Explicit Sex in Romances: none, lots, somewhere in between?
Explicit sex in romances is a complete turn-off for some readers. They like the bedroom door firmly closed and refuse to read any romances where it is not. That, of course, is absolutely their choice. And I have written some romances that, in my opinion, worked very well without sex scenes. Indeed, one of them — Rake’s Reward — has been called “fizzing with sex” even though it contains no explicit sex at all.
But, equally, I’ve written romances with a lot of explicit sex on the page, even though that is bound to have lost me some potential readers.
So, are there any guidelines for authors here?
Guideline #1 — Does the reader expect sex on the page?
Some fellow authors will complain that I’m putting this guideline first, rather that sticking with whether or not the sex is an essential part of the story. But I’d respond that writing is a professional occupation; and we writers need to behave like the professionals we are.
In other words, if we’re writing for a line where explicit sex is part of the brand, we’d better deliver.
It also true that the sex has to be an essential part of the story, rather than grafted on. So, what do we do if the story we’ve dreamt up does not need explicit sex? Or worse, if explicit sex would undermine the credibility of the plot?
Answer: it’s the wrong story for a Hot Line. By all means write it; but offer it elsewhere. And find another story, where the explicit sex is essential, and write that one for your Hot Line editor. [Try explaining the problem to her. If she’s an experienced editor, she’ll understand. She may even help you to place your non-Hot story elsewhere.]
Guideline #2 : Is Explicit Sex essential for story development?
I like sexy stories. I’ve read a lot of them. But…
recently I’ve read quite I few romances where I found myself skipping over some of the sex scenes. It may be old age, of course. Maybe I’m past it? 😉
I don’t think so, though. Older readers can enjoy sex just as much as younger ones.
I think that, in those particular stories, there were just too many sex scenes. Some of those scenes didn’t advance the plot or develop the characters at all. They simply ensured there was hot sex on the page in almost every chapter. (Are professional editors really demanding that level of titillation? We’re not talking erotica here, after all; we’re talking romance.)
But for the reader who wanted to know what would happen next in the developing romantic relationship between the hero and heroine, those extra sex scenes were an unwelcome distraction. Hence the skipping.
How does a writer know if the sex is essential for the plot?
One approach is to imagine writing the story without it. If you can do that without your story getting too convoluted, the sex isn’t essential.
But sometimes, it definitely is.
For example, my last Regency Historical published with Mills & Boon features a heroine with amnesia. When the hero offers marriage, she’s afraid to accept — she might already be married and committing bigamy. So she hits on a logical (but potentially crazy) test. If the hero can prove to her she’s a virgin, she’ll accept him. You’ll probably agree that explicit sex is difficult to avoid in that plot. Given the restrictions of Regency society, though, the heroine’s test takes a bit of organising…
Guideline #3 : Edit sex scenes even when it feels like murder
Sophie and I run Sparkle editing workshops for writing groups who commission them from us. We talk about the shape of a story, focusing on where the high and low points come. And one of the things we say — hardly rocket science, this — is that every scene must earn its keep. It needs to advance the plot; or develop a character; or perhaps reveal a key fact that will be essential later. If a scene does none of these, what is it there for?
CUT it out, even if the writing is some of your best.
That applies equally, I’d say, to a sex scene that doesn’t earn its keep. Is the relationship essentially the same at the end of another “Insert Tab A into Slot B” scene (to use Sophie’s memorable phrase)? If so, what is the scene for?
If you can’t justify its continued inclusion, Cut It Out. [You will, of course, put the redundant scene into a folder of outtakes so that you can find a use for some of your deathless prose in a later book, won’t you?]
Yes, we know it hurts. We’ve all had to do it. But, equally, we all recognise the dictum “Murder Your Darlings“, don’t we? Stephen King put it well: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
This egocentric little scribbler’s heart has broken more than once. But I’ve got over it. And when I’ve been able to view the book dispassionately, from a distance, I’ve found myself agreeing that the murder was the Right Thing To Do.
Do you like lots of sex scenes in a romance? Do you skip them? Or look for them? Perhaps you’re an author who loves writing them and thinks my objections are OTT? Do share your views and please feel free to disagree with mine. I’m only one reader, after all.
This was a great post. I like sex scenes but too often they take over the whole book and the romance and plot are both lost.
Thanks, Barb. I tend to agree, but I not everyone does.
I’m afraid I have gone off explicit sex scenes and tend to skim. I’m sure It is age in my case. It doesn’t do anything for me these days. I don’t mind it but I don’t enjoy them now. My readers fall into two camps. Those who hate sex scenes often tell me they appreciate my novels being “clean”. The others are happy with that but also read spicy.
I agree that any sex scene, explicit or otherwise, needs to flow the same rules as any other scene. Otherwise it’s superfluous and should be cut.
While I tend to agree with you, Liz, I do not feel comfortable with the term “clean” because it implies that sex is “dirty”. It isn’t. It’s a totally natural part of life and living that should be celebrated, I’d say. But equally, readers are at liberty to decide how much explicit sex they want in the books they buy. Perhaps we can think up another term instead of “clean”?
I absolutely agree. Unfortunately the term has gone into publishing use and it’s difficult to eradicate it. Sweet is also used, but a lot of people don’t like that other. I prefer “traditional”, but the market doesn’t buy that as meaning closing the bedroom door.
Perhaps this is the subject for a future blog, Liz? Like you, I don’t like “sweet” either, since it suggests sexy romance isn’t sweet, which it so often is. Explicit sex can be both tender and sweet, I’d say.
Yes, it would be an interesting blog to look at publishing terminology and how it is received or works. Amazon introducing “clean and wholesome” as a genre really nailed the wretched word in. Even more ghastly than just “clean” with all kinds of awful connotations.
I hadn’t picked up on “clean and wholesome”. Just ghastly, as you say. Mind boggling here.
A well written sex scene that reveals character and moves the story forward can give great depth to a romance, but repetitive page filling stuff just leaves me skimming in search of the story.or, more often, just switching off.
Well said, Liz. Crisp and to the point. So why did it take me all those paras to say the same thing 😉 ?
Love this post, Joanna, thanks for writing about this subject. I tend to prefer lots of romantic tension rather than full on sex scenes (as a reader and writer). However, it definitely depends on the story and whether or not it needs such a scene. If it does then I prefer when it’s only the one, and it’s been leading up to it during the characters’ development. I find too many sex scenes totally boring and probably would skip past them – if the story was good enough to finish!
Interesting point, Rosemary, and one I should have addressed in the blog. Fine to have a build-up to a crucial and extended sex scene. But often, lots and lots of them can be a turn-off to some readers. Are there any professional editors out there who’d disagree? Does lots of sex sell books?
As you know, I agree with you whole-heartedly, Joanna. I admit that I have sometimes skipped a sex scene (and breakfast scenes and arguing with self in the mirror scenes etc etc) because it’s obviously going around a well-trodden path and I want to know what happens NEXT.
We’re in the same place on this, as you point out, Sophie. When sex scenes get in the way of the story development, the book tends to lose me.
Really interesting post, Joanna, and I completely agree with Rosemary – just the one. I’ve avoided “Hot” all my life as a reader, but as a writer I couldn’t do it to save my life. When I was asked to write one for a new line, I tried, started to get permanent migraines and found that my blood pressure had shot up. Probably why I’ve been single for such a long time…
Sympathies, Lesley. I’ve written quite a lot of explicit sex in my time, and I found it very, very difficult to do. I had to be in the right mood — alcohol can help there, I find — and in at least one case, it was the very last scene I wrote, after the rest of the book was finished. But even in that case, the scene was pivotal to the plot and I had to write it. I knew where the hero-heroine relationship was, before and after sex, and the explicit scene was the bridge that had to be there.
I think it isn’t just whether or not a sex scene is relevant to the story, be it in terms of character and or plot development, it’s also how that scene is written. If the sex scene contains a list of anatomical names for body parts, plus a full account of the garlic/toothpaste/etc of which the hero or heroine tasted when their lips met, and other bits, too, I find the sex scene totally unsexy!
Made me chuckle, Liz. Your description fits many of the candidates for the Bad Sex Prize, probably. When I write a sex scene, I try to concentrate on what the POV character is feeling rather than on Insert Tab A into Slot B.
As others have said, it all depends on the story, some books are hugely sexy with no more than a chaste kiss actually written on the page. Others can have pages of sex scenes and not hit the spot at all. If you will pardon the pun.
Made me laugh out loud, Sarah. Thank you. Spot on. (A good pun bears repeating, I reckon)
What a sensible post. It comes down to our old friend – context. My heroines have lovers, partners, husbands and it’s obvious they are in a sexual relationship, but my books are principally thrillers, so those readers would find hot sex scenes irrelevant and probably irritating.
Sex scenes must do their, er, work as part of the plot or character development where it would be a jolt for the characters *not* to have sex.
Thanks, Alison. I think there is a place for explicit sex in thrillers though probably not the kind of extended and repeated “hot” sex that got me writing this blog in the first place. I agree that thriller readers are more focused on the “what next” of the plot and so may see sex scenes as an unwelcome diversion. Which brings me back to the point that every scene, including a sex scene, has to take the story forward.
This is a great article! I find it very easy to write sex scenes, those are usually the ones I start with and then fill in the rest of the boring bits around it, lol. As a reader, I’m looking for books with high heat content. One of the big problems I’ve found is balance. If something bills itself as an erotic romance then there’s one lukewarm ikea sex scene (i.e. it’s very overwritten- part a touches part c while part b grazes part d) I’m going to be disappointed. Or if there’s sex that doesn’t fit the characters, or it’s three scenes of the same positions with magical simutaneous orgasms every damn time. There’s a lot of ways to express eroticism, from sexy thoughts and masturbation to a varitey of diffenet non-penetrative acts that are often overlooked.
The flip side is if I’m reading a tense romantic suspense novel or contemporary where the focus is on small town life, and then 80% of the way through a book where the hero and heroine have barely touched there’s suddenly a very graphic sex scene, I find that uneeded and off putting.
An author needs to decide early on how much sex is going into a book and make that level feel organic to the story. And dear lord, they need to be edited. It’s a weird feeling at first to have someone rip into a sex scene you’ve written, but far too often I’m left laughing because unless someone has three arms or an unnatural long neck, the positions characters end up in is impossible. Probably not the emotion I’m supposed to be having 😉
You are very right, Hannah, the goal is balance. Some books are really sexy with nothing more than smouldering looks and great dialogue. Others have lots of “bedroom action” but no real passion.
As authors all we can do is try to get the balance right for each individual story.
Thanks, Hana, and welcome to Libertà. I do envy you your facility with sex scenes. Personally, I find them hard to write, as I’ve said, but I really enjoy reading them when they’re well written (by others). I do agree about balance though, and about the sex having to be organic to the story. That’s why some of my books have a lot, and some have none 😉