles to reign in their emotions while the dialogue carries on as if nothing is amiss. For these same reasons, I love Lisa Kleypas’s historical romances and also because she writes independent and strong-willed heroines who defy the stereotypes of their time. A spunky and sassy heroine remaining true to herself despite the ton pressuring her to confirm to the norm and a hero defying society’s expectations of whom he should marry is my favorite type of historical high tension story.
Deborah Hale’s What to Pack in your Short Synopsis has helped me tremendously to plot the projectile of my couples’ love stories. I now write my synopsis using her questionnaire before I write the novel, usually somewhere around chapter three. In those first chapters, I get to know my characters, figure out the catalyst of their story, and then answer Deborah’s questions to intertwine the internal and external conflict and show how it strengthens their physical and emotional connection. Deborah’s also has an excellent article about Choreographing a Love Scene, where she uses the metaphor of how falling in love is like dancing, but extends it to what the writer’s role is:
In real life, lovemaking is a spontaneous give and take between partners, but when it takes place in the pages of a romance novel, the dance of love needs to be choreographed by the writer. If you’ve ever seen a choreographer at work, you know it can be a laborious, sometimes painful process. When done well, however, the result will appear flowing, effortless and beautiful.
So, sit down, let your fingers dance across the keyboard as you choreograph the steps, twirls, and dips necessary for your characters to fall in love for all eternity. Here are Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers in their very first TV appearance to help get you started.
When it comes to making love I’m no slouch in the sack, but I’m not exactly a chandelier swinging horn-dog either. Yet when it comes to writing the hot and nasty, I’m in deep trouble.
My love scenes suck. Not lascivious vampire suck, not great action-verb suck, they just don’t cut it.
Exhibit A: Love scene from Prince Charming, Inc.
Pleasure flashed through her body as she took his length. It was like the first time again. With Nick.
They were united. One.
She slowly rose. He exhaled as she did, then inhaled sharply as she dropped again. All the way. Again. Again. Up and down. Soon they were in their own rhythm. Her thighs began to ache. Her muscles weren’t used to this. He seemed to sense it and they rolled. It was his turn to set their pace. She relaxed, surrendered, and he was in no hurry.
The moon shone in the window as they climaxed. Sweat poured off their bodies as they rocked against each other, consumed by their needs and fulfilling them in each other.
Gasping, they lay side by side.
“Oh my god,” Elyse exclaimed. “I’m out of shape for this.”
Cringe-worthy, isn’t it? I realize this bedroom effort falls far short of acceptable fictitious lovemaking efforts. Luckily for readers, I’ve only published a couple books with sex scenes. So far they’ve mostly forgiven my lack of erotic skills because they’ve loved the characters and story. But if I want to continue to build readership in the contemporary market, I know I must step it up between the sheets.
Exhibit B: I bought The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Erotic Romance.
Did it work? Not so far. Stuck on page 95, I hoped to stumble across a cheat sheet of sexy verbs and a directory of genital slang. Cock versus penis? I have no clue what to use and when, not to mention all the other synonyms for a penis, like prick, dick, and… drumroll please… the word romance writers can never, ever use, but it still makes me grin every time I say it… MANROOT!
As you can see, I’m at a loss even before I begin writing my next great lovemaking scene. In fact, I’ve been avoiding writing sex scenes altogether. So if you know the answers to the question above, or would like to offer some advice on how I can improve, please leave a comment. You can even tell me to go hire professional help and I won’t be offended.
Jamie Brazil is the author of seven books who promotes self-distribution for independent writers. Her latest release is a re-release, updated and revised for 2014, of the popular Some Writers Deserve to Starve! 31 Brutal Truths for Writers.
Let’s skip the dinner and go straight to the bedroom…these are my top 5 annoying love scenes from books that I won’t identify because one day I hope to be a published author and I know my storylines will be examined and I can only pray that they will return the favor by skewering me with anonymity.
#5 Don’t Mind the Stab Wound…or the Dead Guy Over There: How do you balance the wounded soldier fantasy with the need to seek actual medical attention? That is the fine line when the hero rescues the heroine from the villain but gets injured in the struggle. In most cases, the hero either shakes it off or throws some duct tape on it and he’s ready to carry the heroine off into the bedroom. Then there are times when the fine line is crossed. In one case, the heroine is attacked by the villain in her bedroom. The hero saves her and kills the villain but not without getting stabbed in the process. However, a little gushing blood from a gaping wound and the smell and sight of a dead body wouldn’t deter this couple from consummating their love, more than once, on a blood soaked mattress. (Insert your own visceral response)
#4 Run for your Life! Wait! Let’s make out behind that tree: There is an entire romance genre dedicated to Suspense and Thriller Romances. People want to read about action and adventure, plus they want their characters to fall in love. Timing is Key. For example, our couple is being chased by the bad guys on Jeeps so they run into a dark forest. They find a cave, a shelter from the machine gun fire sprayed all around them. For a brief moment, they are safe. Their hearts are racing and they realize they need each other for survival because they are moments from death. At this point a lot of stories toss away self-preservation for a moment of grass stains on blue jeans (Insert bow chicka wow wow).
#3 That’s not how your brother does it? Sometimes it feels like I’m reading an episode of Jerry Springer. Don’t let a couple become one of Jerry’s Final Thoughts.
#2: Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby (Courtesy of Salt-n-Pepa) How does the author balance having their couple being sexually responsible versus killing the romantic moment? Since I read mostly paranormal romances, my couples conveniently find themselves of different species and incapable of breeding or a witch works her magic. So when I read a contemporary romance, I make no judgment about when the author decides for the couple to enter the bedroom but I can’t find myself rooting for them if they can’t find a way to address precautions.
#1 The Power of “S”: With the current self-publishing frenzy, readers are going to experience a lot of books that are in need an editor. A book that is infamous with my book club came with a visual aid because a book club member got on the floor to prove that the action sequence wasn’t physical possible. Here is how an “s” can ruin the romance. In bed, some characters will prop themselves up on an elbow and stroke the back of their sleeping lover. However, a character can’t prop themselves up on their elbows and stroke the back of someone sleeping next to them. If you don’t believe me, try it. Once propped up on your elbows, your wrists can’t reach anyone and you look weird. Then you share what you have learned with your book club, who will reference this book for many years as the elbow book, disregarding 79,999 words of hard work in favor of one word with an extra letter.
There you have my top 5 scenes to keep in mind the next time you are reading a romance novel. There are some legend… (wait… for… it..) ary bad love scenes out there but here is the funny thing. I read 100 books a year and I can’t remember half of them but I will never forgot the above 5 books. Is that a good or bad thing? Do you want your book to be memorable? Even if it’s not in the way you intended it to be memorable?
Here is my bottom line premise: If smut sells, then I’d better write me some smut because I’m a money grubbing little whore.
Yes, my friends, I enjoy writing sex scenes. They are, after all, just action scenes with naked bodies.
Think of a baseball game…
The field is the bed, the backyard, the desk, the conference room table…
The batter is the hero.
The catcher is the heroine.
The bases are self-explanatory.
The first few innings are foreplay, the rest are positions.
Both teams need to score, but the heroine gets to score first and gets at least one more run than the hero and always wins the game.
I have many writer friends who get hung up on this concept of writing sex scenes. They want to write “nice” books. As I have a wide variety of friends, I also have those who write to shock and awe. Some of that shock and awe overflows into their non-writing time and they want you to think they are so confident in their sexual acumen that sex rolls off them like waves of offensive perfume. They are your “Sexpert” friend whether you want one or not. The Sexpert has done it all and wants to tell you all about it, in detail.
My sex scenes tend to fall somewhere in the middle of the road, sensual, not gynecological. I don’t look at sex scenes as a measure of my morality, which questions my religious beliefs or personal promiscuity. I want to write scenes that will appeal to many different demographics so that I can make the most money possible.
In the beginning, this was not the case. I was embarrassed to have anyone read the inner depravity of my mind, but time and practice toughened my skin. Just because I can imagine it for my heroine doesn’t mean I’ve done it, would do it, or think it sounds like fun. It is merely a skill.
I challenge myself with each book not to write the same sex scene over and over again. Just like baseball, we can picture the perfect game, but to tell about that same game in the same way, over and over again would be, well, dull.
When I’m looking for something new, I’ve been known to watch porn at my kitchen table while holding a notepad to take notes, which ends up being about as sexy as cutting up a raw chicken. I have several books which serve to offer unusual positions and words that might not be in my vocabulary. I recommend: The Best Little Book of Erotica #3, The Idiot’s Guide to the Kama Sutra, The Big Book of Dirty Words, Eroticism in Pompeii, The Art of the Female Orgasm, Fanny Hill and the first romance novel ever published: The Sheik. If you can’t think of a great sex scene after checking any of those out, then you should be writing horror novels.
Color me blushed!