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?
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.